EU citizens' rights hang by a thread if Priti Patel ends freedom of movement overnight

PUBLISHED: 07:00 22 August 2019 | UPDATED: 17:47 22 August 2019

Priti Patel has suggested that freedom of movement could end 'overnight' in the event of a no-deal Brexit.  Picture: Carl Court/Getty Images

Priti Patel has suggested that freedom of movement could end 'overnight' in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Picture: Carl Court/Getty Images

2017 Getty Images

Priti Patel would be reneging on a government promise made just three weeks ago if she decides to end freedom of movement overnight - and risks disenfranchising thousands of people, argues campaign group THE 3 MILLION.

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From automatic status and no change during the referendum campaign, to stripping over two million EU citizens of their legal status, this week Priti Patel showed us that this lady is for turning. Only three weeks ago, the prime minister pledged with "absolute certainty" that over three million EU citizens in the UK would keep their rights.

In June 2016, three weeks before the referendum, Priti Patel, alongside Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, promised that there will be no change for EU citizens living in the UK, that our new immigration status would be automatic and that EU citizens would be treated no less favourably than at present.

Now Patel is proposing that freedom of movement could end overnight in a no-deal Brexit.

Since the referendum, we have been told by Patel, Gove and Johnson that they were unable to deliver on the citizens' rights referendum pledge, because they were not in charge to deliver on that promise. Now that they are in government, instead of delivering, they are doing the opposite. They are stripping more than two million EU citizens of their legal right to live and work in the UK if they do not manage to obtain a new status before October 31, and replacing it with an invitation to apply to the EU Settlement scheme.

The EU Settlement Scheme covers all EU citizens and their families living in the UK by October 31, and in a no deal situation EU citizens will have until December 31, 2020 to apply. The Home Office has said: "The Scheme has been enshrined in UK law through the Immigration Rules and the prime minister has made clear that EU citizens living in the UK will have the absolute certainty of the right to live and remain."

But for EU citizens applying for Settled Status after the end of freedom of movement on October 31, the potential problems are still manifold.

MORE: At least 200,000 EU citizens could be left without right to live in UK despite entitlement

We always knew that freedom of movement would end after Brexit. The problem however with ending it so abruptly, as proposed by Patel, is that the rules and regulations that allow EEA citizens to move to the UK are the same rules that citizens already here rely on to live and work in the UK. To stop freedom of movement for EU citizens arriving after Brexit day, the rules for those already here have to be repealed too.

The last government under Theresa May was fully aware of the consequences of ending freedom of movement. Even in the case of a no-deal Brexit, the plan was to have a transition period in which EU citizens who arrived prior to Brexit day and those who arrive post-Brexit would have been treated identically until the end of that period. This period was meant to be until July 2021 in case of a deal, and was inexplicably shortened to December 2020 in case of no deal. The period was intended to give the Home Office enough time to process as many applications as possible and to grant a legal status to EU citizens proving their right to live and work in the UK.

Priti Patel's policy announcement to bring in a hard end of freedom of movement at the end of October is reckless. A policy designed to generate tough-sounding tabloid headlines with no regards to the consequences for the millions of EU citizens who have made the UK their home.

MORE: Threatening to abruptly end freedom of movement is 'reckless politics', warn campaigners

Originally the government intended to end freedom of movement through an immigration bill in Parliament. This bill has now been shelved. It is understood they intend to use secondary legislation instead - a procedure that reduces the role of parliament and the accountability of government.

Many EU citizens are rightfully concerned. It is not long ago that the Windrush scandal showed all too clearly what it means to be at the mercy of the Home Office.

In practice, the consequences for EU citizens reach far beyond their legal immigration status. The hostile environment means that "delegated border control" agents like landlords, employers and the NHS must check the immigration status of everyone they deal with. Failing to do so by providing accommodation, work or services to non-UK citizens who are not lawfully living in the UK risks incurring huge fines.

Ending freedom of movement abruptly, without provisions to mitigate the effect on EU citizens already living in the UK, will create broadly three classes of EU citizens those providers must distinguish between as they have different rights and ways of proving those rights.

The first set are EU citizens arriving post Brexit day. Depending on the system that Patel manages to bring in before October 31, they will presumably have reduced rights and may be subject to visas or restrictions as set out by current UK immigration law.

The second set would be the circa one million EEA citizens and their family members who have already successfully secured either settled or pre-settled status. These citizens have obtained the right to live and work in the UK and have the, albeit online only, documentation that shows their eligibility.

The last set, and this will be the biggest set, will be well over two million EU citizens who have not yet applied for their status through the EU Settlement Scheme. The Home Office states they will have the same entitlements to work, benefits, and services as they do now, and will be able to prove their status in the same way they do now. But it is difficult to see in practical terms how they will be distinguishable from those who arrive post-Brexit.

Those who arrive post-Brexit and those who were here before October 31 but who have not yet applied for settled status and thus have no proof of their rights will be indistinguishable to employers, landlords, the NHS and other service providers. Those delegated border control agents who are forced to check the immigration status of the citizen in front of them before providing accommodation, jobs, treatment or services under the hostile environment. Something those who followed the Windrush scandal will be very aware of.

This would leave millions of people in actual legal limbo, exposing them to potential mass discrimination driven by the inability to prove their rights in the hostile environment. It is reckless politics. Politics resulting from a desire to create tough-sounding tabloid headlines but with no regard to the people affected, those the government vowed to protect.

We, the3million, are asking everyone who is reading this: What decent country strips millions of people of their rights without putting forward an adequate replacement? Why trust the verbal promise of Boris Johnson, the same Boris Johnson who has failed to deliver on his citizens' rights promise made during the 2016 referendum campaign?

If you want to help the3million, we ask you to do one thing for us - write to your MP and ask for these promises to EU citizens to be fulfilled. See our template letter and how to write, at our #BrokenPromise campaign page: www.the3million.org.uk/brokenpromise-campaign.

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- This pieces was edited on August 22 to include comment from the Home Office after publication.

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