Speaking for Ourselves

Editorial: A policy of chaos

Editorial: A policy of chaos


 Migrant Voice - Editorial: A policy of chaos

The announcement from the Home Office this week that freedom of movement will end on 31 October in the case of a no-deal Brexit is both callous and potentially catastrophic and the government must immediately and loudly withdraw this policy, even if it turns out that the announcement was no more than a particularly crude negotiating tactic.

In the last three years, the government has shown time and time again that it is prepared to toy with the lives and livelihoods of more than three million citizens in this country, EU nationals who may be our friends, neighbours, colleagues, partners or parents. Their rights are already being curtailed under the settled status scheme, but they could now find themselves deprived of those rights entirely under a proposal that marks a significant shift from earlier plans for a transition period.

We welcome reassurance from the Home Office, published this week, that if freedom of movement does end on 31 October, any EU nationals already residing in the UK at that point will still be here legally and will remain eligible for all their existing rights, whether they have applied for settled status or not. In that statement, they clarify that it is EU nationals who arrive after that date who won’t necessarily have all those rights – to work, study, rent a house, access secondary healthcare etc.    

But this statement falls woefully short of what is needed. There is no simply no way for employers, landlords and doctors – forced by the state’s hostile environment to act as border guards and check the immigration status of their employees, tenants and patients – to distinguish between those two groups. In that situation, EU nationals already resident here would be at risk of being fired from their job, thrown out of their home or denied healthcare. Then there are the potentially disastrous repercussions at airports across the country as EU nationals try to return home.

And to all those Twitter users who cry unfeelingly, “well, you should have applied for settled status earlier then, shouldn’t you?” we say: having status under the settlement scheme won’t even be much help in the scenario the Home Office is presenting. Settled or pre-settled status doesn’t come with a stamp in your passport, a residence card you can flash at a job interview, or any form of physical proof that you are a lawful resident of the UK. That was one of the criticisms of the scheme from the start. One person who told us about her experiences of the settled status scheme through our online survey described the lack of physical evidence as a “disaster waiting to happen”.

Others who responded to our survey have raised the same issue, with dozens more reluctant to apply over data privacy issues, concern about the lack of legislation underpinning settled status, and mistrust in how the Home Office will handle their applications.

And from a purely logistical perspective, it would have been impossible for more than three million people to apply for and receive the correct decision on their settled status application in the seven months between 1 April when the scheme officially launched and 31 October, currently Brexit day. We know from our members and from meetings at the Home Office that minor problems with the system are still being ironed out, and that there are a number of vulnerable groups for whom application will not be simple and who may not yet even know they need to apply, including those in care, pensioners, victims of domestic violence or exploitation, and Traveller and Roma communities. There are many good reasons for a long transition period on freedom of movement, and none at all for a cliff edge on Brexit day.

Indeed, given the scheme’s original launch date (1 April), it was clearly a scheme that was meant to be implemented post-Brexit (originally scheduled for 29 March) – only those applying in the pilot studies were meant to be able to apply before Brexit day; everyone else would have a significant transition period in which to clarify their status.

While we cannot know the thinking behind this extraordinary and concerning proposal to end freedom of movement on 31 October, there are two likely possibilities.

Either this government is once again exploiting EU nationals living in the UK as pawns in their ongoing game of negotiation, using this suggestion as a threat (but an empty one) to drive the EU back to the table.

Or it is being seriously considered as an option.

If the latter, we must all raise our voices and demand that the government drop this proposal and maintain freedom of movement until at least January 2021, after the deadline to apply for settled status. Under no circumstances must freedom of movement end before new rules have been put in place and clear guidelines for following those rules widely disseminated. We must demand that this government actively work to guarantee existing rights for EU nationals in the UK, back up the settled status scheme with legislation and ensure that no one becomes undocumented because they did not apply to stay in the country that is now their home.

And if this proposal is purely a negotiating tactic, we must demand exactly the same. For even if the government has no real intention of implementing this policy, and is instead using it as a spectacularly callous negotiating tool, their words this week will have impact. Employers left unsure of the rules and the legal status of their EU national employees may start to seek ways to let them go, and others may be wary of hiring them. In the same position, landlords may start to discriminate against EU nationals, NHS staff charge for treatment, and border guards refuse entry.

Put bluntly, ending freedom of movement on 31 October would be both absurd and catastrophic – and the government must act now to rule out any possibility of this happening, and to issue clear and fair guidelines to healthcare providers, landlords, employers and all other willing and unwilling, literal and metaphorical border guards to ensure that, come November, no person is unjustly denied their rights and their place in this society. 


UPDATE, 2 September 2019: The Sunday Times reported on 1 September that the Home Office has abandoned its plan to end free movement on 31 October after lawyers advised that legal challenges were likely and the Government was likely to lose. See Independent report here.

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