A committee of MPs has warned that, unless a range of serious issues are addressed, the EU settlement scheme will turn into a repeat of the Windrush scandal.
A report published today by the Home Affairs Committee repeatedly warns that problems with the design and implementation of the settled status programme could, ultimately, result in EU nationals suffering similar “hardship and injustice” to that experienced last year by thousands of members of the Windrush generation. The report includes a 10-page section dedicated to answering the question: “Has the government learned from the Windrush scandal?”
To avoid such a scenario, the committee makes the following recommendations:
- The rights of EU citizens legally residing in the UK before Brexit should be enshrined in law. These rights – which should be granted regardless of whether the UK leaves the EU with or without a deal – must include the right to remain in the country permanently
- The scheme should offer physical documents allowing applicants to demonstrate their status. Currently only a digital system is available
- Improvements should be made to an application system that the committee said has been “blighted by technical issues”
- The programme needs to offer more support to help children and vulnerable adults to apply
- The government must clarify what will happen to those who fail to apply before the deadline of 31 December 2020
Labour MP Yvette Cooper, who chairs the committee, said the scheme's rollout thus far has shown the government is not “learning the lessons from the Windrush scandal”.
“The problems faced by the Windrush generation showed how easily individuals can fall through gaps in the system through no fault of their own and how easily lives can be destroyed if the government gets this wrong. Too many people could be missed out under the current plans for the settlement scheme arrangements – including children or the elderly who have lived here many years. The government should enshrine people’s rights in law, so they are protected rather than putting them at risk from problems with the bureaucratic process.”
In response, a Home Office spokesperson said that the department “disagrees with the committee’s assessment of the scheme”, which it said is “performing well, with more than 600,000 applications received by the end of April and hundreds of thousands of people already being granted status”.
“The scheme protects the rights of EU citizens in UK law and gives them a secure digital status which, unlike a physical document, cannot be lost, stolen or tampered with,” the spokesperson said. “A declaratory system – that means EU citizens are not required to obtain status and evidence of this – risks causing confusion especially for the most vulnerable, and could in years to come find people struggling to prove their status.”
They added: “We have taken great care to learn from the experience of the Windrush generation. It’s part of the reason why there are 200 assisted digital locations across the UK to help EU citizens apply, dedicated staff in our Settlement Resolution Centre and £9m available for 57 organisations across the UK to support an estimated 200,000 vulnerable people to apply.”
The technology and digital platforms that underpin the settlement scheme came under close scrutiny in the report, which said that “numerous technical difficulties” emerged during the pilot phases of the programme
“Disappointingly, technical difficulties continued to be an issue for applicants after the scheme publicly opened,” the report said. “Media reports highlighted that many people encountered error messages when attempting to use the online service and had to repeatedly call Home Office helplines for assistance.”
It added: “The government must, as a matter of urgency, investigate and remedy the technical issues applicants are reporting when attempting to use online Home Office systems.”
Even if the system runs flawlessly, the committee said that relying so heavily on an online process risks disenfranchising those without the necessary skills or equipment.
People with low levels of literacy, limited English, limited IT skills, and lack of access to smartphones or adequate internet access are among those who may "struggle or fail to apply", it said.
MPs also identified a number of issues with the document check app – which has been dogged by criticism since it emerged in April 2018 that it would only work fully on Android devices, and not on iPhones or iPads. This is due to Apple’s policy of barring third-party applications from accessing the contactless near-field communication capability of its devices.
The government has previously indicated that it is working with Apple to find a solution, and expects to be able to make the document check app fully available on iPhones by the end of 2019.
The committee said it was "disappointed" at the lack of an Apple app, which it called a "barrier for a large number of applicants” and said government should expedite the process.
EU citizens using the Android version have also “have encountered difficulties in using the app”, the committee found.
“These include: the process taking several hours and attempts on multiple different phones; finding the system cannot confirm their identity or history despite having continuous residency or employment records; [and] the app failing to read information despite up-to-date devices and documents,” the report said.
For those without access to an Android phone – and who do not wish to send their documents through the post – the government has set up a network of 65 locations around the UK where documents can be scanned. Many of these are in local register offices.
The report welcomed the establishment of these facilities, but said that they should no longer place a financial burden on either applicants or the local councils responsible for providing the locations.
“We are disappointed that applicants are still charged for using these services, and that there does not appear to be a standard charge, meaning that some applicants may have to spend more than others to complete the same process,” the report said.
“We call on the government to scrap the fees currently charged to applicants using one of the ID document-scanning centres and to reimburse local authority centres for any costs they may have incurred in providing these services for the government.”