In her Brexit speech on 17th January, Theresa May gave her clearest indication yet that free movement of persons will not feature in any post-Brexit deal. She made it clear that she is willing to sacrifice the UK's access to the Single Market in order to have greater control of immigration. Her emphasis on controlling immigration was tempered with platitudes regarding the UK continuing to attract the brightest and best and an 'openness' to international talent. However this contrasts starkly with the direction we have seen UK immigration take under Theresa May as Home Secretary with respect to non-EU migrants. The Prime Minister did not indicate or elaborate on how a system incorporating EU citizens would be any less restrictive.
She spoke, for example, of her intention that the UK be 'one of the best places in the world' for science and innovation, despite it becoming ever harder for scientists and innovators to come to the UK. Her on-going push to limit numbers has also seen the UK become a less desirable destination for top students. When asked by reporters after her speech whether any business sectors would be exempted from the immigration rules, the Prime Minister was unwilling to commit, choosing instead to reemphasise her interpretation of June's referendum as a vote to take control of immigration.
An end to free movement will, undoubtedly be of concern to a great many businesses in the UK who rely on free movement for everything from farm labourers through to neurosurgeons (and let us remember that EU citizens make up 10% of NHS registered doctors).
An Open Britain poll of leave voters earlier this month showed that more than half (54%) of Leave voters are not prepared to make any personal financial sacrifices for the UK to regain control of immigration. It will be more important than ever to continue to draw attention to fact based analysis of immigration that show the clear economic benefits this brings to the UK.
The Prime Minister also failed in today's speech to allay the fears of the three million Europeans who have made the UK their home. She has talked about the importance of guaranteeing their right to remain. Yet sadly she offered nothing new. In the seven months which have followed the Referendum, there has been no indication as to how such rights will be protected and no plan is forthcoming
It seems the fate of those in question still relies on the outcome of negotiations with other EU states regarding British citizens in those nations. While it is clearly important to protect the position of British Citizens across the EU, it is the UK who is seeking to leave. We have taken the decision to withdraw from the EU and, as the instigator of this change, it is clearly of the utmost importance that we take the lead in mitigating against the damage being done to the human beings caught in the cross hairs of our decision.
Mrs May used her speech to berate those who want greater clarity and are as she said 'frustrated'. It is not mere frustration driving three million Europeans to seek security in their residency. Their future is at stake.
The process of documenting European citizens who have a right of residence in the UK will be a slow one. Clearer guidance for European Citizens on their rights and how to evidence these would be welcome, as well as steps to simplify and speed up the process. We are advising Europeans in the UK to be thinking about confirming their position now.
However, it remains a concern that the sheer volume of individuals who may need proof of their status makes the two year negotiation period too short. Proper and effective transitional provisions must be put in place as a matter of priority. It is essential these reflect the practicalities of requiring three million people to get documented and the harsh reality of limited Home Office resources.
Meanwhile EU citizens here remain in limbo and will be hugely disappointed that they did not receive the certainty they sought from today's speech.