With Government ministers saying the transition period could be as much as five years, the Prime Minister’s words have led to warnings of a “national disaster” if she does not take swift action to end free movement with fears raised that Mrs May is “backsliding” on a key issue.
Controlling Britain’s borders was a crucial part of the historic Leave vote on 23 June last year, but the Prime Minister has already disappointed many by not making the triggering of Article 50 the moment free movement ends.
And currently, net migration to the UK is running at 273,000 last year, with more than half coming from EU countries.
It means Britain is adding the equivalent to a city the size of Newcastle each year.
While, Mrs May used the trip to insist she will work towards getting the number down to the “tens of thousands” which she described as sustainable, she was less clear on when she will end the automatic right of EU citizens to settle permanently in the UK.
Answering a question by the Daily Express on her tour of the Middle East, Mrs May said: “In terms of the deal that will be negotiated and the arrangements which come from there we have talked about what you called a transitional period by I call an implementation period.
“You think about it, once we have got the deal and once we have agreed on the new relationship for the future it will be necessary for there to be a period of time when businesses and governments are adjusting systems and so forth. Depending on the nature of the deal there will be a period of time when it is being implemented.”
She added: “What is crucial that the British public as part of the vote that we took last year that they wanted to be sure that we have control of our borders and control of our immigration and that is exactly what we will have when we come out of the EU.”
Ukip leader Paul Nuttall accused Mrs May, who as Home Secretary oversaw record levels of immigration, of “backsliding” on free movement.
He said: “The back sliding is in full swing and Theresa May is no longer able to hide it.
“By voting to leave the EU the British people asked the government to reduce the high levels of immigration that see a city the size of Hull and Newcastle come to the UK each year.
“The Prime Minister has finally given an answer to that question, and it’s a clear ‘no’.”
He went on: “Businesses across the UK can already start to prepare for a time when open-door immigration will not exist, they do not need a transitional or implementation period.
“The fact that the Tories won’t even specify how long the period of open-door immigration will continue after we have left the EU, sets alarm bells ringing and lets the cat out of the bag that they are happy to see wage compression continue for Britain’s lowest paid workers.
“The mask is slipping and everyone can now see they are big on rhetoric but small on reality, they are still the party for big business and low wages.”
Campaign group Leave Means Leave has warned that there could be a surge of migrants from the EU coming to claim citizenship rights before a cut off point.
Richard Tice, co-chairman of Leave Means Leave said: “We have serious concerns about EU immigration in the period between now and when Britain formally leaves the EU.
“Citizens across the EU are only too aware that freedom of movement into Britain will cease at the end of March 2019. Unless a cut-off point is set now, our borders will remain open to every single citizen in the EU.
“If the Prime Minister fails to set a cut-off point on immigration, Britain must prepare for a crisis as around 1.25 million extra EU migrants will likely move to Britain in the next two years and our public services, transport and housing stock which is already at breaking point will not be able to cope.”
He went on: “The Government should be doing more urgently to upskill the 826,000 young British NEETS, not encouraging cheap, low skilled labour, mainly from Eastern Europe.
“We urge the Prime Minister to announce a cut-off point immediately to avert an impending national disaster.”
Meanwhile senior Tory MP Sir Bill Cash, a leading Brexit campaigner, warned “there cannot be any overlap” and said a new immigration bill will be needed.
Alp Mehmet, vice chairman of Migration Watch, last nightTUES urged the Prime Minister to think again – insisting it was “essential” controls came in at the end of March 2019.
He said: “We believe at the point of departure at the very least EU migrants looking for work should not be allowed in.
“The reason so many people voted out was because they wanted controls on immigration. It’s absolutely essential that immigration from the EU is controlled at the very first opportunity and that is 29 March 2019.”
The row broke out as the Prime Minister defended her decision to warn the EU that there would be consequences for defence and security if it drags its feet on agreeing a post Brexit relationship.
Mrs May told Sky News: “On the security issue, there is a very practical reason for raising it in the letter. We are currently a member of certain programmes and certain systems around Europe that help us to co-operate on exchanging information about terrorists, but also about criminals.
“Once we leave the EU our membership of those systems lapses, so it’s right that as part of the negotiations we will be talking to the European Union about how we can continue with those arrangements. It’s in our interests, it’s also in theirs.”
She also insisted she is confident of getting a deal in the short time frame.
Asked if she believed it could be done within two years, she replied: “Yes.”
April 4th, 2017: Express