The future employment rights of EU nationals in the UK have been plunged into uncertainty by a British minister.
UK firms who employ EU nationals will have to do “rigorous checks” to prove they have a right to work in Britain after it leaves the bloc in March if there is no Brexit deal, immigration minister Caroline Nokes told a British parliament committee on Tuesday (30 October).
But lack of detail on the verification scheme, as well as technical hitches and delays, have prompted “serious concern”.
The new regime was designed to “turn off free movement” of EU workers to the UK, Nokes told the committee.
Under current plans, the 3.6m EU nationals who already live in the UK are meant to apply for so-called “settled status” in order to stay.
They will have until 2021 to do so whether or not there is a deal.
If there is a deal, then people who come in a two-year ‘transition period’ after March 2019 but before March 2021 will also be eligible to work, but will need to register with authorities.
If there is no deal, then the new immigration checks will have to start in just five months’ time from today, Nokes said.
“If somebody hasn’t been here prior to the end of March next year, employers will have to make sure they go through adequately rigorous checks to evidence somebody’s right to work,” she said.
“In the intervening period of any transition period, it will be incredibly difficult to differentiate between an EU citizen coming here for the first time, for example, and somebody who has been here for a significant period of time and hasn’t yet applied for their settled status but would be perfectly entitled to it if they were to,” she noted.
But “as part of the right-to-work check, we expect employers to make sure that they are not employing people who do not have the right to work here,” she said.
Nokes called for a “pragmatic approach” by employers and said those EU workers who had “every right” to stay were “welcome” to do so.
Her comments marked a reversal of British policy which earlier said employers would not need to do checks.
When questioned by MPs, Nokes was unable to answer what the checks would look like.
She said if somebody had obtained “settled status” then they “would be able to evidence that”.
But she said just 650,000 people had so far applied for one, meaning that most of the 3.6m EU nationals would not be in a position to evidence anything if checks were required from March.
She also revealed a technical glitch that only Android phone users, but not Apple ones, had been able to apply.
Her comments prompted criticism by opposition MPs.
“I’m really baffled,” the Labour party’s Yvette Cooper said.
“Either you’re going to have a system that in practice is unworkable because employers can’t implement it, or you’re going to have to accept that people who are arriving after March 2019 will just be covered by exactly the same rules as people who are already here,” Cooper said.
Labour’s Kate Green said: “I think it would be very important for employers to know very soon what it is you’re expecting them to check.”
The British home office later said in a clarification: “We will protect EU citizens’ rights when we leave the EU, in both a deal or no-deal scenario.”
“We are considering a number of options for the unlikely event that we reach March 2019 without a deal, and will set out more information shortly,” it added.
But damage was done to confidence in British planning for Brexit.
“We’ve raised this [EU workers’ rights] as a source of serious concern for business communities given the shortening timeframe,” Mike Spicer, from the British Chambers of Commerce, a business lobby, told British newspaper The Guardian.
“Businesses … need to see written in black and white directions from the government about how exactly this scheme will operate if no deal is reached,” he said.
Satbir Singh, from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, an NGO, said: “Nokes has stated that employers should check EU nationals’ ‘paperwork’ to determine their right to work post-Brexit, despite the fact that no such paperwork exists.”
“Another day, another example of a government with neither the intent nor the ability to run a fair and humane immigration system after Brexit,” he said.