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The government is facing calls to pull a debate on a controversial immigration bill from its agenda, scheduled to take place on Tuesday, over fears it will pass without proper scrutiny as a result of the coronavirus crisis.
The Liberal Democrats have raised concerns about the scheduling of the “extremely damaging and controversial” bill which, if passed, would end the current right to free movement under EU law.
It was confirmed on Sunday, April 12, that parliament would return on April 21 following demands from the opposition that MPs be recalled to scrutinise the government’s efforts on coronavirus.
With social distancing measures set to remain in place for weeks, it is not yet clear what form parliament will take, but last week commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg’s team said technological solutions were being prepared to ensure MPs can scrutinise the government as it responds to the pandemic.
The Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill – first introduced to the House of Commons on March 5 – repeals the rights to free movement that exist under EU law.
The UK will then have the ability to operate an Australian-style points-based immigration system from January 1, 2021.
Irish citizens will be able to continue to freely enter and reside in the UK without requiring permission to do so after free movement ends, and the government has said that the rights of EU citizens living in the UK will be guaranteed by the end of thee transition period on December 31, 2020.
The Immigration Bill has already passed its first reading, with the second reading – where MPs debate the the proposed changes to the law – scheduled for Tuesday.
Freedom of movement was one of the biggest points of contention throughout the referendum and ensuing Brexit process, with rhetoric about the country being at “breaking point” popularised by leavers such as Nigel Farage.
But as the coronavirus crisis unfolds, the conversation about immigration has turned to recognition of the contribution migrant workers – thousands of whom are from the EU – make to the NHS and other key industries.
Just this week it was revealed that 180 fruit and vegetable pickers were flown from Romania to the UK to keep up with demand – despite a government plan to send furloughed workers into the fields.
Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson Christine Jardine said: “The coronavirus crisis has demonstrated how much we rely on doctors, nurses, carers and other essential workers from all over the world. They are protecting us and putting their lives on the line every single day.
“The prime minister rightly thanked a Portuguese nurse who looked after him in intensive care last week. Yet by ending free movement, the government would make it harder for other nurses like him to come to work in the NHS and charge them thousands of pounds in fees for the privilege.
“Ending free movement would be extremely damaging and controversial, especially at a time when we should be celebrating the enormous contributions people who move to the UK make to our public services, our economy and our society.
“The government must pull the Immigration Bill from the parliamentary agenda next week, abandon its plans to end free movement, and instead focus all its efforts on tackling the coronavirus pandemic.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Through the new points-based immigration system we will attract the best and brightest from around the world, regardless of nationality.
“Our new fast-track NHS visa will make it easier, cheaper and quicker for the best global medical professionals to come and work in our fantastic NHS.
“EU citizens make an enormous contribution to the UK and through the hugely successful EUSS Settlement Scheme we have granted more than 3m status.”