David Davis was told on BBC Question Time to do the “decent thing” and unilaterally guarantee the right of EU citizens the right to remain in the UK after Brexit.
The Conservative Brexit secretary was challenged by an audience member in Birmingham over the government’s refusal to reassure EU nationals living in Britain that they will not be deported once the UK leaves the union.
“I work in the NHS, across the NHS about 5% of all clinical posts are currently unfilled, 5% of all NHS nurses are from the EU and 10% of doctors,” the audience member said.
“Rather than talk about a cap on immigration, why don’t we actually talk about how we can entice these people to stay?
“Why can’t the government do the decent thing and tell those people who are worried about their future and security, tell them they have the right to stay?”
Why can’t you do the decent thing? BBC Question Time audience member
The NHS worker, who was born in Germany but has lived in the UK for twenty years, added to loud applause: “You have enough to worry about Mr Davis in your negotiations, this is a really simple thing, you could do it up front before you start the negotiations. Why can’t you do the decent thing and just do that?”
Davis said EU citizens living in the UK “should not worry” about being told to leave.
The Brexit secretary was taking part in a special live edition of Question Time alongside Labour’s Keir Starmer, Lib Dem Nick Clegg, SNP MP Alex Salmond and Ukip’s Suzanne Evans.
Theresa May will trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty on Wednesday - beginning the formal Brexit process.
Davis repeated the government’s position that it can not guarantee the right of EU citizens to remain in the UK until it receives a similar agreement from European governments that UK citizens living in the EU will not be kicked out.
The Brexit secretary told the audience he had said “over and over again” that it would be “resolved as the first issue in the negotiation”.
“We view this as a moral responsibility. I view this as a moral responsibly. People should not worry about this. They should not,” he said. “Their position will be underwritten. Not just their residence, but their welfare, their pensions, all of that we are aiming to solve.”
However the audience member said the post-Brexit world Theresa May was “dreaming” about of a global trading market already existed in healthcare and warned doctors and nurses would quit the UK.
“In healthcare it’s a buyer’s market. People will go wherever there skills are needed. If people feel insecure here, they are going to go elsewhere. You don’t have much time to sort this issue out.”
Alex Salmond, the SNP’s Brexit spokesman in the Commons, said Davis was just the “acceptable face of the cabinet” on the issue of EU citizens.
The former Scottish first minister said Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, had said the rights of EU nationals to remain was one of the “cards to be played” in the negotiations.
Fox told the Tory conference last year that it did not make sense for the prime minister to allow EU citizens to remain in the UK before Brussels gave the same rights to Britons in the EU would be to “hand over one of our main cards”.