“I wondered: what’s going on – do they not know what they are doing?”
This was the reaction of Kai upon his recent receipt of a letter from the Home Office. It warned him that, without swift action, he could face the cessation of benefit payments – and even the removal of his right to live and work in this country.
Last month Kai, whose surname we will not use in this story, was one of thousands of people around the country to receive the letter in question, which bore an HM Government insignia, above a web address for a GOV.UK page – the page at which citizens can start an application for settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme.
The letter told recipients: “Our records indicate you are an EU, EEA or Swiss citizen living in the UK and you may not have valid UK immigration status; and have not applied to the EUSS.”
However, Kai was one of many people to report receiving the letter despite having been granted settled status as far back as 2019. In his case, it was awarded earlier this year, months in advance of the 30 June deadline for applications.
And, even though the error is clearly on the part of the government, anyone who was sent the letter despite already holding settled status – or even British citizenship – is instructed to contact the Home Office within 28 days of the date of the letter: 9 August. This can be done via a helpline that is open from 9.30pm to 4.30pm on Monday to Friday.
Recipients are advised that they must do in order that “the Home Office can update our records and ensure we do not contact you again, and we do not take any further action with regard to any benefit payments”.
It is understood that those who were written to were identified via a data-matching exercise in which the Home Office cross-referenced its information against benefit claimant data from the Department for Work and Pensions and HM Revenue and Customs.
The Home Office has indicated it “will notify DWP and HMRC of those they have contacted in this mailout who have still not applied” – raising the possibility that recipients of the letter, including those who may hold settled status, may see their benefits stopped.
The DWP wrote to revenue and benefit managers across local authorities on 2 July to advise them of a data-matching exercise – which the department said followed a similar initiative in the spring.
“In March 2021, the Home Office ran a scan of current HB (housing benefit) claimants against Home Office data to identify any EEA and Swiss nationals who do not have an EUSS status,” the DWP letter said. “Letters were then issued through automatic mailing between 14 May 2021 to 28 May 2021 to those claimants informing them of the need to apply for a status before the end of the grace period.”
That grace period concluded on 30 June, at which point applications to the EU settlement scheme closed. The following day, the Home Office once again ran a check of benefit-claimant data.
“On 1 July 2021, a further data match exercise was conducted by the Home Office,” the DWP told local council revenue and benefit managers. “The Home Office will now write to all EEA and Swiss nationals who have still not applied for their EUSS status and prompt the customer to urgently contact the Home Office and apply or risk their benefit payments being stopped. The data matching letters are due to be issued mid-July 2021 by automatic mailing to all DWP and HB claimants who have not applied to EUSS.”
And, evidently, some of those who have applied – successfully.
Kai told Civil Service World's sister title PublicTechnology that both he and his wife received letters warning them of the need to apply to the settlement scheme or risk the loss of benefits and rights.
He quickly rang the helpline to advise the Home Office to correct its records. After a 30-minute wait, he was put through to someone who asked a wide range of security questions, including settled status number and National Insurance number but, according to Kai, “struggled to understand what I was saying”.
Eventually this process completed though.
“Then, when I asked why I had been sent the letter, the phone disconnected,” he says.
The second time Kai rang up, the wait for assistance was two hours. This time there were far fewer security questions – and the helpline operative indicated that they did not require further checks to update records not only for Kai, but for his wife too.
“I assumed they would want to talk to my wife, but they had no interest in doing so,” he says.
Kai was also told that his two sons could expect to receive a similar letter in the near future – but they have not yet done so. It is not clear to the family whether the telephone agent misspoke – or whether government records accurately reflect that they all have the right to live and work in the UK.
He says the experience has been “unsettling and very stressful”, and is the latest in a number of errors and contradictory statements he has encountered throughout the process of obtaining settled status.
‘Anxiety and panic’
Advocacy group the3million wrote to the Home Office on 23 August to express concerns “about the nature and content of the letter”.
In line with Kai’s testimony, the3million said that “the helpline is reportedly extremely busy, with many people telling us they simply could not get through even to get into the initial queue”.
“Others who did get through told us they waited for over an hour on hold before they could speak to someone,” it added. “The helpline has very restricted opening hours for something so urgent; 09:30-16:30 is a short working day, and the helpline is not available on weekends. This completely fails to cater for someone who is employed and is not able to spend time on extremely lengthy telephone calls during working hours.”
The letter implores the Home Office to “urgently increase staffing resources” for the helpline.
The campaign organisation also told the Home Office that “28 days is a very short timeframe, cut even shorter by the very delayed arrival of the letter many,” adding that “the letter was sent in August, which is not only a peak holiday time but moreover the first time many EEA/Swiss citizens will have been able to visit family in their countries of origin after lengthy Covid-19 related restrictions”.
Among the other major issues raised by the campaign group was the prospect that people without settled status could be deprived of benefits or access to services.
Also “people with immigration status or British nationality are being made responsible for correcting Home Office data sets or face potential termination of benefits and loss of access to services”.
The3million told the Home Office that “the letter is justifiably being treated as a scam phishing exercise by many”. The department is asked to “immediately publish prominent information on the EU Settlement Scheme pages about the authenticity of this letter”.
And, for those who received the communication in error and have tried to ring the department to set the record straight, “the timeline and helpline provided is creating anxiety and panic”.
“These groups will inevitably include people with disabilities, including impaired mental capacity, who needed help applying to the EUSS but may not understand this letter telling them to take this additional action to prevent loss of benefits,” said the3million in its letter. “For people who have already gone through a process to obtain immigration status or British citizenship, it is not acceptable that the onus is on them to successfully respond to a letter – that was sent to them in error – in order to avoid loss of rights.”
The missive asks the Home Office: “What measures are you putting in place to prevent DWP from making a decision to terminate benefits for these people, including if they do not respond to this letter?”
The3million also writes that it has received reports of people receiving duplicate letters that appear to have been sent as a result of recipients being identified by each of the two separate data-matching exercises, related to HMRC and DWP data.
“Neither letter anticipates that people may receive both letters,” the group said.
In a previous letter to the Home Office, sent on 18 August, the3million asked that the department provided details of any equality impact assessments that have been conducted concerning the communications “the government’s communications strategy, and wider decision-making regarding suspension/termination of benefits for EU citizens who have not applied to the EUSS”.
Although not explicitly required by law, equality impact assessments are the primary means through which the public sector can ascertain – and demonstrate – that policies, programmes, and services comply with obligations under equality law, and do not disproportionately affect anyone with protected characteristics.
Both letters from the3million asked that the Home Office respond to the group by 4pm on 31 August to address its questions and concerns. That deadline has come and gone, and the department is yet to do so.
PublicTechnology also contacted the department and asked for details of any equality impact assessment undertaken in respect of the recent letter-writing exercise.
It did not comment on this, nor on the issue of people being wrongly contacted – and then being asked to respond to the government to correct its information, or risk losing their benefits.
“We are continuing to grant status through the hugely successful EU Settlement Scheme and to date we have received more than six million applications,” a government spokesperson said. “The Home Office is accepting late applications where there are reasonable grounds for missing the deadline. The government continues to use every possible channel to encourage those who are eligible to apply for the EU Settlement Scheme and secure the status they are entitled to.”
They added: “In May, letters were sent out to individuals giving them step by step, practical advice on how to apply, which helped signpost thousands of people to the EU Settlement Scheme. Further letters have been sent to EU, EEA, and Swiss citizens who may still need to apply to let them know how to put in a late application.”
The Home Office further indicated the government has found the letters to be an effective means of reaching people “who we do not believe have applied [to EUSS] to give them the support needed to go through the process”.
For some, it may have started to seem like that process will never come to an end.
Sam Trendall is editor of Civil Service World's sister title Public Technology, where a version of this article first appeared