Home Office looks into proposals for physical status documents for EU citizens

Officials meet with campaigners despite long-term opposition to hard-copy documents
Credit: David Pearson

By Sam Trendall

16 Aug 2021

The Home Office has indicated it is assessing the “feasibility” of proposals that would enable EU citizens to demonstrate their right to live and work in the UK with a physical ID card.

Since the Settlement Scheme for EU nationals launched in 2019, the department has remained steadfastly opposed to issuing any form of physical status document for successful applicants. This is despite frequent criticism from across the political spectrum – including several parliamentary committees that have warned of parallels with the Windrush scandal – and from various civil society groups.

The3million group, which seeks to represent and protect the rights of EU citizens in the UK, has been among the most vocal critics of the current digital-only system.

The campaign organisation has also put together detailed proposals for a system of digital and physical documentation that it believes would better service not only settled-status holders, but also the government and the many organisations – such as employers, landlords, and banks – that are now required to check the immigration status of millions more people.

The plan put forward by the3million – and currently being considered by the Home Office – is built on secure QR codes, an existing technology that the group claims could be deployed easily and at low cost. Codes, which could be issued both digitally and on documents or cards, would contain encrypted details of the status-holder – including their photo.

The system would hinge on the use of public and private keys. A private key would allow the Home Office to include a digital signature that could not be replicated by anyone outside the department.

Secure QR codes cannot be decrypted using a generic smartphone scanner app – only by using the applicable public key, which the Home Office could issue via an app that could be downloaded solely from the department’s website, or from a clearly labelled Home Office account on an app store.

Monique Hawkins, policy and research officer at the campaign group, told CSW’s sister publication PublicTechnology: “When the card is scanned, you would see two bits of information: one that is definitely generated by the Home Office; and two, the [user’s] original information [encrypted] inside the code – name, address, photograph. And you can then see that it matches what is on the rest of the card. If I steal a QR code from someone else and use it to manufacture a card… as soon as someone scans the code, they will know.”

Following a successful lobbying campaign, Home Office ministers set up a meeting between civil servants at the department and the3million in June so the campaign group could outline its proposals.

PublicTechnology asked the Home Office whether it was actively considering the proposals, and what might happen next.

A spokesperson said: “As would be expected, we regularly engage with stakeholders to consider their suggestions and assess their feasibility. Any proposal to change digital status must ensure that users’ data is secure and verifiable, that images can be included and that checking organisations such as employers and landlords have confidence in the data.”

The current system for demonstrating settled status requires the status-holder to enter their passport number and date of birth via a GOV.UK platform, after which they will receive a text message or email containing a share code, which can then be provided to the organisation performing the status check.

The Home Office has long maintained that this digital-only process – which is the first step towards its ambition of a paperless immigration system – is more secure than using hard-copy documents, which the department has often stressed can be lost, stolen, or controlled by another person.

But the3million has pointed out that its plan shares key similarities with the NHS Covid Pass system of vaccine certification, which provides NHS App users with a digital secure QR code that can be displayed on their phone – but also offers the option of downloading a printable PDF file. Those without access to connected devices can also request a paper copy to be sent to them.

Sam Trendall is editor of CSW’s sister title PublicTechnology. Click here to read much more about the proposals for a new system for settled status holders – and the issues faced by users of the current system 

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