Two years after the referendum, the government has outlined its plans to let (non British) EU citizens living in the UK continue to reside in the UK. The EU Settlement Scheme should, in theory, allow the three million EU citizens in the UK to live here indefinitely – as long as the government is able to salvage a Brexit deal with the EU. That in turn means resolving the divisions and mess of contradictory ideas within the Conservative party and getting it through Parliament.
The government announced back in 2017 that permanent residency would be replaced with a “Settled Status” scheme. We now know that, under the scheme, EU citizens already resident in the UK are expected to make an online application, pay a fee, provide proof of identity – and upload their facial image via a mobile phone.
Despite government assurances to the contrary, the new process is unlikely to work smoothly for everyone, and in many cases this could have a devastating impact, in particular on some of the most vulnerable.
I have been speaking with organisations that help migrants, including EU migrants, integrate in Yorkshire, to hear about how the EU settlement scheme might impact the people they work with. One such organisation is PATH Yorkshire, a fantastic not-for-profit that helps more vulnerable migrants and marginalised groups move into work and play an active role their local communities. PATH Yorkshire supports around 600 individuals with employability skills, work placements, language teaching, mental health issues and emotional wellbeing. Three out of their four main projects are part-funded through EU grants via the European Social Fund – and they have yet to receive any assurances from either the government or local authorities that these grants will be replaced after March 2019.
Beyond funding issues, they are concerned about what the Settlement Scheme will mean for their service users who originally came from other EU countries. We discussed the three main barriers facing vulnerable EU migrants:
The first issue is that EU citizens simply do not know about, or think they are not affected by, the Settled Status scheme.
Many EU citizens, such as very long-term residents, might not think the scheme applies to their situation. Indeed, the Brexit select committee was recently told that this is the case. Similarly, parents with children who were born in the UK might not realise they still need to register their children, or that if these children are now 18 or over they will need to apply to the scheme themselves.
Some EU migrants are based in remote, rural locations, or do not have access to wifi or a mobile phone. Others may simply not stumble across the information. Daniel Mundet, the Chief Executive of PATH Yorkshire, told me how they have to run outreach programmes so that marginalised EU migrants know that there is support available for them. Government or local authorities would struggle to get the relevant information across to these communities, particularly given current distrust towards the Home Office.
Jessica Thompson, project manager at PATH Yorkshire, said that “so many people are switching off because they think everything will change again between now and March 2019”. Not everyone follows the ups and downs of the Brexit negotiations, and many will simply wait until there is a final deal to look at the detail and react. And we all know what happens to government IT systems when large numbers rush to use them at the same time!
All in all, the government has a huge administrative task ahead if it wants to ensure EU citizens know about the scheme. Indeed, none of the citizens who use PATH Yorkshire’s services had heard of Settled Status when I visited.
The application for Settled Status is set to cost £65 for each adult and £32.50 per child. Staff at PATH Yorkshire say that the prices would be far too high for the most vulnerable of their service users. Although EU migrants overall contribute far more to the UK economy than they take out, and pay more in tax than they receive in benefits and services, there are inevitably still a few who struggle to stay in employment, and the organisation occasionally has to help even for the travel fare for service users to visit them in their offices (around £4.50). The high prices of the application process would be enough to put off some EU citizens from applying in the first place. If, in addition, they have to pay for updated documents or renewed passports from their own country to submit, the costs will be even higher.
The price also opens up further avenues for exploitation. Daniel told me how EU migrants are often tricked into paying a private company to set up a National Insurance number for them, despite the process being entirely free. If the government presses ahead with their pricing system, this sort of exploitation could become more commonplace, as migrants are hoodwinked into paying extortionate fees to have their Settled Status secured.
The European Parliament has already said that the EU Settlement Scheme should be cost-free, considering the potential deterrence effect of high fees. The UK government should agree to this immediately, as a gesture of good faith.
There are also several lingering issues around how EU citizens access the application process. Not all EU citizens have access to computers or an Android phone to use the App (bizarrely the government was unable to make an iPhone App available). Worse still, the App will apparently even struggle to recognise names that do not take a typically British format, such as those with accents or hyphens.
Language barriers will be a factor for those who opt for the non-digital alternative, which has yet to be made available by the government. The government has also failed to indicate how it would help EU citizens in care, with mental health issues or in a precarious living situation. EU citizens without a bank account, or a home with a rental agreement in their own name, might find it difficult to prove their residence, while employers could be put off hiring EU citizens because of the extra paperwork that it would entail.
The government has acknowledged that there will be teething problems with this scheme. They have added an extra six-month grace period to the end of the transition in December 2020 to give EU migrants more time to apply. But even with vast resources and an extensive outreach programme, some people will fall through the cracks in the system.
The Home Office has hardly been reassuring over recent months about its ability to deal with administrative errors. And the failure to ring-fence citizens’ rights in the Brexit negotiations means that the chances of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, and the chaotic legal limbo that would follow, are unacceptably high. Theresa May must urgently address the needs of these vulnerable citizens rather than pandering to the whims of her hard line cabinet ministers.