The Labour Party is urging the government to extend the deadline for EU citizens applying to remain in the UK, warning they risk creating "a Windrush-style scandal" with thousands of people falling through the cracks.
Paul Blomfield, the Labour MP for Sheffield Central and former shadow Brexit minister, yesterday afternoon used an urgent question to pressure the Home Office to delay by three months the 30 June cut-off for EU settled status applications by three months. He also became the latest public figure to urge the government to rethink its policy of providing EU citizens with only digital evidence of settled status.
“It’s vital that ministers act now, before it’s too late, and they preside over a Windrush-style scandal," the Labour MP for Sheffield Central said. "This is the largest ever mass change of immigration status that the country has seen, and we must ensure no one falls out of status because of bureaucracy or Home Office mistakes."
Kevin Foster, the immigration minister, last week said EU citizens living in the UK who apply for settled status by today deadline, but do not receive a decision from the Home Office by that point, will still have their rights protected.
The government has also said EU citizens who miss the deadline will be able to submit a late application if there is "reasonable grounds" for doing so, but has not offered detail on what those exceptions could be.
But there is widespread concern that with the department grappling with a major backlog in cases — The Guardian said it had 400,000 to handle last week and is receiving up to 12,000 new applications every day — there could still be a crisis of thousands of EU citizens losing rights overnight, with applications submitted late in the process expected to take months to work through.
Anxious EU citizens have recently reported struggling to get through to the Home Office helpline due to sheer volume of calls being received by the department from people trying to secure their status.
The government has been accused of failing to effectively publicise the settled status scheme. A recent survey by the British Landlords Association found that just one in three landlords were aware of the scheme and what it meant to EU citizens trying to access housing in the UK.
There is concern this might result in landlords wrongly turning away EU citizens who want to rent property because their settled status applications are still pending.
Labour is also calling on the government to change its policy so EU citizens are provided with physical proof of their status, not just digital certification, to further ensure they do not encounter obstacles to employment, housing and health care.
"Ministers should also now finally admit that physical proof of status is needed, to make it easier for EU citizens to navigate the many instances in which they will need to evidence their status," Blomfield said.
The government has faced repeated calls over the last few years to ditch its policy of providing only digital status to those that have been granted settled status.
Under the current system, to provide evidence of their status, EU citizens can enter their passport number and date of birth and then a one-off code will be sent to their email address or phone. This code can then be entered – by the user or by, for example, a potential employer or public-services provider – to demonstrate that settled status has been granted.
Once the passport that was used to apply for status has expired, users are encouraged to update their details and provide information on their new passport – although status can still be evidenced with an expired document.
The Home Office has – in the face of concerns repeatedly raised by politicians and civil society organisations – continued to insist that a digital-only system is more secure than issuing hard-copy documents. Indeed, the department revealed last year that it ultimately plans to ditch all physical immigration documents.
Blomfield warned that the Home Office too needed extra time to get on top of the applications, pointing to glitches in the system which have led to people being registered under the wrong name.
"Government must extend the EUSS deadline, and use the time to fix their mistakes, reach out to those who haven’t yet applied, and ensure no one becomes an undocumented migrant overnight through no fault of their own".
Adam Payne is a reporter at CSW's sister publication PoliticsHome, and Sam Trendall is editor of CSW's sister publication PublicTechnology.