27/06/2017 05:38 SAST | Updated 27/06/2017 05:39 SAST

Behind The Soundbites, The Government Is Taking Away EU Citizens' Rights

It's been a year and four days since the UK voted to leave the EU.

That's 369 days of confusion and worry for the millions plunged into uncertainty about whether they can keep living in the country where they've built their lives.

They've faced a spike in hate crime and been used as bargaining chips by those in power - those lucky enough not to have to worry about where they'll be living in a few months' time, or whether they should start looking for new homes and new jobs.

If recent reports are right, it was our Prime Minister who blocked a move to secure their rights early on.

But on Monday, in the Commons, Theresa May struck a different tone. Describing the status of EU citizens as a "priority", she got around to explaining what their futures here might look like.

It's the first time this fledgling Government has attempted to put any real meat on the bones of its plans for the human beings at the heart of Brexit. And - if Theresa May's proposals are anything to go by - protecting our rights is far from a priority.

Behind the polished soundbites, the plans published yesterday will take away EU citizens' rights - it's as simple as that. It was the starting pistol on what, if we're not careful, will become a race to the bottom.

At the moment, EU citizens with the right to live in the UK can bring their closest family members over to join them here.

After Brexit, if an EU national wants to join a spouse or parent here - even if their loved one has the so-called "settled status" trumpeted by Theresa May on Monday - they will find it a whole lot harder.

That's because they will be subject to the same oppressive immigration rules our Government has long inflicted on others wishing to join family members here: a regime that makes a mockery of respect for human rights, compassion and basic decency - everything our politics should be built on.

Under our system, UK residents have to prove they earn at least £18,600 - more than a full-time worker on the minimum wage - before they can be reunited with family members. And if the husband or mum or daughter hoping to join them can't pass an English test, they won't be allowed to come.

Liberty has long campaigned against this violation of British people's rights - but instead of rectifying it, the Government intends to set it in stone - placing EU citizens in the same situation.

Theresa May claimed that she won't be "separating families". That might be true - in the clever way it's worded. In reality, she will be keeping them apart.

Every EU citizen who wants to stay here after Brexit will have to pay a fee to apply for "settled status" - even if they've already been granted the right to remain here permanently. As part of this process, they'll be forced to hand over their biometric information - things like fingerprints.

In return, they'll get a sort of ID card that they'll have to show every time they use a public service, try to rent a home, or even apply for a bank account.

It's a worrying plan that could do much to compound the borders already built into every corner of British life by successive immigration-obsessed governments. This "settled status" register can't be allowed to become yet another privacy-destroying dragnet for millions of people's sensitive personal data - another potential goldmine for criminal hackers and foreign regimes.

The canvas of post-Brexit Britain still looks startlingly bare a year on. On Monday, the picture became a little bit clearer - and so far it's not pretty.

This is a time of change, which means it's a chance for national soul-searching about the type of country we want to be and the future we want to build.

One with two tiers of citizens, first class and second class - where family life becomes a privilege for those who can afford it? Or one where we cement fundamental rights and freedoms deep into our political system and are proud to be a society that treats its citizens with basic decency and respect?

I know which I'd choose - and Liberty intends to fight for it.

Martha Spurrier is director of Liberty