All quiet in the back: Children and Brexit

1st October 2019

Words by Barnaby Harsent // illustration by Benjamin Javens

I should begin by pointing out that I’m no expert. Not on Brexit, nor on children. I have two (children that is, not Brexits) and both of these small humans would be quick to confirm my inability to fully comprehend the nuanced topography of tots or teens.

This, of course, makes me the perfect person to write about the impact of Brexit on children. We’ve had enough of experts, after all. Michael Gove will, I’m sure, be nothing short of delighted.

After witnessing the recent Climate Strike action and listening to the outrage of young people who see grown-ups gambling their future on a last throw of the dice while simultaneously propping up an economic system greedily eating its own tail without a moment’s reflection as to where it may end, it rather looks like children are taking matters into their own hands.

Good. They’re going to need to. The TL; DR version is that Brexit looks rather bleak for the young.

Until the rise of Greta Thunberg, my new favourite human, children hadn’t featured much in the climate debate, other than by proxy through the anxious hand-wringing of their parents. With Brexit, their voice is even more absent. This despite the fact that, of the 14 million (or so) children who will be living through the consequences of our departure from the European Union, 900,000 (or so) are EU nationals. We’ll come back to them later.

For the moment, let’s look at the more general ways in which our decision to buy a car, sight unseen and from proven liars before driving it off a cliff might impact on people who had no say in the matter. The same people we’ll be relying on to take care of us in our dotage.

Actually, I wouldn’t count on that.

Children’s Rights

When it comes to bedtime reading, I’m quite fond of Section 24 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. It makes a charming, if slightly dry, counterpoint to the adventures of Harry Potter or Skullduggery Pleasant, and the plot is refreshingly simple. It’s all about adults who want to safeguard the well-being and best interests of children. From implementing effective cross-border family law to tackling childhood obesity, it puts children at the centre of the story. I know, all a bit soppy, but I cry at DIY SOS the Big Build, so that’s me all over.

When we walk away from the EU, whether it’s at the end of October or wherever they choose to kick the can next, we will be walking away from the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. This is because, as highlighted in a report by the Children’s Rights Alliance for England*, the EU Withdrawal Act actually excludes the charter from being transposed into UK law.

Now, in the interests of balance, I should mention that the Government has said that they take children’s rights “very seriously”. On the other hand, the same Government has refused to give any concrete assurances and is, let’s not forget, run by an aggressive bully who effectively doorstepped a 93-year-old woman and forced her to break the law. Forgive me if I don’t leap to take him at his word.

CRAE go on to note, not unreasonably, that children’s rights are already being eroded through the one-two sucker punch of poverty and homelessness, something that is central to the impact of Brexit on children in these post-Operation Yellowhammer times. Which leads us rather nicely on to…

Worst-case scenarios

Operation Yellowhammer might sound like a tiresome Bob the Builder spin-off, but it is, as I’m sure you know, the Government’s contingency plan for a no-deal Brexit. It depicts a future more dystopian than any that could be rendered in Neil Morrissey-narrated stop motion – a thought that, in itself, is enough to make the blood run cold. It’s a worst-case scenario but, in an arena overflowing with supposition based on limited information, let’s run with the one that people have actually put some thought and facts into, shall we?

First though, some background. The impact of our exit – deal or no-deal ­– has been felt for some time now. Reports in the FT suggest the hit in the two years following the referendum resulted in something like a 24 billion pound-sized hole. Or 450 million pounds a week if you’re looking to, oh, I don’t know… plaster it onto the side of a bus or something.

It may be that you have a personal fortune that insulates you from such financial fallouts, but if you’re not currently leading the calls for a No-Deal Brexit having bet the farm against the pound, I’ll assume that’s not the case.

Yellowhammer’s worst-case scenario predictions, however, laugh loudly and in the face of such paltry impacts. Let’s have a quick look:

Food and medicine shortages due to supply chain breakdown? Check.

Potential water shortages should our stocks of treatment chemicals run out? Check.

Public disorder as tensions rise leading to heated exchanges that could spill into violence? Well, that’s pretty much the House of Commons right now, so check.

Concerning for adults, terrifying for our children, unimaginable for the 4.5 million of them who are currently living in poverty-stricken households. They’re already dealing with rising household costs and many are reliant on food banks.

Again, in the interests of balance, I should point out that a very angry man interviewed in a Midlands caff on the news the other night said that this was all scare-mongering bollocks. I’m assuming he must have some pretty convincing counter evidence that he’s sitting on. It looked more like piles, from his expression.

Are you sitting comfortably? Settled status and families

Remember the 900,000 EU national children I mentioned earlier? Well, in the wake of the recent Windrush scandal there is genuine concern that many could be left facing the harsh reality of Theresa May’s “Hostile Environment”. If you need a reminder, this is the legacy of former Home Secretary Theresa May rammed into an authoritarian, steel toe-capped boot. Basically, the idea is to make things as difficult as possible for illegal immigrants to stay – a kind of “deport first, ask questions later” attitude. Like a Brexit Sweeney but without the excuse of hindsight to defend the open racism.

EU nationals are, of course, able to apply for “settled status”, however reports from UK charity Coram Children’s Centre suggest that EU children caught up in the care or legal systems could easily find themselves left undocumented, unwanted and unprotected**. No one voted for that, surely?

But the impact isn’t just about these extreme examples. Thousands of families are having to deal with the stress of finding themselves in a country that, from their perspective, no longer wants them here.

I spoke to one mother whose family has faced uncertainty, stress and upheaval since the referendum result. I asked her about her experience and the process of applying for settled status:

“There is an app. It only works on very new advanced android phones. Not on iPhones. Not on old androids. So I borrowed phones from work colleagues to complete the process. That had its own issues. I got settled status quickly, within three hours. Some people have to send in additional proof, but I was lucky.

“Regarding the legality, I feel it is exactly like the Windrush scheme. No legal grounding. But at this point, I’m not ready or willing to apply for British citizenship. It costs £2000 (the cost went up as soon as settled status opened).  

“Emotionally it’s been… interesting. Three years ago when he was six, my son was quite confused about what it all meant. We had to reassure him a lot about me being OK in the UK. He still sometimes asks what will happen to him if I get sent away.

“It’s also caused a massive rift as some of my partner’s family voted out. It’s a long story, but we no longer talk.”

On the one hand, a same-day settled status approval. On the other, a family torn apart by polarised politics, and an unsettled child who has spent a third of his life wondering whether his mother could be taken from him. And this is pretty much the best result anyone in her position could hope for.

So where does this leave children in the wake of Brexit?

It leaves them in the back seat, listening to grown-ups arguing. Again. We’ve chosen the destination without once asking what they wanted. We’re driving them to a place they’d never have picked. And what’s more we’re doing it all without Satnav and with nowhere to stay once we arrive.

If it sounds like they’re suspiciously quiet, don’t take that as tacit agreement. They’re probably just memorising the route so that they can find their own way back as soon as they’ve got rid of us.

Good luck to them.

*http://www.crae.org.uk/media/127101/B1_CRAE_EXEC-SUM_2018_WEB.pdf

**https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/mar/18/thousands-of-children-could-become-undocumented-after-brexit-new-windrush-generation

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