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I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of the EU Settlement Scheme.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. With the 30 June deadline for applications for the EU settlement scheme fast approaching, I am pleased to have the opportunity to open this debate. I also wish to give my colleagues time to speak, and therefore I will use only some of my time today, not only to remind EU nationals living in the UK to apply for settled status if they have not already done so, but to highlight to the Minister that this scheme is already causing disruption in people’s lives and that this may be the last chance to prevent another Windrush scandal.
The EU settlement scheme was launched in March 2019 as part of the withdrawal agreement. The scheme was trailed by the Department for Exiting the European Union as the method for EU nationals to secure their rights post-Brexit, and to continue to live their lives broadly as they did under freedom of movement. The reality is that being forced to register for rights in the country they call home has caused a great deal of upset and anxiety among many of our European friends, neighbours and constituents. People have been left feeling unwanted, unwelcome, humiliated and angry due to this Government’s heavy-handed approach. For many, it has broken their sense of belonging and eroded their trust in this Government; for others, it has been the final straw, and they have left the UK altogether. This is a sorry state of affairs, considering the benefits that EU nationals bring to the UK: to our economy, our workforce, the NHS, and—most importantly—our culture.
As of the start of this month, there have been 5.6 million applications to the EU settlement scheme. The majority of those applicants, around 4.9 million, have been granted settled or pre-settled status. Settled status guarantees the right to live, work, and remain indefinitely, free of immigration controls, and is available to those who have lived in the UK for more than five years. Pre-settled status offers less definite security, giving permission for five years that will expire, with the expectation that the person will later apply for settled status. The onus for converting pre-settled status to settled status falls on the applicant. There is the potential for people to forget to reapply or to miss that reminder, and in this instance, someone could easily find themselves working illegally and have to go without income while applying to update their status. Will the Minister give consideration to a system of automatic conversion to settled status for those who are pre-settled?
Right now, there is a backlog of more than 300,000 applications still waiting to be cleared by the Home Office. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants has raised concerns that if these applications are still live after the deadline, that will create a legal ambiguity for applicants. Will they be in the country unlawfully while they are waiting on this decision? Can the Minister offer clear guidance on the rights of the tens of thousands of people waiting for a decision, and give his assurances that those will not be affected after the deadline? Perhaps the Minister could allow applicants to avoid this pitfall altogether by taking the advice of the Scottish Government’s Europe Minister, Jenny Gilruth, to extend the deadline.
As of midnight on 30 June, those who have not applied to the scheme will feel the full effect of this Government’s hostile immigration system. That means that people who have lived and worked in the UK legally for years will be criminalised and potentially face a dramatic change in their rights. They will be unable to work or rent; they will be unable to receive NHS treatment free at the point of need; they will be unable to receive welfare benefits or access to other public services, such as housing; and they will be liable to criminal prosecution, detention and removal from the UK.
The Home Office has confirmed that it is aware of those people who are still due to apply to the scheme and will miss the deadline. According to the Home Office guidance, those groups include children, people with care or support needs, victims of domestic abuse, people in poverty, homeless people and rough sleepers, and, in particular, minority groups such as the Roma community. Could the Minister outline in his answers what steps are being taken to support those vulnerable people who his Department already knows will miss the deadline?
The campaign organisation the3million, which has been at the forefront of being a voice for so many people, has reported that even though the application process is still open, EU nationals are already being asked to prove their settled status in a wide range of contexts, contrary to Government guidance. Those asking them to do so include landlords, estate agents, housing agencies, employers, banks, councils, GPs, hospitals, schools, international airports, prior to their boarding a flight, and UK border staff. Those are just some of the many examples. I mention this because it is clear that the people asking for proof of status are unlikely to be specialists in the immigration field and may be unfamiliar with the settled scheme terminology, creating situations ripe for discrimination. As the Minister will be aware, the Court of Appeal ruled in December that those with pre-settled status must be treated on an equal basis with all other claimants when applying for welfare benefits, so will the Minister put it on the record that that must be the case in relation to employers, landlords and all services?
Successful applicants are not given physical proof of their status. Instead, every time someone needs to prove their status, they will have to go through a complex process, involving at least 14 steps, in order to show an online document. The Government’s implementation of covid certification allows people to show their status simply on their phone or to download and print a PDF document. Alternatively, if someone is not digitally literate, they can request a printed version. Allowing a similar physical status document would make life so much easier for those granted settled or pre-settled status. Can the Minister offer a convincing reason why that has not been built into the EU settlement scheme, and will he consider building physical documentation into the system going forward?
The Minister will be aware of the correspondence on behalf of my constituent Jenny Condie. According to her settled status documentation, she is called by her maiden name, Serraf. This is the case for many married European women whose passports list both their married and their maiden names. I understand that it is due to the Home Office taking details from the machine-readable zone of the passport. However, it may raise suspicions when the status documentation does not match any other form of identification. When I asked the Home Office how many women were issued with documentation in their maiden name, the information was not available. I am concerned that women will discover that their documentation is misleading only when they face awkward questions, delays or discrimination when trying to prove their status.
Initially, Jenny was advised by the Home Office to approach the French authorities to have her passport amended, so I am grateful to the Minister for his letter outlining that a process for changing maiden names to married names has been created at the Home Office since I first contacted him about this case. However, Jenny has been unable to have the change carried out. The Home Office requires her to send her physical passport, but she is reluctant to do so, because she is worried that she may need to travel to France if there is an emergency. Should the document get lost in the post, she would need to travel to London for a passport replacement. Those concerns will be replicated for most EU nationals in the same position. When making the application, Jenny only had to send a picture of the document. Will the Minister review the process and either make the change to married names automatic or streamline the process by accepting photographed documents?
In 2016, as part of the Vote Leave campaign, the current Prime Minister and the current Home Secretary issued a commitment that there would be no change for EU citizens already lawfully resident in the UK; those EU citizens would automatically be granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK and would be treated no less favourably than they were at present. The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary respectively not only have failed to uphold that commitment on all counts, but have caused confusion, upset, anxiety and fear, and allowed the dignity of EU citizens to be trampled, through the faulty EU settlement scheme. It was evident when the scheme opened in 2019 that people would fall through the cracks; and now, two weeks before the deadline, the reality could not be clearer.
The Minister today has the opportunity to extend the deadline and avoid a Windrush-style scandal. I wish to allow time for parliamentary colleagues to speak. Therefore I will conclude here: I urge him to take this consideration very seriously.
Thank you, Sir Gary. I thank my hon. Friend and colleague the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) for securing the debate, and I thank her and the Minister for allowing me to speak. I will be quick—I would like to raise just three issues.
First, I am really concerned that certain groups of EU nationals may be forgotten about in all this: the older people and children in the care system who rely on their local authority to act on their behalf and ensure that their claims for settled status are being processed. I and many of my colleagues have written to our local authorities to find out what they are doing to ensure that people in their care have applied. Most are working to ensure that that is done, but inevitably some people will fall through the gaps and lose their right to remain.
Will the Minister tell us what will happen in those cases? If the lack of status means that an EU national is unable to receive NHS treatment, benefits or access to public services, does that mean that people in our care system will be effectively thrown on to the streets? Obviously, as they are in care settings, they are by their very nature vulnerable people who need our help.
I also echo the calls of Jenny Gilruth MSP, the Scottish Government’s Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development, for the deadline to be extended. If the UK Government cannot see fit to extend the deadline for all EU nationals, they must really seriously consider extending it for those vulnerable people whom I have just mentioned.
Secondly, on the lack of physical evidence and the requirement for people to prove their status digitally, which my hon. Friend mentioned, I have been told that the system is already crumbling under the pressure, meaning that websites are crashing and people are simply unable to prove their right to live and work here. It is hardly any wonder given that there are 14 steps to go through. Why not just do what we do with everyone else and give them a piece of paper and a card that they can show to employers?
Aside from the terrible toll that it takes on individuals who are now made to feel like second-class citizens, have the UK Government seriously considered the impact that this system will have on our economy? We are already hearing about how Brexit is affecting access to labour markets for some sectors. Even arch-Brexiteer Tim Martin of Wetherspoon is now moaning that he does not have enough staff, and he is calling for a special dispensation for his industry—or maybe just his pubs. If he of all people is saying that, we know what a terrible impact Brexit must be having. If EU nationals who live and are entitled to work here are unable to prove it quickly or easily, what does that do for the availability of labour?
Finally, I will mention some EU citizens who approached me recently—they were Portuguese, but this could apply to any country. In the last year, they have been having terrible trouble getting in touch with the consulate in the UK to access the essential documentation required to apply for the settlement scheme, and indeed to travel. That appears to have a disproportionate impact on EU citizens living in Scotland. Certainly, in the case of those Portuguese citizens, there is no Portuguese consulate in Scotland; they have to travel to London or Manchester, but for a very long time no cross-border travel was allowed. That and other restrictions have put Portuguese nationals in Scotland in a challenging and stressful position.
I want the Minister to take cognisance of the fact that Portuguese people and those of other nationalities in Scotland may, because of circumstances beyond their control, have some difficulty that those in England do not. If he cannot assist with those issues, will he at least give reassurance that people who have not applied by 30 June for any of the reasons that I have mentioned will not simply be thrown out of the country? I suppose what I am really asking is this: will he do everything in his power to ensure that we do not experience another Windrush?
I thank the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) for securing this important debate, and I thank the Minister for granting me permission to take part.
EU citizens have for decades been tightly woven into the fabric of our society—they are our friends, colleagues, neighbours and families—but for many, their future in this country, which they call home, is at risk. Covid has, as we have heard, exposed and compounded the flaws in the system. One of my constituents wrote to me just this week worried that she will not have any way to prove her status in the country where she has lived for decades. Can the Minister tell my constituent what she can do to prove her status when we have heard so many stories of landlords and employers refusing digital proof? Please, the Government must allow applicants to register for physical proof of status, as we have already heard. Another constituent does not have a smartphone. She needs a scan of her passport, but the scanning centre has been closed for the past 14 months. What is my constituent meant to do?
I pay tribute to the In Limbo Project, which was co-founded by one of my constituents, for its incredible efforts. It has helped many people navigate the pitfalls of the EU settlement scheme. Let us say this again: over 320,000 EU citizens are still facing the cruel anxiety of hoping that the Home Office will grant applications before the cliff edge of the end of this month. That is just two weeks to go. I urge the Minister to extend the 30 June deadline, in line with other countries. The deadline for UK citizens in the Netherlands is 30 September. The UK must show the same understanding. The Government cannot afford to get this wrong; the human cost is far too great.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I hope Members realise that, in the short time I have, I will not be able to cover every issue that has been raised.
I start by thanking the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) for securing the debate. Before I respond to the points that have been made, I want to emphasise at the outset that the Government are fully committed to ensuring that everybody eligible for the EU settlement scheme—EUSS for short—gets the help they need to apply and that they can apply, with extra support provided to the most vulnerable.
My message is twofold. The first is to encourage everyone who is eligible for the scheme and has not yet applied to do so by 30 June. The second part is to reflect on the huge success of the scheme so far, notwithstanding some of the doubts expressed today. By 31 May 2021, more than 5.6 million applications had been received since the scheme’s launch in March 2019. It is continuing to receive and process thousands of applications every day, including all the way through the covid-19 pandemic.
I am delighted that so far the scheme has already given assurance and secure legal status to millions of people who have chosen to make our United Kingdom their home. We are delighted that so many will do so.
I thank the Government for all that they have done. What discussions has the Minister had with the Northern Ireland Assembly, which will have some responsibility for raising awareness, to ensure that people in Northern Ireland can access the scheme as quickly as possible?
Only yesterday, I was in Northern Ireland talking to two of our grant-funded organisations: the South Tyrone Empowerment Programme, whose chief executive Bernadette Devlin, as people may know, is a former Member of this House; and Advice NI. We talked about the work that they have been doing. We have been directly funding adverts. We are grateful for the support we have received from the devolved Administrations, both in Northern Ireland and, as has been referred to already, in Scotland, with the Stay in Scotland campaign, which the Scottish Government have been running.
I want to make clear a couple of core elements of the scheme. We made the application process simple and straightforward, including the introduction of a digital app to confirm identity, and automated checks of Government data, reducing the need for applicants to provide evidence of residence. We also made it simple by making the criterion residence, not exercising particular free-movement rights. People did not have to prove, for example, that they were working or studying here—just residence was enough. Those familiar with the EEA free-movement regulations will know that they are more complex. We wanted to make it simple and easy, so that it lent itself to quick and simple decision making.
We looked at the EUSS to provide us with a template for how we manage immigration applications and immigration status going forward: fewer physical visits to a visa application centre, less need for physical documents or sending information to the Government that they already have, such as tax records. That enables more simplicity in getting a decision, allowing us to focus resources on supporting and helping the most vulnerable.
Given that there is still debate on the point, I want to be absolutely clear. A person who applies by 30 June 2021 deadline will have their existing rights protected, pending the outcome of the application and any subsequent appeal, if it is not successful. That is achieved by the Citizens’ Rights (Application Deadline and Temporary Protection) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020. That is quite firm. From 1 July, they will be able to rely on their certificate of application as proof to access the right to work or rent, when verified by the relevant Home Office checking service. In essence, that is a process similar to that for those who have been granted status. I want to make that very clear.
Similarly, the scope to make a late application based on reasonable grounds for missing the relevant deadline is indefinite. There is no set time for how long lateness can be deemed reasonable. The example I regularly use is of someone who turns 18 and applies for a job, and discovers that 10 or even 13 years ago the local authority looking after them at the time did not make the application for settled status. We consider that a reasonable ground, even though that may happen 10 or 13 years in the future if they are a young child in the care of a local authority today, or if their parents have not applied for them. The guidance states that for those under 18 at the time the deadline applied. I hope that gives reassurance on that matter.
We are working through a large number of applications, but the vast majority are cleared within less than three months. In many cases, those that have been outstanding for longer are more complex, such as those based on derivative rights that apply to non-EEA nationals as well as EEA nationals, or where there are matters of a relevant history of criminal offending or outstanding prosecutions, where the Home Office cannot proceed to decide the application until those matters have been brought to a conclusion, given that the offence involved would inevitably affect their status here in the UK.
In terms of supporting the most vulnerable, £4.5 million in grant funding was announced on 11 February for 72 organisations across our United Kingdom, who are providing invaluable support and help to vulnerable and hard-to-reach individuals in groups applying to the EU settlement scheme. That was on top of the £17 million already provided, and will ensure the continued delivery of support until at least the end of September 2021. We were keen that there would be funding and support available in the first three months of using digital identity and for those making late applications.
We are really pleased that over 310,000 individuals have been directly supported by these organisations to apply to the scheme to get the status they deserve. This includes a range of people with complex or chaotic lifestyles, and those who are not able to make an application themselves, due to their health. That is in addition to other support that is more generally available, such as the EU Settlement Resolution Centre, We Are Digital, the assisted digital service for applications, and the support available on gov.uk.
Thank you for the reminder, Sir Gary, which I greatly appreciate. Perhaps it is appropriate to come to the subject of children in care.
Across Government, we are looking to ensure that all eligible looked-after children and care leavers are supported to secure their status under the EUSS, through an application made by 30 June 2021; as I have touched on, we have already made it clear that if the application is not made by someone else who is responsible, then we will accept a late application.
The total number of looked-after children and care leavers eligible to apply for the EUSS, identified by a survey of 210 local government bodies UK-wide, was 3,600. As of 23 April, 2,440 applications from looked-after children and care leavers have been received, which was 67% of the total identified and an increase from 15,020—46%— back in November. We are now starting to see these applications coming through. To reassure Members, 72% of these applications have been decided, of which 1,365 resulted in a grant of settled status and 235 in a grant of pre-settled status.
I turn now to some specific points raised during the debate. It is worth touching on the issue of digital status. We are developing a border and immigration system that is digital by default. That means that over time we will increasingly replace physical and paper-based documents, some of which can be many years old, with easy-to-use, accessible online and digital services. We are building on this work based on the experience of counties like Australia, which has had fully digital systems for some time. That was highlighted by a letter from the3million to all Members of Parliament last year.
Individuals will still receive a written notification of immigration status, by email or letter, which they can retain for their own records, but they we will be given access to the digital version of their immigration status information, which can be accessed and shared at any time by the online view-and-prove service. Unlike a physical document, this cannot be lost or stolen and, it is also worth bearing in mind, it cannot be retained by someone who is seeking to exploit or abuse it. That status cannot be taken away; it is retained and it can be accessed by public services. It is not a document that someone can physically keep from someone else’s possession.
We are already seeing employers and landlords successfully using our online checking services, not least in the context of the pandemic, where performing physical checks on people’s rights to work may be a lot more difficult than it would normally have been. We are updating our guidance and communicating to ensure they are clear on the steps they should take at the end of the grace period. That will include additional safeguards for existing EEA employers and tenants who may have missed the deadline, which will include a period of time for people to make a late application to the EUSS. We genuinely believe that will provide a balance, ensuring that those who have taken up employment after the 1 July show status and their right to work. However, we will not require any employer to take retrospective checks on their staff who they have employed previously as EEA nationals, who have passed previous right-to-work checks using a passport or national identity card. We are not requiring anyone to do checks on 1 July retrospectively. There is absolutely no requirement for any employer to do that.
In terms of looking at how the system is working, as some hon. Members commented, between October 2019 and March 2021 the service had over 3.9 million views by individuals and over 330,000 views by organisations checking immigration status. Between January 2019, when the service was launched for employers, and March 2021, there were over 390,000 views by employers. A similar service to enable right-to-rent checks, which only apply in England, went live in November 2020; between then and March 2021, there have been over 6,500 views by landlords and agents on the online right to rent service. No one should be required to show status under the EUSS until after 30 June, but it can provide a convenient and useful way of proving status to a bank, landlord or employer, hence why people are already taking the opportunity to use it.
When it comes to conversion from pre-settled to settled, we will take a proactive approach of seeking to remind people when that is due. People will start to be required to convert in 2023. It would be difficult to go to an automatic conversion, given the reality that somebody may not be intending to settle in the UK, or may not have stayed in the UK having been initially granted pre-settled status. But we will look to proactively remind people. To be clear, it is a free-of-charge application and there are similar criteria for reasonable grounds for a late application to convert as well; unsurprisingly, they will be similar to the non-exhaustive guidance that we have published in relation to those making a late application at this stage, as we feel that is a reasonable and proportionate approach.
On looking at the issue of names in passports, I take on board the point that sometimes people discover what is in the machine-readable zone of their national passport when they apply for a status with the Home Office. That is not something that affects only the EUSS; it also affects wider immigration statuses. Members will appreciate why we put quite a lot of store into making sure we have secure identity and that we link people clearly to the identity status that they use to apply to the scheme. I appreciate that can produce some issues in countries where it is less easy to convert a passport so that it shows a married name rather than a maiden name than under the system we have here in the UK, but it is an important part of how our system operates that we have that security.
On having a digital system that allows people to apply from home, we are increasingly moving towards systems that will read someone’s passport rather than require them to go to an application centre to prove their status—the British nationals overseas route is a good example, where many apply from home using their BNO or their HKSAR passport to prove their identity to the Home Office. We will consider whether improvements can be made, but there is the basis of real security that we need to maintain, so that we do not have opportunities for different identities in applications being submitted.
The EU settlement scheme has been a success. It has given security and certainty to millions of people and is a genuine success of which we can be proud as a nation. I encourage all who are eligible who have not yet applied to do so as soon as possible. Support is available online, on the phone and in person through grant-funded organisations to help them apply
Question put and agreed to.