Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 29 June.
“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 honourable and right honourable 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.”
Some 30,000 people in receipt of benefits have yet to apply for settled status. Applications have not been made for more than 2,000 children in care or care leavers. The Government have no clear idea of the total number of EU citizens still to apply and said in the Commons on Tuesday that “literally thousands” of applications
“are still coming in every day”.—[Official Report, Commons, 29/6/21; col. 163.]
To keep the rights they had, those still to apply have to hope that the Government of Windrush and the hostile environment deem that they have reasonable grounds for a late application being made.
First, we have called for an extension of the European Union settlement scheme for three months to the end of September. Why will the Government not agree to it? Secondly, will they commit to providing updates to Parliament, at least every month, of the number of late applications received and the number of such applications accepted, the number rejected and the number still outstanding of decision?
I thank the noble Lord for his questions. On a September extension, the scheme has been open now for over two years, which is a reasonable time, in our estimation. The noble Lord talked about children in particular, and I agree that they may be a particularly vulnerable cohort. Of course, with children or children in care, whatever their circumstances, if there are reasonable excuses beyond midnight of last night, they will be able to apply and that scheme will be open indefinitely so as not to disadvantage them. On benefits, we are working very hard with the DWP to ensure that all those who are entitled to benefits will keep them.
My Lords, why set an arbitrary deadline for people to claim rights they are already entitled to?
My Lords, it was not arbitrary; these things have to come to an end at some point. As I say, the deadline has come over two years since the scheme opened, which was incredibly generous. That is evidenced by the fact that now over 5.2 million people have had their applications processed for either settled or pre-settled status.
My Lords, the figures given in the Answer appear very satisfactory. However, can my noble friend first of all confirm that “concluded” means accepted, and if not, can she please say how many people have been accepted? Can she also give the House an assurance that those who are accepted will be able to have a physical document that proves that they are indeed entitled to permanent residence in this country?
I can confirm to my noble friend that not all applications concluded are accepted. There will be some specific cohorts of people who will not have their applications accepted; for example, for various reasons to do with offending or for reasons of national concern. However, as regards the physical document, the EU settlement scheme was designed precisely to avoid a Windrush-type event, where immigration status was automatically conferred on people by an Act of Parliament but with no record made of it. Successful applicants under the EU settlement scheme receive a digital immigration status that provides that secure evidence of their status.
My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the original estimates made by the Home Office represent about half the number of people eligible under the scheme? Will she further confirm that when the figures were last produced, at least 300 children had not been identified? Given that, it is likely that there will be many more than 300. Therefore, while I welcome the Minister’s commitment that the scheme for children will be open indefinitely, is there not a concern that there will be a large number of children whom the Home Office have not identified and who may still not be aware of their position in the years to come?
I totally acknowledge the noble Lord’s point about children who in years to come might not have that status and therefore will need to apply for it. That is why the scheme, which accepts reasonable excuses for why somebody has not applied, will remain open indefinitely. I hope the noble Lord will be happy that 67% of children in care have applied. That is a great figure but support will be ongoing to encourage those children to apply. The noble Lord’s point about the Home Office underestimating the number of people who might apply for settled status is absolutely right. So did the3million, hence its name. We now have 5.6 million applications, which is a very encouraging figure.
To follow on from the question from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, a main concern of EU citizens resident here is for those without smartphones or internet access to have printable proof of their status. Will the Government consider the use of a secure, QR code-based system to achieve this? It is a technology the Government approve of and many of us are now familiar with it. If it has been done for vaccination status, why not for settled status?
I thank the noble Earl for that question. To update him, Home Office officials recently met the3million to discuss those proposals in more detail. The use of QR codes is something that we will consider. There will of course be a number of issues to work through to assess the feasibility of the solution, including that end users’ data is absolutely secure.
My Lords, the Minister will agree that online support, telephone helplines and grant-funded organisations have done a tremendous job so far. What help will be available to those who have missed the deadline? How do we ensure, as the Minister hopes, that we do not have another Windrush scandal? Many do not trust the state or politicians, and many will not believe that the new rules apply to them because they have been here for decades. How will the Minister’s statement that the scheme will be open indefinitely be manifested?
I think what the noble Baroness asks is: beyond the deadline, what support will be available? The Settlement Resolution Centre will certainly be open after the deadline, and the grant-funded organisations will be funded into June. On her point about our intention up to September, we will scope out what the needs will be beyond September, because we do not want a hard stop preventing anyone who can apply to the scheme from doing so.
My Lords, Portuguese is a difficult language to get one’s head around at the best of times, and vice versa with English, which leads to my question. Many in the East Timorese community resident in the UK apparently have no idea of the necessity to register post Brexit. Is the Minister concerned about that? If so, what has been or can be done, and do the Government suspect that other communities with English-language issues are similarly placed?
The East Timor issue has been drawn to my attention, and we will continue to encourage those who are eligible to apply as soon as possible. The noble Viscount will, I hope, know that we have granted £22 million-worth of funding until September of this year, and, as I just said to the noble Baroness, we will be scoping whether that support needs to continue. We have an organisation in Oxfordshire working specifically with the East Timor community.
My Lords, I understand that, under the EU settlement scheme, there are no exemptions for seasonal workers in the fish processing industry, although there are exemptions in the edible horticulture sector. In view of that, will the Minister meet me to discuss how the issue will impact on the fishing sector in Northern Ireland and how this situation can be remedied?
I am very happy to meet the noble Baroness to discuss both the horticultural and fishing industries. She will know that a pilot is currently under way for seasonal agricultural workers, but I am very happy to listen to her thoughts on it.
My Lords, all supplementary questions have been asked.