A parliamentary committee has raised concerns that the settlement scheme for EU nationals is overly reliant on digital and online platforms, and warned that the lack of physical documentation provided to citizens has “clear parallels” with the Windrush scandal.
Baroness Kennedy, chair of the House of Lords EU Justice Sub-Committee, has written to home secretary Sajid Javid to flag up the committee’s “four key areas of concern” regarding the programme. Several of these relate to its predominant – or even exclusive – use of digital, rather than physical, means to promote and deliver the scheme.
One of the committee’s worries is the lack of hard-copy documentation provided to those granted settled status. Providing only electronic proof of status may negatively impact those who lack confidence with digital technology and, the committee said, could also pose a problem if evidence of settled status is required during interactions with the emergency services. It might also disadvantage EU nationals applying for jobs or services if the organisation receiving the application deems it “too complicated or troublesome to engage with electronic systems”, according to the committee.
Lords also warned that a technology failure or cyberattack could leave EU citizens “in limbo, unable to assert their rights”.
“Without physical proof of status, EU/EEA nationals living in the UK could find it hard in some circumstances to access services; and in the worst case they could find it difficult to prove their status in a future dispute with the Home Office,” the committee said. “Given the clear parallels with lack of documents contributing to the Windrush scandal, and the fear that this causes for EU/EEA citizens, the Home Office must provide physical documentation.”
The application process is also overly focused on digital platforms, the Lords warned – particularly given that “applicants are worried about the traditional routes”. The committee noted that visiting a Home Office building is a drain on applicants’ time and money, while posting documents for verification “leaves them vulnerable for a period of weeks if asked to prove their identity, and for longer, should the documents be lost in the post or in the Home Office”.
A more proactive approach
The committee welcomed the establishment of document-scanning centres and funding for community groups and local government to provide assisted digital support, but urged the Home Office to take a more “proactive” approach to ensuring EU citizens are aware of the scheme and able to meet its requirements.
“We recommend that the Home Office provides accessible application centres for anyone who would like assistance with their application, including administrative advice about answering the questions and what type of evidence to select, and technical assistance with scanning passports or uploading other documentation,” Lords said. “These centres could be mobile, visiting key locations including large employers’ sites and rural areas that are not well served by public transport; or they could be located in key buildings (much like polling stations) in each constituency that is home to large numbers of EU/EEA nationals. The infrastructure and staffing would need be similar to that provided for elections: the aim is of a similar importance for citizens’ rights.”
Lords also urged Javid to expand promotion of the scheme beyond online channels, and utilise “advertising in jobcentres, NHS facilities, universities and public transport networks, and via billboards, radio and television”.
The committee added: “It is clear from our engagement with officials from EU/EEA countries that it is felt that online advertising is not going to be a suitable way of engaging with vulnerable and harder-to-reach citizens. This includes some elderly citizens who are long-standing UK residents, who resist the notion that they have to apply and who may not see online advertisements.”
The Home Office should also consider the implementation of “a systematic scheme to move people from pre-settled status to settled status”, the committee said.
“Instead, the onus appears to be on the individual to provide an update whenever their details or circumstances change and to then re-apply for settled status when they can prove residence for a five-year period,” it added. “Our concern is that having obtained pre-settled status, individuals may not realise that they would then have to re-apply, potentially many years later.”
The Home Office indicated that it is not using hard-copy documents because they were more vulnerable open to fraud, loss, or theft. It added that it uses a range of cybersecurity measures to ensure the safety of digital data.
A spokesperson for the department added: "EU citizens are our friends, family and neighbours and the government has been clear that we want them to stay, whether we reach a deal or not. The EU Settlement Scheme will ensure that all EU citizens living in the UK will have an individual electronic status granted by the Home Office which they can view as soon as they get a decision on their application and use as evidence to demonstrate their right to work, housing and benefits. It will be as simple as possible for EU citizens to get the status they need. They will only need to complete three key steps - prove their identity, show that that they live in the UK, and declare any criminal convictions. No one will be left behind. We are working in partnership with vulnerable group representatives, local authorities and other experts to make sure we reach everyone.”