Is the settled status scheme a tech triumph or digital disaster?

After a tricky development process, the digital system allowing EU citizens to apply for the right to remain in the UK is now live. PublicTechnology examines the past, present, and future of a project that represents one of the most important technology programmes the government has ever undertaken.

Credit: PA

Last Friday was 29 March.

You may have heard that date somewhere before. You may, in fact, have heard it so many times over the last two years that it has burned itself indelibly into your synapses.

Friday 29 March 2019 was the day that the UK was to leave the European Union.

That didn’t quite go to plan.

But, fret not – there is a new plan: the country will now depart the EU next Friday, 12 April. Maybe.

In the meantime, the rollout of the settlement scheme for EU nationals living in the UK has continued. The programme, like the Brexit process that necessitated it, has endured its share of challenges. 

But, unlike Brexit, the full launch of the settled status scheme went ahead on time – going live a week ago, having been through a pilot process lasting several months, and taking in private and public beta phases.

Built around a digital service that will be of critical importance to more than three million people in the UK, the scheme represents one of the biggest and most significant government technology projects of recent years. 

Having reported on its development throughout the past 12 months, in this article we look at how – and whether – the scheme will work in practice in during the months and years ahead.

The system
The technological platform that EU citizens can use to apply for settled status first hit the news a year ago, when it emerged that the app for checking users’ documents – at that stage still in development – would not work on Apple smartphones and tablets.

This is due to its need to make use of a device’s near-field communication (NFC) capability – the technology that powers contactless card machines.  

Unlike the Android operating system, Apple has long excluded external parties from accessing the iPhone’s NFC, and the government has thus far been unable to reach an agreement with the technology vendor that would see it bend this policy.

In the last few months, at least, the messages coming out of government have got more positive. It is no longer simply “in discussions” with the tech giant but, according to a statement issued by the Home Office in January, is now managing to “work constructively with Apple and expects to find a resolution so the functionality becomes available on its devices”.

No date has been set on when this might happen, but home secretary Sajid Javid has said that it will be by the end of 2019.

In the meantime, the government continues to remind users that they can borrow a friend’s Android phone or tablet to scan their document – while the rest of the form can be completed online using any device. 

Now the scheme is fully live, documents can also be posted for approval.

During the pilot phase, the Home Office also set up a network of 13 locations around the country – mostly based in register offices – where users can scan their passports. Now the scheme is live, this has been expanded to a total of 50 locations, including one in 13 London different London boroughs: Barnet; Brent; Camden; Ealing; Greenwich; Hackney; Hounslow; Kensington and Chelsea; Lambeth; Merton; Southwark, Sutton; and Tower Hamlets. 

The document-scanning location in Edinburgh is the furthest north of the 50 the government has set up around the country – meaning that the northern tip of the UK mainland is about 260 miles by road from any of them. 

There are another 31 spread throughout England, in Ampthill, Aylesbury, Bath, Boston, Burton upon Trent, Calderdale, Dudley, Glenfield, Hatfield, Hereford, Hull, High Wycombe, Leicester, Lincoln, Liverpool, Maidenhead, Manchester, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Newcastle upon Tyne, Northampton, Peterborough, Sandwell, Slough, Southampton, Stockton-on-Tees, Trafford, Walsall, Warwick, Wolverhampton, Worcester, and York.

There are four in Scotland, in Cumnock, Edinburgh, Kilmarnock, and Livingston. The location in the capital is the furthest north – meaning that the northern tip of the UK mainland is about 260 miles by road from any document-scanning centres. 

Wales and Northern Ireland are also poorly served by the network – with only one location in each country, in Belfast and Caerphilly, respectively.

The process
The Home Office has expressed satisfaction at how the system performed during the testing and pilot process. As of the end of February, about 150,000 people had applied, and 71% of applicants had been granted settled status – with three quarters of these people receiving their decision within three days. The same proportion were not asked to provide any additional evidence.

A total of 800 different devices from more than 80 manufacturers were tested successfully. Some users have experienced problems using the app on older models of phone, but government sources indicate affected models these add up to “a very low single-figure percentage” of all models.

‘Stay in the UK after it leaves the EU’ has also been designed as a step-by-step digital service, with links to all relevant information and tools located in online location – and ordered into a five-step process.

Number of settled status applications received by the end of February

Proportion of these where settled status has been granted

Home Office systems can – with the users’ consent – directly access data from its fellow departments to obtain evidence of residency

Number of centres around the UK offering assisted digital support for those who struggle with technology

Approximate number of manufacturers whose devices can be used to access the document check app – although Apple is still not among these

For those who require help using the internet and computers, there are now 124 centres around the UK offering assisted digital support, including 102 in England, 13 in England, six in Wales, and two in Northern Ireland. There are also 50 towns and cities where home visits are available.

The government indicates that there are about 10 different ways that users can prove their residence in the UK. The Home Office’s systems can also directly interrogate tax and benefits data from the Department for Work and Pensions and HM Revenue and Customs – but the government has stressed that this is entirely voluntary, and users can opt out with no detrimental impact on their application.

Now the scheme is live, efforts to promote it and help people use it will be stepped up. More tutorial videos – on GOV.UK and the Home Office’s YouTube channel – are planned. 

The need to obtain settled – or pre-settled status – will also be promoted via online, display, media, and broadcast adverts. This also include communications in foreign-language newspapers sold in the UK.

The results
Despite concerns raised by some onlookers – including a House of Lords Committee, who warned of “clear parallels with Windrush” – the scheme does not intend to issue any form of physical documentation for those who obtain settled or pre-settled status.

The government has claimed that paper documents “can be open to fraud, or be lost or stolen”.

Once a status has been granted, this information will be recorded in individual user profiles stored on Home Office databases. Users can access their profile by online by entering a passport number and date of birth, after which a one-off code will be sent to their email address or phone. The user can enter this code – or pass it on to potential employers or public-services providers – to demonstrate this status.

“Moving to an online status is a step forward in tackling those who seek to control others. A digital status is also much easier to use for visually impaired and dyslexic users who may have difficulty reading a physical document”
Caroline Nokes, immigration minister

Earlier this week, immigration minister Caroline Nokes reasserted that “the Home Office will not issue a physical document to EU citizens granted status under the EU Settlement Scheme”.

“With online services, we can ensure that checkers see only the information that is relevant and proportionate to their need,” she said, in answering a written parliamentary question from SNP MP Patrick Grady. “Using a physical document as evidence of status, as has been the practice to date, does none of this.”

Nokes added: “It can also cause significant problems when documents are lost, stolen, damaged, expired or in the process of being renewed. Physical documents are also far more open to forgery and fraud, something we must seek avoid. Additionally, there are individuals whose documents are controlled by others – for examples, in cases of domestic violence, modern slavery and human trafficking. Moving to an online status is a step forward in tackling those who seek to control others. A digital status is also much easier to use for visually impaired and dyslexic users who may have difficulty reading a physical document.”

Concerns remain about whether this system could leave citizens – particularly the elderly or others who lack confidence or access to technology – unable to prove their status, if they need to do so at short notice. 

Despite the firmness of the Nokes’ rhetoric, PublicTechnology understands that the Home Office has not entirely ruled out issuing some form of physical document in some cases. But, rather, that moving to a model of digital statuses is the “strategic direction” it intends to follow.

Sam Trendall

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