La Nucia, Costa Blanca, 10 am Wednesday 24 October. A meeting organised for British residents to look at the healthcare implications of Brexit. In attendance, the British Consul Sarah-Jane Morris. The venue is the La Nucia Auditorio, the entrance of which has already been prepared by PoliFani insurance with their branded boards, a table of booklets and leaflets, and nice red, branded with logo, cloth bags to take away the advertising materials.
Inside the meeting room the speakers’ table is set up with more advertising materials prominently alongside the screen. Employees of the insurance company are busily setting things up, photographing and videoing the arriving audience, presumably for later sales publicity.
The introduction and running of the meeting was done by a lady from the insurance firm, which did all the promotion for these meetings with the British Consul on a Brexit business website they have set up: www.brexithealthcare.com
Two more meetings are promoted on the site, tomorrow Thursday 25 October in Alfaz and Friday 26 October in Benidorm and the British Consul Ms Morris is used to advantage as a central stamp of authority on the homepage.
To my surprise, the consul did not speak for more than about ten minutes – in fact just long enough for the insurance company video camera person to get some useful shots of Ms Morris in front of the company logos, reassuring the worried expats that there was no real news just yet but she was sure everything would work out well.
We then had an hour and a half of input from the La Nucia ayuntamiento, the Benidorm Chief of Police, and two speakers on private healthcare – showing us nice glossy photos of the private hospitals and the up-to-date equipment in them, and some passing mention of Spanish state health care – just for ‘balance’.
When it came time for questions I stood up and made my views very clear. I said I was addressing my remarks to the British Consul.
First I told the meeting that the British contingent from Spain on the march on Saturday had been large and colourful and that we had been part of 700,000 people taking five hours to march from Hyde Park to Westminster. I explained how we too are worried but fighting for our rights! One of those rights is free health care – which we are entitled to – and which we have spent our working lives paying for.
I finished by saying it was not right that British residents, who are worried about their futures after Brexit, turn up to a meeting like this just in order to be SOLD something.
It was very clear from the round of applause and a loud “Well said!” that this had struck a chord with the audience. A man on the sidelines wearing a grey suit, from PoliFani Insurance Brokers, looked mildly horrified as his plans for a sparkling event now looked less than popular with some sections of the audience.
Sarah-Jane Morris replied to me in measured tones with a response that eventually was longer than her opening 10-minute intervention. Her main argument was that she couldn’t shun an opportunity to speak with British residents just because private enterprise was involved. If she didn’t come to speak to residents she would be equally damned, etc. etc.
In fact I recorded the exchange. Now that I have checked out the legals, and it is perfectly OK to record and publish without permission in Spanish law, I can release the verbatim transcript.
Transcript of my intervention and British Consul Sarah-Jane Morris’ response.
I’d like to address my question to the Consul. First of all I’d like to just very briefly… I was with a huge number of people – expats, British residents – on Saturday in London. A huge number. There were British people from all over Europe. I have been part of the lobbying campaign for British in Europe lobbying MPs, MEPs, throughout the last two years. And one thing that everybody was talking about, the British people from Spain… We had Spanish flags, European flags, you could identify the Spanish group quite easily: very colourful… One thing everyone was talking about was health care. A number of us are retired – I have just retired from teaching here in Spain – and I’m staying here!
But not everybody is retired: most Brits in Europe are working. Pensions are an issue (and we’ve heard nothing about that today) and the ring-fencing of citizens rights – from last December is still very unclear. I’d like the Consul to say something about that. We just don’t know. But healthcare is just as important to people who have not yet retired as for people who’ve retired. And that’s the one thing we talked about – quite a number of us – for most of that march. It took five hours to get from Hyde Park to Westminster. 700,000 people.
Healthcare is what we have paid for! We’ve paid into it! National Insurance contributions and here, those who have worked in Spain, have paid into Social Security… One thing I find very surprising is to come to a meeting with the British Consul who speaks for just ten minutes, and then have a whole load of stuff on private health insurance!
We are all worried about what’s going to happen. And I do feel that our worries are being used to sell us something!
(There follows a short stunned silence, then a man shouts “Well said, mate!” which is followed by spontaneous applause from the audience.)
There’s a lot to unpack there…
On the Withdrawal Agreement which has to be approved between the EU27… OK… so until everything is agreed… lot’s of work has gone into the Withdrawal Agreement with citizens’ rights at the top of the agenda. And that’s with all the EU27 countries, yeah? And the right to access health care for retirees is in there. Yeah? And also in there is your right to pensions with the triple lock. That’s also in the Withdrawal Agreement. Which I’m sure you’ve read if you’re involved in citizens’ rights issues, so if you read that you’ll see it’s all inside the Withdrawal Agreement, yeah?
The difficulty is because it is a negotiation it involves all these countries. The UK has said they will protect the rights of EU citizens living in the UK at the moment. But Spain are not going to do the same until the whole of the agreements come together.
It’s a very difficult time and I appreciate that. You all hang on through the negotiations to see what’s going to happen. But the reason I come to events like this is because I think it is very important for me to be out there listening to what people’s concerns are, hearing what’s being said and it’s not been a day that’s been entirely about health care… I will go to any event organised by Spanish authorities…
(I hold up above my head the red cloth bag with the company logo, the glossy brochures etc. and Sarah-Jane Morris sees what I mean by the gesture.)
OK, so it might be funded by… um… you know… it’s quite… you know… the private sector might be involved… but I am here because the council are hosting this… So it’s important people know what their current rights and obligations are, and what may or may not change in the future.
If I didn’t come to these events just because the private sector is involved, I think people would be missing out on the wider picture, to be honest. Yeah? It’s a difficult judgment call to make. I appreciate that. But if I stayed away from every event that was funded by a private entity then I feel people would miss out on part of the picture. OK? To be honest it’s very difficult: I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t. If I don’t come out and listen to what your concerns are… You see I am watching out for you… I am hearing your concerns… If I don’t go to events and listen to your concerns I’ll be criticised for not being out there. OK? I might say, well don’t go because there’s nothing new to say.
There is a lot we know. We know if you are a permanent resident in Spain and you have all your paperwork in order, you’re in a really strong position. Whatever happens. If there’s a deal or if there’s not a deal. And I’m really surprised when I go around that many people still aren’t that clear. I still get questioned. People say, “Am I a temporary resident?” “Do I need to go back again?” “What do I need to do now?” The day I go to an event and nobody turns up, that’s a good day because everything’s sorted. Yeah?
And I’m sorry, I appreciate your frustration… I totally get your frustration around Brexit. I am not a politician. Yeah? OK? But I am… My role as a British Consul is to watch out for the interests of British nationals in Spain. OK? That’s my role. To make sure nobody is vulnerable… and everyone is – as far as possible – inside the system. And that’s why I’m here today.
And it has got nothing to do with the private sector. As I said, if the Spanish authorities are here and the local council is here, I think it my responsibility to be here as well. And if I wasn’t I’d be criticised for not being here. So, you know… I totally respect your opinion… Brexit was not my… not on my agenda… Yeah? It’s making our lives incredibly challenging. I appreciate people are very unsettled and I do think I have a responsibility to try and reassure you and make sure you are doing things right.
But it is true – on the private sector thing – there is a gap. There is a gap. The people who come here who are not paying into the social security system… OK? And are not yet entitled to their funding from the department of health… There is a gap of one year. So I say, “Go and get yourself registered and then you can get your res. card and if you’re a pre-retiree you’ll need… (audio unclear for rest of this phrase) …but you need to wait a year. And they say, “But what do I do during that year?” There is a gap… Yeah? OK? And that’s the only thing I will say…
What people have to do during that gap is to find some kind of private health insurance. Yeah? But I’m not supporting this private company, or any private company. OK? So, anyway, I don’t know if that answered your question. There was quite a lot to unpack.
Pensions are ring fenced and they will continue to rise with inflation in the same way they do for any UK pensioners. Which is not the case if you move to Australia, Canada or whatever. But it is true for Europe.
(I interject.) Is that with a no deal as well?
(S-JM hesitates then continues.) My understanding is yes. But you’re right, I’ve not heard a politician say, “Even in the event of…” but to be honest that decision doesn’t need to be in the withdrawal agreement. It’s not linked to any other EU27 country. It’s unilaterally the UK saying, “We will commit.” And I think it does go back to what I said at the beginning about an informed choice. The British Government recognizes that you made an informed choice… In the same way that if you go to Australia you know you won’t enjoy the triple lock pension.
So nobody’s said anything about this in a no deal, but my feeling is they will honour their commitment. And that’s what they expect to happen to EU citizens in the UK as well. OK?
(Among the audience, at this point, there are a lot of people shaking their heads and looking sceptical. S-JM is not carrying this audience with her. End of S-JM’s response to my intervention. I shall not comment personally on the value of her response, but I simply report it. With 100% accuracy. There was just that one unclear phrase as noted.)
 This is not true: the PoliFani insurance brokers ran the event, hosted and introduced it by saying they were the initiators.
Some questions need to be asked at the British Embassy in Madrid. Some of us now know from experience that we cannot trust the UK government nor its civil service to be honest with us.
Now it appears the consular service are helping to steer us towards paying for private health care rather than helping with the guarantees of entitlement to services we have paid into. Why?
Thursday 25 October
I have written to Mr Simon Manley, the British Ambassador to Spain: Letter to the British Ambassador in Madrid
Benidorm Friday 26 October
I am outside the Centro Social La Torreta in Benidorm observing today’s meeting. British Consul is here and mostly elderly Brit residents. 3 mobility scooters parked outside. The insurance company has just had a huge iced cake delivered with the company logo on it.
The entrance is set up as for previous meetings with the PoliFani company’s advertising materials, booklets, leaflets etc. and the British Consul standing beside those advertising materials as the British residents arrive. They are – once again – mainly over 50s. Most would be over 60. The three mobility scooters outside signal a ready audience for healthcare issues.
I am not going in. After my blog and tweeting of this, plus letter to Simon Manley, British Ambassador in Madrid, I imagine neither the consul nor PoliFani insurance would be overjoyed to see me.
Saturday 27 October
It was very encouraging to see this morning that Sarah Wollaston MP has written a tweet linked to this blog post and thereby generating much greater interest in this topic on Twitter. Sarah is a general practitioner and the Conservative Member of Parliament for Totnes in Devon, who famously changed her mind about Brexit and is now a very active campaigner for #PeoplesVote and Remain. Many thanks for reading and your Twitter comments on this, Sarah
— Sarah Wollaston MP (@sarahwollaston) October 26, 2018