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EU Settlement Scheme

Volume 698: debated on Tuesday 29 June 2021

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will provide an update on the EU settlement scheme.

I am delighted to have this opportunity to mark and update the House on the huge success of the EU settlement scheme. As of the end of last month, more than 5.6 million applications had been received by the scheme, with more than 5.2 million concluded. As these number demonstrate, the dire warnings about our willingness to deliver an effective scheme to safeguard the position of millions of our friends and neighbours have proven totally unfounded.

Today, I invite all hon. and right hon. Members to play their part in communicating tomorrow’s deadline and encouraging those who are eligible, but who have yet to apply, to do so now. The Government have mounted a massive public information campaign to raise awareness about the scheme, investing almost £8 million in communications encouraging eligible EU citizens and their family members to apply by the deadline. We have also made extensive support available to applicants who need it, including providing £22 million in grant funding to organisations that have so far helped more than 300,000 vulnerable people to apply for the status that they deserve.

While the deadline is tomorrow, we will take a pragmatic and flexible approach to considering late applications made after the deadline. Our priority will remain to encourage those eligible to secure their status, and the examples of reasonable grounds given in the guidance that we have published are non-exhaustive. Each case will be considered based on its unique circumstances.

To confirm: a person’s existing rights will continue to be legally protected pending the outcome of an application made by the deadline of tomorrow, plus any appeal process that may follow. In the meantime, they will be able to rely on their certificate of application as proof of their right to work or rent when that is verified by the Home Office employer and landlord checking services.

We also expect the EU to uphold its obligations on citizens’ rights. We are aware that some UK nationals in the EU have faced difficulties in securing and exercising their rights. We are engaging with the EU through the specialised committee on citizens’ rights to address this.

The people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in June 2016. We opened the EU settlement scheme in March 2019 on a basis much more generous than the withdrawal agreement requires. By contrast, most EU countries have an application window of around 12 months. Our position has remained clear throughout: EU citizens are our colleagues, neighbours, friends and family. We want them to stay and to get the status that they deserve under the EU settlement scheme. The fact that so many have already chosen to do so is something to celebrate, and I encourage anyone who is eligible, but yet to apply, to join the millions who have already secured their rights through our scheme, with support available online, on the phone and through our fantastic grant-funded organisations.

The Prime Minister promised EU citizens “absolute certainty” of their rights to live and remain in the UK, but the day before applications to the EU settlement scheme close, serious questions remain unanswered, so may I press the Minister on some of them? Reports suggest that the Government have estimated that up to 130,000 of those eligible for benefits have not applied for settled status. What assessment has the Home Office made of the total number of eligible EU citizens still to apply, and how has it reached out actively to those people? What support has been given to older and more vulnerable people who have yet to make applications, particularly those in social care? There is concern that some parents have thought it unnecessary to apply on behalf of their children. How is the Home Office identifying those children and enabling their applications?

Government figures show that applications have been made for only one in three children in care, so what has been done for the others? The Home Office has said that late applications on reasonable grounds will be considered, so will the Minister confirm what status those applicants will have while the reasonableness of their case is determined?

Victims of domestic abuse whose traumatic circumstances have prevented an application will lose rights to support and a place in a refuge. What has been done to protect them? One in three landlords are not aware of the settlement scheme. Business groups think employers do not know enough about it. What has been done to ensure that nobody is wrongly excluded from housing or work?

Almost half—around 2 million—of those who have applied for settled status have not received it. Instead, they have pre-settled status with no long-term rights. What are the Government doing to ensure that they can overcome the barriers to full status?

There is a real risk of a new Windrush-type tragedy in the future if we do not get this right now. The pandemic has affected Government capacity and communication, so will the Minister reconsider his previous statement, follow the lead of countries such as France and the Netherlands in relation to UK citizens and extend the deadline for applications?

The promise of absolute clarity is exactly what the EUSS is there to deliver: the absolute clarity that a person will be able to prove, demonstrate and have recorded their rights in this country not just for the next couple of years but for decades to come. That is why we are delighted that we have had so many applications and have already managed to give that certainty to millions of our fellow residents here in the UK.

On the work that has been done with the Department for Work and Pensions and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, we are keen to reach out to all who could be eligible to apply, hence the letters sent to those for whom there was no record of an EUSS application. Further work will be done after the deadline to encourage those identified in that way to make an application. As has been said before, anyone who is already a British citizen or has indefinite leave to remain under systems that predated free movement does not need to apply—although those with ILR under previous systems may choose to upgrade, for free, to status under the EUSS.

In my opening response I touched on the work we are doing not only to advertise the scheme but via the grant-funded organisations based throughout our United Kingdom that have been working with many of the most vulnerable to ensure that they can apply. More than 300,000 applications have been directly supported by that network, which works with, for example, those with chaotic lifestyles or those who may have been rough sleeping.

On children in care, I am not sure whether I heard the hon. Gentleman say that he thought Government figures showed that only a third of them had applied. In fact, the most recent survey of local authorities, which went to the end of April, showed that 67% of such applications had been made where settlement had already been granted. We continue to work with local authorities and are grateful for the support shown not just for children in care but for adults in care who may need support.

On the position in other countries, I gently make the point that by the day that France opened its system for UK nationals living in France, the EUSS had already received 4 million applications and literally millions of statuses had been granted. We need to have that in mind when we make comparisons.

We have already seen 147,000 people convert from pre-settled to settled status, even though they did not need to do that immediately—they qualified by hitting the five-year period. Again, there will be support and reminders, and there will be reasonable grounds for a late application to go from pre-settled to settled status in a similar vein as for those who miss the deadline tomorrow.

Significant support is available, and if there are compelling or compassionate circumstances after the deadline, we will work with agencies, particularly those that deal with the most vulnerable, to look at expediting applications through the process where needed. My core message today is very simple: if you are eligible, apply now and secure the status that you deserve.

The Government are to be congratulated on the remarkable success of the scheme—there have been 5.6 million applicants, against an estimate of just 3 million qualifying people in this country—but I share the Minister’s concern about the lack of energy and urgency in respect of reciprocal arrangements for British citizens in EU countries. Does he have an estimate of how many British citizens have so far applied and how many cases are outstanding?

On the specific issue of children in care, I am glad to hear that the number of applications has now been raised to two thirds, but is his estimate still that some 10,000 children in care would qualify? That would mean that something like 3,500 very vulnerable children have still not been registered and, if they are not, could be the subject of a future Windrush-type scandal.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I shall start with his last point first. We are working hard with local authorities. The figure I gave was from the end of April. We are now coming to the end of June, and we know that a significant number of applications have been lodged in support of children in care. I have often given this example, but if, for the sake of argument, a child in care aged five today discovers in 13 years’ time, when they become an adult, that their application had not been made on their behalf—when, for example, they get their first job—we will consider that reasonable grounds for a late application.

In terms of the schemes in Europe, we encourage EU member states to look at the progress we have made in the UK with the EUSS and at how their systems could replicate it by being free and relatively simple, with plenty of support available. Similarly, we encourage all UK nationals in the EU to check their status and ensure that they submit their application in in good time.

I welcome the Minister back to the Dispatch Box.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing this urgent question. There could not be a more powerful warning to the Government of what happens when innocent people are deprived of their right to be here than the Windrush scandal. Twenty-eight-day warnings advising people to apply for settled status have been issued, despite an estimated 400,000 applications still awaiting processing. As my hon. Friend said, leaked documents suggest that 130,000 people in receipt of benefits have yet to sign up, and that support could be taken away. The Children’s Society has estimated that applications have not been made for more than 2,000 children in care or care leavers. That is why the Opposition have called for an extension of the European Union settlement scheme to the end of September. The Government must then do everything possible to sign up eligible people, with a strategy focusing on the vulnerable, children in care and care leavers.

Will the Minister confirm what is being done to support those who are unable to use or access the internet? More widely, how many eligible individuals does the Home Office believe have yet to sign up, and precisely how many applications are still being processed? Put simply, the Government have not done enough to prevent people from falling through the cracks. To avoid the risk of terrible injustice, surely the Government must extend the deadline to the end of September and use the additional time to ensure that all who are eligible are signed up.

What I would say is that the EUSS itself is the lesson learned from Windrush. Granting people status via an Act of Parliament, with no record taken and no document to prove it, might work for a few years while people can still easily prove where they were living on a particular date, but many years down the line it produces the outcomes we saw. That is exactly why we have been keen to make the EUSS relatively simple and open, with criteria that are basically based on residence, not on exercising specific free movement rights, which would have been far more restrictive and complicated for applicants to prove.

Intensive work is being done to support the most vulnerable, with 72 grant-funded organisations being funded up to the end of September to continue supporting applications and those with status beyond the deadline tomorrow. Again, we have been working closely with local authorities to reach out to those in care—not just children in care, but adults as well.

Literally millions of applications have been received, although it is hard to give a precise figure for how many applications are currently outstanding, given that literally thousands are still coming in every day—and we very much welcome that. To reassure the House, we have dealt with much larger surges of applications. For example, around Christmas, we were receiving literally tens of thousands of applications. Also to reassure the House, the vast majority of those have already been resolved, with all but a small percentage having been granted status under the EUSS.

We believe that we have made great progress, but, as we have touched on before, we have published non-exhaustive guidance on what we will see as reasonable grounds for a late application, including for many vulnerable groups. We have also published guidance for employers—and landlords—on what their approach should be to an EEA national they had employed before the deadline and how the first resort should be to look at supporting them in making an application.

The hon. Gentleman said that 28-day warnings have been issued. To be clear, those have not been issued. We have not got to the deadline; what he was referring to is the approach we will take when we encounter people who may be eligible for EUSS status after the deadline.

I have a very substantial and thriving European community in Kensington, with South Kensington being the home of the French community in the UK. I welcome the success of this scheme, with 5.6 million applications and 5.2 million already approved. May I ask my hon. Friend a very specific question? I have certain residents who, during the pandemic, have had to go back to their home European country. Will he assure me that this will not prejudice their application?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that we have already published some quite significant guidance on the exact position for people who have had to go home to their country. To be clear, if someone has settled status, they can actually be outside the UK for up to five years without losing that status. For those with pre-settled status, there are provisions that allow them to be outside the UK for an important reason during the qualification period. Reports that people would lose that entitlement if they were out of the country for more than six months during the pandemic were not correct; we have published guidance on that. If someone has gone home to be with their family, having been resident in the UK before 31 December, there are a number of provisions in place to ensure that they can still secure the status they deserve under the European settlement scheme.

The hospitality sector, among others, has long warned that Brexit would mean it lost much of its workforce, and it has; but worse, more than 100,000 people who want to stay are waiting more than three months for a decision. Does the Minister realise that after this week employers will be scared to employ those workers? In a recent debate, he told me that everyone receives a certificate of application and that this would suffice. Well, the3million advised me today that many have never received this certificate. Why not? I have seen one, and it does not tell employers for how long it remains valid. Again, why not? The process also requires applicants to go through 14 stages on a website—if it is working.

I do not envisage a big bang on 1 July but I do foresee huge problems in the coming months, with people willing to work and employers desperate to employ, but too much uncertainty about the legality of doing so. I appreciate the desire to go digital, but until that digital is working properly, why will the Government not provide physical proof for people, as they can apparently do for covid vaccination status? If it is too difficult, please just do what the Scottish Government and others have called for and extend the deadline—or, better still, scrap the scheme and have a declaratory scheme, which is what was promised by many of the Minister’s colleagues, including the Prime Minister, in the first place.

I have already pointed out exactly the issue with declaratory schemes. They sound good in theory, because everyone gets a status; the problem is that if no record is taken and nothing is issued to prove that status, in later years it is extremely difficult for people to prove their rights. That is the key lesson learned from the experience of those who were granted a declaratory status back on 1 January 1973.

Let me make it clear from the Dispatch Box that those who have made an in-time application and have a certificate of application retain a right to work here in the UK while their application is being considered. We have been clear in our guidance about what employers should do if they have any queries or issues. There is no requirement for employers to undertake retrospective checks; they maintain a statutory excuse in relation to the right-to-work checks and legislation, if they accepted an EEA passport or national identity card as proof of a right to work before 30 June. That is the clear position.

This morning, we have sent a detailed reply to the3million regarding some particular queries it had about those who are yet to receive a certificate of application. Given the length of this session, I will arrange for that to be placed in the Library for Members’ reference.

Although I welcome the fact that so many citizens of the EU are voting with their feet—and they are welcome here—could my hon. Friend explain how previous Governments left us in a situation where an estimate of 3.8 million applications has turned into an actual figure of 5.6 million, without a single word of contrition? What a failure of the state.

In terms of the position we take as the Government today, anyone who is entitled to and deserves status under the EUSS will be granted it—there is no limit, there is no target and there are no quotas. It is interesting to note the number of applications we have received versus the impact assessments done back in 2004, but we have a new points-based system that allows us to better decide and better set in place what type of positions we want to have in terms of migration and ultimately judges people by their skills and talents and what they have to offer the UK, rather than fundamentally by what passport they hold.

The Minister said that help was available on the phone. As of today, it still is not for most people; the phone line simply says, “There is no space left on the call queue”, because there are obviously not enough people able to respond, and I understand that was the case last week and the week before as well. May I just press him on the situation for children who may not have applied at this point? The guidance states:

“Where a parent, guardian or Local Authority has failed by the relevant deadline to apply…on behalf of a child…that will normally constitute reasonable grounds for the child…to make a late application”.

Clearly that is welcome, but why does it not say that that will always constitute reasonable grounds for a late application? For those children, it is clearly not their fault; somebody else should have applied for them. Will he strengthen that guidance and reassure them and say that will always be reasonable grounds?

I appreciate the question and how the right hon. Member has put it. My understanding is that we would adopt the approach that if it was someone who was under 18 or who was lacking mental capacity and was over 18—for example, power of attorney was in place and someone else should have made the application—we would accept that as reasonable grounds for a late application being made. I make it clear, as I have said before, that the guidance is non-exhaustive. People do not have to meet one of the many reasons listed; we will always look at the individual’s circumstances to see whether they had reasonable grounds. I am happy to pick up the point concerned, because our general principle is that if someone else should have made the application, whether due to someone’s age or mental capability, or for example because there is a deputyship in place or they were in the care of a local authority, we would usually see that almost certainly as reasonable grounds for a late application.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s statement and the work that the Department has been doing to secure the rights of EU citizens here in the UK and, as he mentioned, the reciprocal case of British citizens out in the EU. Does he agree that the success of the EU settlement scheme showcases the UK’s commitment to a firm but fair immigration system now that we are a sovereign nation in charge of our own borders?

What it shows is that we can deliver a scheme that secures the rights here in the United Kingdom of millions of our neighbours, friends and colleagues, and it also shows how we can deliver using better technology. The vast majority of people have applied literally from the comfort of their own home and have not had to go off to a visa application centre, for example, to prove their identity. With simple rules and criteria—for example, residence, not exercising free movement rights—we could grant a large number of applications fairly quickly. It not only welcomes EU nationals who came in the time of free movement, but it gives some strong lessons that we can take over into the reform and simplification of the rest of our immigration system. We have applied many of the lessons from the EUSS to the start of the British nationals overseas visa route that we created earlier this year, such as online application from home, simple criteria and a digital status that is quickly and easily issued.

May I say to the Minister that I did exactly what he has enjoined others to do? Some weeks ago, I wrote to all the EU nationals I could identify in my constituency. We publicised the looming deadline in the press, and I have to tell him that it turned up a disturbing number of glitches in the system, not least one involving the inadequacy of certain mobile smartphones for uploading documents. I would have hoped that by this stage of things, those sorts of bugs would have been ironed out of the system, but my experience is very much that they have not.

On the figures that the Minister has given the House today, there remain something in the region of 400,000 unprocessed applications. Making allowance for the fact that there is bound to be a late surge, we might anticipate that there will be some half a million by the time of the close of the deadline. He will be aware that only once an application has been granted is the applicant entitled to the right to healthcare, to work and to rent. They could be liable to charges within the NHS. What does he intend to do for these possibly half a million people while we are waiting for the applications to be processed?

I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman is not correct. Those who have an application—[Interruption.] I am not sure why we have Wimbledon on the screens, but anyway—

Order. It should be noted that there is a mistake in the broadcasting. I will just pause the House for a moment. Can we have it stopped immediately? It is not fair to the Minister to have his audience distracted, although of course nobody would think that Wimbledon was more exciting than what he has to say.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I think what I have to say is actually quite crucial given the reference to the position of half a million people in this country. Let us be absolutely clear: a person who applies by the 30 June 2021 deadline will have their existing rights protected pending the outcome of their application, including any appeal. That includes the right to work and the right to access healthcare. This is achieved not just by me saying it at the Dispatch Box but by the Citizens’ Rights (Application Deadline and Temporary Protection) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020—a law passed last year. The firm message that I would give is that people should get their applications in by the deadline tomorrow, but if they have made an application in time, before that deadline, their rights are protected pending the outcome. Therefore, those half a million people will not be exposed to some of the issues that the right hon. Gentleman set out.

Was what we just saw, Madam Deputy Speaker, a preview of what is going to happen at 5 o’clock so that people who are here for the estimates day debate can do two things at once? The great success that the Government have had with the EU settlement scheme contrasts rather heavily with the failure to stop illegal immigrants coming across the channel escorted by French naval vessels. Does the excellent Minister have any reassurance for this House that that will be the next item on the agenda to be dealt with?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I can reassure him that this time next week we will be introducing in the House legislation to do just that and to fix our broken asylum system.

Many in Hornsey and Wood Green have called the UK their home for decades, but they have yet to hear back from the Home Office. A 62-year-old man is waiting anxious and fearful of being separated from his family. Will the Minister today fix the Home Office telephones, get through the backlog and calm the nerves of constituents who fear a Windrush-style scandal of falling through the cracks and being excluded from vital support?

I have said that those with in-time applications waiting for decision have their existing rights protected. To be clear, the vast majority of applications are dealt with within three months and those that have been outstanding for over a year are mostly ones where there are issues relating to criminality.

Many businesses in my constituency have been struggling to find the staff that they need as our economies reopen, whether that is in tourism and hospitality, construction, food processing or horticulture. Part of the reason is that many EU citizens who were granted settled status went back to their home countries as a result of the pandemic. Yet this workforce will be essential to help to rebuild our economy, so can my hon. Friend confirm that anyone who has received settled status will not only be entitled to come back to the UK but will be welcome back here to help us to rebuild our economy?

Absolutely. I fully endorse the comments my hon. Friend has just made about people being welcome when they come back to the UK. People who have settled status can be absent from the UK for up to five years and still return, and pick up their entitlements on return, including the right to work.

“Data not dates” is the Government’s mantra for lockdown easing, so should it not be the same for settled status? The data clearly shows that tens of thousands of EU citizens, to whom the Government promised the right to stay, will become undocumented overnight, criminalised for working, renting accommodation or opening a bank account. They may be young or elderly, have insufficient language or digital skills, or have been unable to return to the UK because of the pandemic. In Newcastle, we value our European residents, so will the Minister not extend the deadline? Or does he want another Windrush?

The EU settlement scheme has already granted millions of people secure status in this country and is granting it to thousands more people every day. That is the key focus for us: getting people to apply before the deadline. However, as we have said numerous times, we will accept late applications where there are reasonable grounds for that, including from the most vulnerable.

I thank the Minister for updating the House on the progress of the EU settlement scheme. Does he agree that with time running out the best thing we can be doing is encouraging people to make sure they have applied, rather than engaging in the doomsaying, naysaying and the putting down of the entire scheme we have heard from those on the Opposition Benches?

I could not agree more. I suspect that a few years back we were getting lots of predictions that we would never manage to grant millions of statuses to people who are our friends and neighbours, but we have managed to do that and we have had applications come in. I agree that now is the time to encourage people to get their applications in and secure their rights, and join the millions of people who have already done so.

It has been clear that the Government have no idea how many EU citizens were in the UK, or how important they are to the NHS, the economy and our cultural and educational institutions. It is also clear that the settlement scheme is overly bureaucratic and unwieldy, so I am going to press the Minister again: will the Government at least extend the deadline by six months so that the mess they created can be sorted out?

The many people who found it was a simple application using an app would be surprised to hear the comments about it being unwieldy and everything else. The fact we have managed to grant millions of statuses already and have hundreds of thousands of applications received, and be granting thousands more statuses and receiving thousands more applications every day, would not suggest that this is a particularly unwieldy system to deal with.

I welcome the Minister’s statement on the EU settled status scheme today as a great example of how legal immigration routes can be effective, but what progress have the Government made on preventing illegal immigration, such as the kind we continue to see on the English channel?

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s comments. He is right to allude to the fact that our system needs to be not only firm, but fair, as we have seen with the millions of statuses we have granted under the EUSS. As I have already mentioned, next week we will bringing before the House new legislation to reform our broken asylum system and help break the business model of those heinous people-smuggling networks. Just for background, I should say that just so far this year over 5,000 channel crossings have been prevented, and we continue to work with French authorities to crack down on the criminal gangs behind this disgraceful trade.

During the Brexit campaign, the Prime Minister promised automatic settled status for EU nationals living across these islands. What we have got is a vague reassurance of consideration of reasonable grounds. My concern is about the most vulnerable people in my communities and across these islands: those in care homes and the care system and those who are very hard to reach. When the guillotine falls tomorrow, will the Prime Minister have made liars of us all? What will happen to those people? What is the mechanism for establishing reasonable grounds and how will people be treated? Will they lose their homes? Where will they be held? Will they be deported?

The hon. Gentleman might want to review some of the answers that I have already given and some of the guidance that has been published on, for example, employment. To be clear, there is nothing vague about the fact that we have granted millions of solid statuses, that there are people who have status while their applications are being considered—

I very much associate myself with the comments about the need to promote the success of this programme, especially to those critical workers, who many in my constituency have told me they want to see returning as part of reopening. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is worth considering introducing a series of measures to encourage public bodies to refer EU citizens to support services so that they can ensure that they apply before any restrictions come in? Those who apply late are most likely to be encountered when being refused housing by local authorities. It would be enormously helpful for measures to be taken to ensure that public bodies that encounter those who may not have applied are encouraged to refer them to make their applications as soon as possible.

I agree with my hon. Friend. We have already done some close work with public bodies. For example, getting EUSS status can be very helpful to someone with a chaotic lifestyle who may have been homeless because it gives them a firm status and identity. We are working on those systems. We have been working closely with local government, particularly in the last two years, to get applications in and we will continue to do that. That includes work on provisions for expediting late applications when there are compassionate or compelling circumstances.

I congratulate the Minister on what has undoubtedly been a successful campaign, which he has looked after. However, I am sure that he accepts that there are anomalies in the system, specifically in Northern Ireland because of the land border that we share with an EU state, namely, the Republic of Ireland. That land border, which allows free movement across the whole island, between Northern Ireland and southern Ireland, can at times undermine some of the good work that the Department is trying to do and affect and undermine commercial interests in Northern Ireland because of the different status that now applies. With that in mind, and given that the Minister has written to me about a number of those issues, is he willing to meet me to discuss those anomalies to see whether there is a way of addressing some of the problems that have been identified?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his overall comments. I would certainly be happy to meet. As he knows, Irish citizens do not need to apply. The frontier worker system has been open since January. That is more likely to apply to the Irish land border than perhaps it is in other parts of the UK. I was pleased to be in Northern Ireland last week to meet our two grant-funded organisations and someone who is a famous former Member of this House, who is the CEO of one of them, to discuss their work to reach out to more vulnerable citizens.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s encouragement to people to make their applications, something that my constituent and his family, who have been in the UK since 2008, did together. His wife and children are among the 5.2 million people who have already received settled status, but my constituent has yet to hear. To provide certainty and reassurance to families, can the Minister arrange for a priority in cases where members of a family have been treated separately?

First, to reassure my hon. Friend’s constituent, all those who have applied by 30 June will have their existing rights protected pending the outcome of their application. To be clear, we deal with linked family applications together as far as we can. Those who apply after another family member may be doing so in their own right and may need to be assessed individually. However, as I have already touched on, our goal is to get as many outstanding cases completed as possible. Those that have been outstanding for over a year are mostly related to pending prosecutions or serious criminality.

Sitting suspended.