With free movement now set to end abruptly on 31 October, the Home Office remains unable to answer key questions
Following the announcement that freedom of movement between the UK and EU will end abruptly on 31 October, the government remains unable to answer key questions about what this means for EU citizens yet to apply for or be granted settled status.
In a “media factsheet” issued last week, the Home Office reiterated that, despite the imminent end to free movement, EU nationals resident in the UK before 31 October will still have “until at least 31 December 2020 to apply” for settled status.
The department added that, even if they have not yet applied to the scheme, “no one eligible for status will be barred from re-entering the UK when free movement ends”.
But it is not clear whether EU citizens without settled status who return to the UK from a trip abroad after 31 October will require only their passport – as is currently the case – or will need any additional forms of physical or digital documentation.
Just a few weeks ago, in its response to a Home Affairs Select Committee report, the government reiterated that European citizens would be able to continue to use a passport or national identity card as evidence of their legal status in the UK until “a new border and immigration system is introduced in 2021”.
But the deadline for implementing such a system has now seemingly been brought forward to little more than two months from now. What this means for the status of EU citizens yet to apply to the settlement scheme is unclear.
A number of people have reported that staff on government helplines have advised them that, if they plan to travel overseas and return after 31 October, they should take with them some proof of residence – such as a council tax or utility bill – to ensure their smooth passage across the border if they return to the UK without evidence of settled status.
The Home Office indicated to Civil Service World’s sister title PublicTechnology that such advice was not based on official guidance or policy and had been given in error. But the department was unable to say whether EU citizens will need to carry any additional documentation beyond their passport, only that details of new arrangements – including what documentation should be presented at the border after 31 October – will be released in due course.
The suggestion that that this sounded like a passport alone would no longer be sufficient was described as an assumption by the Home Office.
A spokesperson for the Home Office added: “EU citizens and their families still have until at least December 2020 to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme and one million people have already been granted status. Freedom of movement as it currently stands will end on 31 October when the UK leaves the EU, and after Brexit the government will introduce a new, fairer immigration system that prioritises skills and what people can contribute to the UK, rather than where they come from.”
Nazek Ramadan, director of advocacy group Migrant Voice, said the announcement that free movement will end on 31 October is “potentially catastrophic”.
“As part of a Home Office working group on this issue, we have seen over the last three years that the government has taken on board suggestions from organisations such as ourselves and made positive changes to the settled status scheme as a result," she said. "However, their communication on the matter has fallen woefully short of what is needed. While they have provided reassurance that if freedom of movement does end on 31 October, any EU nationals already residing in the UK at that point will still be here legally and will remain eligible for all their existing rights (whether they have applied for settled status or not), they have failed to answer the biggest question of all.
"That is, how will this country’s employers, landlords, doctors – forced by the state’s hostile environment to act as border guards and check the immigration status of their employees, tenants and patients – be able to distinguish between EU nationals already residing here and those newly arrived?”
Ramadan said that, in this situation, there were not only “potentially disastrous repercussions at airports across the country as EU nationals try to return home”, but also a risk of citizens being denied healthcare, accommodation, or employment.
A settled story
EU citizens who have been granted settled status to remain in the UK have only digital evidence of their status. The Home Office has remained committed to a digital-only system despite repeated calls to introduce some form of physical documentation.
Select committees from both the House of Lords and the House of Commons have instructed the government to begin issuing physical documents to settled status applicants – and retroactively to those who have already applied – as a matter of urgency. Both MPs and Lords have warned that the current system risks repeating the suffering caused by the Windrush scandal.
"How will this country’s employers, landlords, doctors – forced by the state’s hostile environment to act as border guards and check the immigration status of their employees, tenants and patients – be able to distinguish between EU nationals already residing here and those newly arrived?"
Nazek Ramadan, Migrant Voice
But the Home Office has stood its ground.
Last month it reiterated its opposition to issuing physical proof of status. The department said that such documents “may be lost or stolen or become out of date very quickly… [and] there are circumstances in which an individual’s status document can be controlled by another person”.
Under the digital system, once a person has been granted status, this information is recorded in individual user profiles stored on Home Office databases. Users can access their profile online by entering their passport number and date of birth, after which a one-off code will be sent to their email address or phone. The user can enter this code – or pass it on to potential employers or public-services providers – to demonstrate their status.
The lack of physical status documentation is one of several controversies and criticisms to have beset the settled status scheme since its inception last year.
The Home Office has faced criticism since it was first discovered in 2018 that the document check app allowing users to scan their passports or identity documents would only be available on Android tablets and smartphones. Although testing began on Apple devices earlier this summer, this remains the case. Users without access to an Android device are advised to borrow one belonging to a friend and, if this is not possible, they can post their passport to officials or bring it to one of a number of scanning locations around the UK.
Some users have reported problems with the online service, and an independent assessment carried out earlier this year by the chief inspector of borders and immigration David Bolt questioned whether the Home Office had conducted “robust tests of the relevant systems and processes”. Last month, the Home Office acknowledged that “a very small minority of applicants have experienced some issues” with the service.
In April, the department also accidentally leaked personal data of 240 settled status applicants after officials failed to correctly use the ‘bcc’ function on a mass email. In light of the incident, the department said it had put in place new and “strict controls” on digital communications.
Migrant Voice has recently conducted research, and Ramadan said that “dozens of EU nationals have told us that they haven’t applied for settled status yet, because they do not trust that the Home Office will handle their application fairly, that their data will be protected, or even that settled status means anything at all”.
She added: “This week’s news – which marks a significant shift from earlier plans for a transition period – will only exacerbate that mistrust.”
Anne Stoltenberg, project development manager at the non-profit group, which seeks to help migrant communities develop skills, said that “the settled status application is working well for many… and is much simpler than many application processes other migrants have had to go through for years”.
"Freedom of movement as it currently stands will end on 31 October when the UK leaves the EU, and after Brexit the government will introduce a new, fairer immigration system that prioritises skills and what people can contribute to the UK, rather than where they come from.”
Home Office spokesperson
“But I also know the many individuals and groups who have a more difficult time applying, [such as] family members of EU nationals, children in care, some pensioners, and many others,” the Danish national UK resident added. “What has surprised me are the many examples in our survey of the technical glitches in the system, from issues with the app that scans passports to the online form itself. Some people are finding that even though they have lived, worked, paid taxes and mortgages here, the system ‘can’t find the data’. There are also issues with the appointment system for those who need to submit additional documents as evidence. There are still many technical issues to work out."
For its part, the Home Office has stressed that a million people have applied to the scheme so far – none of whom have seen their applications rejected.
Statistics published by the department last month showed that 121,000 applied during June. As of the end of that month, 909,300 applications had been received by the government.
Of the 805,000 applicants who had completed the process, 65% were granted settled status and 35% pre-settled status, according to the data.
But even this figure would still mean a vast majority of the country’s EU citizens are yet to be granted any kind of status; figures published this month by the Office for National Statistics showed that 3.64 million people born in the rest of the EU currently reside in the UK.