MPs slam Priti Patel plan to end freedom of movement

Priti Patel
Home secretary Priti Patel
Photo: Shutterstock

The rights of EU nationals in the UK will dramatically change from 31 October if there is a no-deal Brexit, under plans to end freedom of movement drawn up by Priti Patel.

Under plans being considered by the new home secretary, Britain could implement a Singapore-style immigration system to count people into and out of the UK.

To prepare for this, Patel has sent Home Office staff to Singapore to look into how “a well functioning immigration IT system is developed. Specifically ensuring we can count people in and out of the country”.

The plan, if implemented, would catch out any EU national not already part of the EU settlement scheme.

Under Theresa May legislation was to be introduced to Parliament to end freedom of movement but the bill has been delayed. The legislation would have allowed for a slower implementation of the end of freedom of movement. This now means that a no-deal Brexit would give the government the opportunity to impose its own rules through secondary legislation – perhaps created through a statutory instrument – that could bypass MPs.

It is thought that Patel’s restrictions could lead to problems at airports as EU nationals, among them NHS nurses, attempt to return from half-term breaks and are not given automatic re-entry into the UK.

Patel’s predecessor as home secretary, Sajid Javid, had dismissed ending freedom of movement immediately on Brexit as impractical, saying there had to be a transition period.

A year ago Javid said: “If there was a no deal, we won’t be able to immediately distinguish between those Europeans that were already here before 29 March [the then-exit date], and those who came after. There will need to be some kind of sensible transition period.”

“Priti wants to toughen the Home Office’s stance,” a Home Office source told The Independent. “She thinks Saj [Mr Javid] did a great job but, with a new prime minister and new priorities, changes needed to be made.

“For a start that means properly preparing for no deal, it’s clear those in the centre had no intention of preparing for no deal.”

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson Ed Davey responded to the news by asking: “What would this mean for EU citizens who have made their home in the UK who have travelled abroad when they try to return? Is the government seriously suggesting an NHS nurse who is an EU national may not be allowed to return to the country if they happen to have been on holiday? It is absurd.””

His concerns were echoed by Labour MP David Lammy in a tweet (see above).

Nicolas Hatton, head of the3million group of EU citizens in this country, said: “There are no systems in place and nothing is ready. This is a political gesture, but it will have a real impact on people’s lives.

“This will open the door to discrimination. How will they distinguish between the ‘legacy people’, those already here, and those who will arrive afterwards?”

Some commentators believe that Patel’s plan is simply part of the government’s attempt to put pressure on the EU to renegotiate the terms of the UK’s departure from the Union and will not result in actual rule changes.

The Home Office did not respond directly to news of Patel’s plan but stated: “EU citizens and their families still have until at least December 2020 to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme and one million people have already been granted status.

“Freedom of movement as it currently stands will end on 31 October when the UK leaves the EU, and after Brexit the Government will introduce a new, fairer immigration system that prioritises skills and what people can contribute to the UK, rather than where they come from.”

There will be EU, EEA and Swiss nationals who are legitimately in the UK without necessarily having immediate proof of that to hand, which could be problematic” – Fraser Vandal, TLT

Last week the Home Office announced that over one million people had been granted settled or pre-settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme, that has been running since May. It emphasised that “deal or no deal, EU citizens would have until at least 31 December 2020 to apply” for the status.

But the latest developments have cast some doubt over this. Fraser Vandal, solicitor at law firm TLT, told Personnel Today: “If we look at today’s developments, the planned interim measures for those arriving in the UK between 1 November 2019 and 31 December 2020 following a no deal Brexit have been scrapped and will be replaced. New arrangements are yet to be announced, but the current direction of travel would suggest that these will be less generous than those proposed by Theresa May’s government.

“There could be significant issues around the enforcement of any new rules. With those who are legitimately living and working in the UK potentially having 14 months between the UK leaving the EU and needing to register under the scheme, there are questions around whether any new rules can be effectively policed. There will be EU, EEA and Swiss nationals who are legitimately in the UK without necessarily having immediate proof of that to hand, which could be problematic. The previous government had also confirmed that there would be no change to the right to work checks required for EU, EEA and Swiss nationals until 2021 in the event of no deal. This may also now be subject to change.”

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