A leaked Home Office document passed to the Guardian fills the hole in the middle of Brexit. It amounts to the first official thinking on how Theresa May’s government is going to redeem the referendum promise to end free movement and “take back control” of EU immigration.
Delivering on this issue, more than any other aspect of Brexit, is likely to prove make or break for the Tory party at the next election. At the heart of the proposals is May’s long-held ambition to break the link between temporary migration from EU member countries and the right to settle permanently in Britain.
The Home Office document states its intention clearly enough: to end free movement “in its current form”. It proposes that after Brexit day all newly arrived EU migrants, unless they are highly skilled, will lose their rights to live permanently in Britain. At a stroke they will be turned into temporary workers with a maximum two-year permit.
When the time comes to renew that temporary permit the rules of the game will have changed. By then a new UK immigration policy for EU migrants will have kicked in. That will, it is suggested, include possible numerical caps on those working in lower-skilled jobs. For some occupations, deemed not to be suffering from labour shortages, the door may be closed completely.
Restrictions are also to be imposed on the family members that a post-Brexit EU migrant can bring with them to live in Britain. At present a Briton married to somebody outside the EU cannot bring their spouse to the UK unless they earn £18,600, a threshold described as “particularly harsh but legal”. For the first time this will apply to EU citizens too, ending a longstanding anomaly.
The Home Office wants to go further still. Repealing the jurisdiction of the European court of justice means the UK can also restrict the rights of extended family to live in Britain to only the very closest of relatives: children and adult dependants.
The document also proposes to keep the current light-touch border checks for EU nationals rather than impose a vast new pre-entry visa system. That is probably vital if Britain’s airports and ports are not to grind to a halt the day after Brexit.
Instead all newly arrived EU migrants will be required to register after three or six months for a biometric residence permit for which fingerprints may be required. That smacks of a bureaucratic solution that a government department which has been at the forefront of developing a “database state” was always most likely to favour. The document even hints at the prospect that EU nationals will not be able to access public services and benefits without their residence permit.
Britain already has a system of immigration rules that is so complicated that it is almost impossible for laymen, or indeed poorly paid Home Office caseworkers, to understand fully. The recent episode in which about 100 deportation notices were mistakenly sent to EU nationals has knocked confidence in the ability of the Home Office to deliver.
Nevertheless, for those who fail to follow these complex new rules, wittingly or otherwise, the Home Office promises a new framework of “compliance, deterrence and data-sharing” with all the panoply of existing “hostile environment measures” such as sanctions against landlords and employers of illegal labour to enforce them.
One irony of this Brexit creation of a temporary migrant labour force, a system of residents’ permits or ID cards for foreigners and internal checks to police them is that they are a familiar path trodden by many postwar western European countries. It may be the case that the further we go down the Brexit path the more European we become – and the Home Office may be gambling that like-for-like retaliation is unlikely because many EU states already take this approach.
Much of this will not bother most British voters. What they will want to know is whether this package will deliver the fundamental cut in immigration that many Brexit voters said they wanted.
The Home Office is careful not to promise a cut in EU migration – there are no specific estimates of the impact of the policy – in its draft policy document. Instead the document makes clear it is about “taking back control” and making progress on moving towards “sustainable levels” of net migration.
The officials are right to be cautious. Many of these new controls – albeit in a different form – already apply to non-EU immigration, which still exceeds EU immigration by 266,000 to 248,000 a year.
EU net migration has fallen over the past year but that had more to do with the falling value of the pound than any Home Office “crackdown”. If May is intent on making Britain a less attractive destination for migrants, Brexit may yet do the job for her.
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