Theresa May mustn’t just guarantee rights of the 3 million EU citizens living here. She must also deal with the nitty-gritty of figuring out who can stay – and how to process a mountain of applications. 

report published today by a cross-party inquiry set up by the British Future think-tank offers the prime minister a practical way forward. The inquiry’s recommendations will carry weight because it was chaired by Gisela Stuart, who also chaired the Vote Leave campaign, and includes UKIP’s Suzanne Evans. It cannot be dismissed as the pleadings of “remoaners”.

Of course, before we get to the nitty-gritty, we still need to win the moral argument that the 3 million EU citizens settled in the UK – and the 1.6 million Brits living in the rest of the EU – mustn’t be treated like pawns in the Brexit negotiations. May’s reluctance to make a unilateral gesture of goodwill and insistence instead on a reciprocal deal has provoked the EU to counter that there can be no negotiations on this until we have triggered Article 50. 

In practice, the best we can now hope for is that there will be a statement right at the start of the divorce talks by all leaders that these nearly 5 million people will not be treated as second-class citizens – yet even that cannot be taken for granted. But, in parallel, the government must work on the far from trivial mechanics of determining who can stay. 

First, it will need to decide on a “cut-off” date – the point before which any EU citizen resident here will automatically be allowed to stay. The British Future report suggests that this should be the day on which the government triggers Article 50. 

It then proposes that any “qualified person” who has already been here for five years should be able to apply to stay permanently, and that those who haven’t been here that long should be able to do once they have been here for five years. A qualified person is an EU citizen who is living in the UK because they are employed, self-employed, looking for a job, a student or self-sufficient. Students and self-sufficient people would also need to take out comprehensive health insurance.

Even if the government accepts these suggestions, processing applications could turn into a bureaucratic nightmare. At present, applicants for permanent residence have to fill in an 85-page form and wait an average of six months to get an answer. A third of all applicants are rejected, partly because people can’t produce all the paperwork and partly because some don’t have comprehensive sickness insurance.

Last year only 18,064 people were granted permanent residence. At that rate, it would take 150 years to process 3 million applicants.

Some of British Future’s most important recommendations are about streamlining the process. It wants the Home Office to delegate straightforward cases to local authority Nationality Checking Services. It wants the Home Office to stop refusing applicants if they haven’t taken out comprehensive sickness insurance. And it wants a simple check against tax and welfare databases to be enough to prove a person is “qualified”.

Such proposals seem eminently reasonable. If the Home Office doesn’t like them, it needs to come up with an alternative system that will do the job. Otherwise, it will be drowned in work – and any promise to EU citizens that they remain welcome here will be barely worth the paper it is written on.

InFacts has backed a campaign calling on Theresa May to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK. You can sign the petition here.

by Hugo Dixon | 12.12.2016

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