27 July 2017

Home Secretary Amber Rudd today announced that the government will commission the Migration Advisory Committee to conduct a report into the impact and contribution of EU migration to the UK economy. Unveiling her plans in a piece for the Financial Times, Rudd said, “The UK government has been clear that it wants to use the opportunity of leaving the EU to design a future immigration system that works in the best interests of the country.” She advocated a system that allowed the government to “[control] the flow of migration from Europe, while at the same time ensuring that we continue to attract people to the UK who benefit us economically, socially and culturally.” But, crucially, she added, “I also want to reassure businesses and EU nationals that we will ensure there is no “cliff edge” once we leave the bloc.”

Elsewhere, Immigration Minister Brandon Lewis said in an interview this morning, “Freedom of movement ends when we leave the EU in the spring of 2019…There will be a new immigration system in place by the spring of 2019 and that will be outlined in the immigration bill that will go through parliament next year.”

Some have argued that these statements contradict each other, with Lewis suggesting an immediate end to free movement in 2019, and Rudd calling for gradual change to the immigration system that avoids a “cliff-edge”. Yet these are not mutually exclusive proposals.

New agreement in cabinet for a transition has created a buffer period for “free movement”

A lot turns on the significant evolution in the UK government’s position towards a post-Brexit transitional period. There is now reportedly a consensus in cabinet in favour of a time-limited “implementation period.” The proposal, reportedly put forward by Chancellor Philip Hammond, now receives the support of prominent Leave campaigner Environment Secretary Michael Gove, as well as International trade Secretary Liam Fox. In an interview yesterday, Gove said, “It’s in the interests of Britain and the European Union to ensure that we transition to a new situation, that we have an implementation phase.” He added that he wanted a “pragmatic approach” to leaving, and would be willing to accept free movement of EU citizens and the jurisdiction of the ECJ during an implementation phase.

Little is formally known about the government’s plan for a transition, and much will remain for the negotiations, but reports suggest it could last between two to four years after Brexit. It is also expected broadly to accept some role for supranational judicial supervision, continued budget payments to the EU, and ease of movement for UK and EU citizens. This is a significant and welcome development in the British negotiation position. Not only could it make it easier to conclude a deal with the EU (although this will depend on the EU’s willingness to compromise as well), it also allows the UK greater flexibility over how and when to introduce a new system to control EU immigration.

Don’t expect a fully-developed EU immigration system in March 2019

Free movement, as it currently stands, will end once we leave the EU. EU citizens will no longer benefit from automatic, administration-free entry to the UK. But that does not necessarily suggest a new system of rules and requirements will be in place from this date. In fact, a long-term system to manage the “type and volume” of EU arrivals looks years away. So what can we expect in the meantime?

The clearest picture of how the government intends to manage migration from the EU is set out in Amber Rudd’s commissioning letter to the chair of the Migration Advisory Council. In this, she lays out a three-phased approach:

The first stage relates to ensuring EU citizens already resident in the UK at the time of departure (or another yet-to-be-specified date, no earlier than the Article 50 trigger date of 29 March this year) can continue to remain in the country. As part of these proposals, the government will offer “settled status” to all those who have accumulated 5 years’ continuous residence in the UK. This will allow them to stay, work and study in Britain, as well as access relevant public funds and services. Those who have not yet accrued five years’ residency, but were present before the specified date, will be given a “temporary status” in order to remain until they have completed five years.

The second stage will be “based on a temporary implementation period to ensure there is no cliff-edge on the UK’s departure for employers or individuals.” It relates to the system that will be in place during the time-limited transitional period that is now expected to follow the UK’s withdrawal in March 2019. EU nationals will face additional requirements to entry during this period, but these are not expected to be strenuous – rather than automatic entry under free movement, EU citizens will need to register their arrival with UK authorities. This second phase will also see the implementation of the government’s proposed “grace period” – a two-year buffer period after March 2019, when EU nationals in the UK can apply for and obtain the relevant residency documentation they require from the UK Home Office. During such a grace-period, EU nationals may not face major new barriers to entering the labour market or obtaining access to public and social services.

The third and final stage of the government’s immigration plan, which relates to the longer term system for managing EU migration, will be implemented after the transitional period. This will outline the new system of rules and requirements that EU migrants will need to meet in order to enter, work, study and access public services in the UK. It is this longer-term arrangement which the newly commissioned report hopes to inform – therefore the suggestion, that its publication in September 2018 will be too late, misses the point. Instead, its commissioning should be welcomed as evidence that the government is now more willing to engage with business and employers on their interests and needs regarding a future migration policy. Also, with little government-held information on the size, location and impact of EU migration in the UK, it will likely be a valuable tool in informing government policy.

Long-term plan to manage EU immigration will not in place for a number of years

Under the Home Secretary’s plans, free movement of EU citizens will end in March 2019. However, the short-term system that is expected to follow will not look or feel vastly different – EU migrants may need to fill in more forms to come to the UK, but new requirements for accessing jobs, education or other services are not expected to be imposed at this stage. Instead, the finalised system to control EU immigration will only be in place after the transitional period. Any suggestion of a new visa scheme for EU nationals and the like will not be a reality for a number of years to come.