The Home Office saw the EU settlement scheme as an opportunity to rehabilitate its image and develop a “fresh culture” of looking for reasons to grant rather than refuse applications, according to an independent review that said improvements were needed to several areas of the scheme.
A report published yesterday said senior managers of the scheme, to which EU nationals must apply to live and work in the UK after Brexit, were acutely aware of how the Windrush scandal had affected perceptions of the Home Office.
The review, carried out by independent chief inspector of borders and immigration David Bolt, examined the scheme’s development up to the conclusion of the second private beta phase in January.
Bolt said that “against a climate of mistrust of its intentions and its competence, it is not lost on the Home Office that the scheme is also [as well as presenting a logistical challenge] an opportunity to demonstrate what it is capable of achieving with the right resources, appropriate input from other government departments and ministerial support for a new (‘looking to grant’) approach.”
The review found there was a concerted effort by the department to ensure applicants felt their cases were handled “right first time”.
It also showed the majority of staff working on the scheme were new recruits, Bolt’s report found.
This added up to just over 1,800 full-time equivalent staff in total: 1,537 on casework and 266 in the resolution centre.
“Recruitment on such a scale is unusual for the Home Office, but managers saw it as an opportunity to develop a fresh culture in these business areas, one that reflected the aim of ‘looking to grant, not for reasons to refuse’,” the inspection found.
All staff received training on processing applications and queries, including on customer service, as well as an introduction to the civil service in the case of new recruits.
Inspectors identified a strong customer service ethos and found that “without exception”, the staff they spoke to were “enthusiastic about their work and morale was obviously high”.
“Everyone said that they were committed to providing a ‘world class customer service’ and were clear that the aim was to ensure that the decision the applicant received was ‘right first time’,” the report said.
However, it warned that the department must be vigilant in maintaining these “when the scheme is no longer a novelty but has become ‘business as usual’ and the workloads have become more challenging”.
The report found senior managers were acutely aware of how the Windrush scandal had damaged public perceptions of how the Home Office would handle the scheme.
Among those to have drawn parallels between the scheme and the Windrush scandal is the Lords EU Justice Sub Committee, which has said it is “very concerned” about the Home Office’s plan not to issue physical documents as proof of settled status.
But despite being aware of these concerns, the report said it was unclear whether the department had ever had a strategy to tackle any negative publicity.
Some 200,000 people applied to the settled status scheme during the private beta-phase testing, and the review questioned whether this “low” level of take-up meant this qualified as “robust tests of the relevant systems and processes”.
For example, there was little opportunity to stress-test how the system would cope with a large volume of applications, it said. And there were questions about whether the scheme’s ability to handle applications from vulnerable or “non-straightforward” applicants
The take-up also raised concerns about whether enough people who were eligible for the scheme were aware that they needed to apply, it added.
Further potential communication problems were highlighted by the number of times applicants challenged the outcome of their case. More than 100 people challenged the decision to grant “pre-settled status”, which is for EU nationals who have been living in the country for fewer than five years, rather than “settled status”. In other cases, “confusion” arose when applicants believed they already had permanent residence status.
The report urged the Home Office to improve its communication around the scheme, as well as to set out how much the decision to remove the fee for settled status applications would cost the department. Inspectors said they had been unable to assess the impact of this decision.
And it said the Home Office must ensure the IT systems for handling the scheme are up to scratch to allow performance targets to be set for caseworkers and to enable regular reports on the breakdown of applicants and outcomes.
Some of the technology problems identified by inspectors have now been resolved, it said. For example, around 380 applicants encountered a problem whereby HM Revenue and Customs data proving their residence in the UK was not available, resulting in an error message. A ‘save and return’ function has now been added to prevent the same problem in future, the Home Office said.
The report was published the same day as the Home Office published figures showing some 600,000 people have applied to the settlement scheme so far.
The internal review showed more than 200,000 people had applied during the public beta test phase, including 8,152 on the first day. By 16 April 2019, 187,959 of these applications had been decided, of which none have so far been refused, it said.
Of those the beta-phase applications that had been resolved, the Home Office said 69% had been granted settled status and 31% pre-settled status.