The free movement of people between the UK and European Union will cease at the end of March 2019, the Home Office confirmed on Thursday afternoon, playing down talk of a disagreement between its own ministers on migration.
Earlier in the day, political rivals accused Theresa May’s government of being “all over the place” and “a shambles” on its immigration policy, amid claims that ministers were publicly contradicting each other about plans for when Britain leaves the EU.
Amber Rudd, the home secretary, sought to reassure businesses worried about losing the ability to hire workers from the EU, saying there will be a “smooth and orderly” transition to a new immigration system after Britain leaves the bloc. Some took her comments about interim arrangements to mean that EU citizens would still be able to come and reside freely in the UK for a few years after 2019.
Then Brandon Lewis, the immigration minister, categorically ruled out free movement continuing after March 2019 in an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, apparently contradicting his boss.
But the Home Office has told BuzzFeed News that there are no differences in opinion between the two ministers: The home secretary also thinks freedom of movement will end in 2019.
On Thursday, Rudd commissioned the independent migration advisory committee (MAC) to examine the British labour market and the overall role of migration in the wider economy, and to consult on a new immigration system. Its findings are expected in September 2018, just six months before the UK leaves the EU.
Confusion about the home secretary’s position on freedom of movement after Brexit arose partly because of a passage in a letter to the MAC in which Rudd referred to a temporary “implementation period” between Britain’s exit and a new immigration system. Rudd was a strong advocate for Remain in last year's referendum, and is seen as one of the more liberal voices in the government.
Some took the passage in her letter to mean that freedom of movement would effectively continue beyond 2019, when the UK leaves the union.
However, a Home Office official was adamant that people had misread the document and that Rudd’s position on free movement was the same as that of Lewis – that it will end in March 2019.
An entirely new immigration system, set by British lawmakers, will be in place in April 2019, a spokesperson said. The nature of any transitional period has yet to be decided, and will depend on negotiations with the EU.
The Home Office’s clear-cut line comes just a week after senior cabinet sources briefed the media that freedom of movement would have to continue for years after Brexit in order for the UK to secure a transitional deal. The EU’s negotiating guidelines are clear that the red lines and principles agreed by the 27 member states would also apply to any interim deal: The UK will not be able to cherry-pick access to the single market even on a temporary basis without accepting all four freedoms of movement (of goods, services, capital, and people).
The apparent contradiction between wanting a transitional deal as close as possible to the status quo while ending free movement has puzzled both businesses and experts.
Referring to Rudd’s letter to the MAC, Jonathan Portes, a professor of economics at King’s College London, told BuzzFeed News: “Free movement will, for most practical purposes, continue after 2019, except that there will be new registration requirements – but no necessary new requirements for employers or stopping employers from employing EU citizens in any job/role. So it looks a lot like free movement from the point of view of voters, citizens, employers, if not from the EU."
Portes went on to say: “My assumption is that those arriving during a transition (say 2019-21 on current plans) will have the right to work/reside pretty much as now but will a) have to register and b) will have no guarantees of post-transition rights."
He added: “Hence the worst of both worlds: looks like continuing free movement and ’uncontrolled’ to British voters, looks like end of free movement and cherry-picking to the EU27. Maybe it’s a circle that can be squared but I’m pretty sure at the moment the government has no clue how."
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats criticised the government for saying that free movement will end in 2019, rather than extending it to give businesses more time to adjust to a new immigration regime.
Ed Davey, the party’s migration spokesman, said: “Businesses and families need certainty about the future status of their employees and relatives. The government is in complete disarray and has failed to address skills shortages or make the necessary changes to our immigration system. It's time to end this chaotic approach and protect jobs and living standards by keeping the UK in the single market."
Business lobbyists cautiously welcomed the government’s move to evaluate the impact of migration on the economy, but said it was overdue. Some also questioned whether the study will be done in time to have a meaningful impact on the post-Brexit immigration policy.
Immigration rules need to be based on “rigorous and independent analysis” by economic experts, said Adam Marshall, the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce. He welcomed assurances from the home secretary that businesses will still be able to employ EU nationals, but urged the government not to make the administrative processes too complicated.
Seamus Nevin, head of employment and skills policy at the Institute of Directors, said the consultation is “long overdue”. The short amount of time between the publication of the MAC's findings and Britain’s departure from the EU in March 2019 would bind the hands of policymakers to come up with a sensible new regime, he added.
Alberto Nardelli is Europe editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alberto Nardelli at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alex Spence is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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