The small print of the proposed new “settled status” reveals it will be taken away if someone is “absent from the UK for more than two years, unless they have strong ties here”.
All three million EU citizens, including their families, will be required to secure the new status by the end of a two-year grace period, regardless of how long they have lived in the country.
And they will have to obtain residence documents, with the details stored on a Home Office database – condemned as “ID cards through the back door” by the Liberal Democrats.
The Home Office said EU nationals would need to show the document to employers and providers of public services to prove they had permission to “live and work legally in the UK”.
“The Government may wish to introduce controls which limit the ability of EU citizens (and their families) who arrive in the UK after exit to live and work here,” its policy paper said.
“As such, without a residence document, current residents may find it difficult to access the labour market and services.”
Ed Davey, the Lib Dem home affairs spokesman, said he had written to Home Secretary Amber Rudd to find out if EU nationals would have to “carry them on their person at all times”.
“From the description, it seems as if this is ID cards by the back door,” Mr Davey said.
“David Davis [the Brexit Secretary] resigned his seat and caused a by-election because he was disgusted by the assault on civil liberties by the then Labour government. What will he do this time round?”
But the Prime Minister’s spokesman said he “did not recognise” the description of identity card, adding: “All it will be doing is setting out the settled status that they hold.”
In the Commons, Ms May defended her proposals, saying: “No families will be split up.”
EU citizens who have lived in Britain for five years will be given broadly the same health, education, housing and pensions rights as those enjoyed by UK citizens.
To avoid a “cliff edge” when Britain leaves the EU in March 2019, there will be a two-year grace period in which to apply and be granted the new status.
And EU nationals who have lived in Britain for less than five years will be allowed to stay and build up that qualification.
But Ms May refused to reveal the cut-off date after which new arrivals will no longer enjoy rights, which could be at any point between March 2017 and March 2019.
And, crucially, she has vowed to fight the EU’s demand that future rights must be guaranteed by the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
In her statement, Ms May said that, after Brexit, EU citizens with settled status could bring in family members from overseas if they earned enough – the current rules for UK nationals.
But that sets up a further clash with the European Commission, which insisted there should be no restrictions on close family members entering Britain.
Michael Barnier, the Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator, was critical, tweeting: “More ambition, clarity and guarantees needed than in today’s UK position.”
The document also revealed that around 150,000 EU nationals who have filled in a complex 85-page form to secure British residency will have to apply again for settled status.
The Prime Minister promised to “streamline” the application process, including by dropping the need for people out of work to have taken out comprehensive sickness insurance.
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