The Government has postponed the publication its plans for post-Brexit immigration until later this year, prompting criticism from MPs and business leaders.
An immigration white paper was originally due to be published last summer, and then by the end of 2017, but will now be pushed back again until after a transition deal between the UK and the EU has been agreed.
The delay prolongs uncertainty over the Government’s intentions in relation to people entering the UK after Brexit and was condemned by “hugely frustrated” business groups.
It also means the Government will not have revealed its immigration plans before the next phase of negotiations with Brussels begin in March.
The question of mutual citizens’ rights will be a key issue during the talks, with a leaked document having revealed the Government wants to make it much tougher for EU nationals to settle in the UK after 2021.
The hold-up means a new immigration bill, promised in the Queen’s Speech, is also likely to be delayed.
The Government’s decision to postpone the white paper was the subject of an urgent question in the House of Commons from Labour MP Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee.
Responding, immigration minister Caroline Nokes told MPs there was “plenty of time” to settle the matter of immigration after Brexit.
She said: “We will publish a white paper in the coming months, when the time is right, and of course we will consider how we can update the House as negotiations progress.”
However, Ms Cooper said ministers had promised the paper would be published by the end of last year. She said: “What on earth is going on? I have to say to the minister frankly this is a shambles.
“We know the Prime Minister wants people arriving after 2019 to be treated differently but we have no idea how.
“This is just not good enough keeping Parliament in the dark in this way.”
The former Shadow Home Secretary said ministers had refused to explain how they intend to replace membership of the single market and customs union and the existing free movement arrangements.
“At best ministers are cutting Parliament and the public out of this crucial debate about the future of our country,” she said. “At worst they seem to be stuck in negotiations without having agreed even among themselves what they want to achieve out of them.”
Ms Cooper said there was “an obligation on the Home Office to tell the House, tell the public, tell EU citizens and tell employers what their negotiating objectives actually are”.
She added: “There are practical questions that need answering soon – not in good time, not when the time is right, but very soon.”
“The clock is ticking and when you are running out of time you cannot keep kicking the can down the road.”
Ms Nokes hit back: “We are not kicking the can down the road, what we are making sure we do is get a system that is right for people.
“It is absolutely imperative that when we come to the House with a white paper and indeed with an immigration bill, that they are the right pieces of legislation.”
Speaking before the delay was confirmed, Josh Hardie, the Deputy Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), warned: “Businesses will be hugely frustrated by rumours that the Government won’t reveal their plans on staff mobility until the last minute. From tech start-ups to care homes, not knowing what staff you will be able to access will deter investment.
“Firms need time to plan for change and that is why many will be deeply disappointed by any delays to the White Paper.
“It is perfectly possible to be clear on people’s rights to work in the UK, for the transition period at least.
“The Government should commit now that people’s rights to work won’t change over the first two years from our date of departure from the EU.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are considering a range of options for the future immigration system and will set out initial plans in the coming months. In December, we reached a deal with the EU on citizens’ rights – and our priority now must be to agree the detail of the implementation period.”
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