‘Thousands may be slipping through the cracks’ – report warns elderly and vulnerable missed by EU settlement scheme

Written by Sam Trendall on 23 July 2021 in News
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Parliamentary committee concerned that only 2% of applications have come from over-65s

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Tens of thousands of citizens – particularly the vulnerable and elderly – are at urgent risk of “slipping through the cracks” of the EU settlement scheme, a parliamentary committee has warned.

Applications for settled status closed at the end of the last month. More than six million applications were made during the two years the scheme was in operation – double the oft-quoted estimate of three million EU citizens that were, at the time of the Brexit vote, believed to live in the UK. The programme also offered status to the family members or EU and EEA citizens, as well as those who came here on an EU passport but from a non-member state.

Despite the huge volume of applicants, the House of Lords European Affairs Committee has published a report revealing concerns that many may have been missed by the scheme – and are now consequently at risk of losing their rights to live, work, rent property, and receive benefits and healthcare in this country.

Although the report says that there is not a reliable figure for the number of citizens over-65 that needed to apply to the scheme to legally remain in the UK, it expresses concern that, as of March 2021, only 2% of applications submitted had come from this cohort.

In evidence given to the committee, charity New Europeans UK said: “We believe there are a significant number of older Europeans who have still not applied. We are particularly concerned for Italian nationals who came post war… many of whom are now pensioners.”


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Many such “very long-term residents” may not have been aware the scheme existed, the report warned. EU citizens born in non-EU countries – for example, the UK’s roughly 20,000-strong East Timorese community, most of whom hold Portuguese passports – may also not have known they needed to apply for status.

Other vulnerable groups identified by the report of at risk of being missed by the settlement scheme include care leavers, abuse victims, and homeless people, as well as those who may have been excluded by a lack of language or digital skills. Others, meanwhile, may have lacked the necessary evidence for submission, such as bank statements or other proof of address.

The primary route for obtaining status was through an app. Although non-digital channels for application were provided – along with a cumulative £21.5m of funding for charities and community organisations to help vulnerable groups to apply – the committee warned that a lack of access to technology may have seen many excluded from the scheme.

Documentary evidence
The peers’ report also became the latest call for the government to rethink its decision to award digital-only status to successful applicants. 

Once a person has been granted status, this information is recorded in individual user profiles stored on Home Office databases. Users can access their profile online by entering their 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 their status.

No physical documentation evidencing status is provided.

The government has held firm on its insistence that this is a more secure system, despite repeated calls for the introduction of physical documents from figures across the political spectrum and from civil society groups. Many have cited the risk of recreating the disaster of the Windrush scandal.

“Without [a physical document], EU citizens in the UK may face discrimination in securing employment and rental tenancies,” the committee said. “The UK government has welcomed the EU’s decision to issue a physical document to all UK citizens in Europe – while resisting calls to do the same for EU citizens in the UK. [The committee] demands the government explain why it holds these contradictory positions.”

More than two million applicants to the scheme have thus been granted only pre-settled status – which is awarded in cases where the applicant has not been resident in the UK for a continuous period of five years.

To retain their rights, those holding pre-settled status must apply to, effectively, upgrade to settled status once they reach the five-year threshold. 

The report said: “The onus is on pre-settled status holders to apply for full settled status, and concerns have been raised that the absence of a systematic scheme to move people across could lead to a loss of rights.”

Despite the concerns raised, the committee did praise the scheme’s “success in processing over 5.4 million applications so far” – particularly given the challenges posed by the pandemic and the huge volume of applications made, compared with the numbers that might originally have been anticipated.

"The UK government has welcomed the EU’s decision to issue a physical document to all UK citizens in Europe – while resisting calls to do the same for EU citizens in the UK. We demand the government explain why it holds these contradictory positions.”

Responding to the report, the government indicated that it is “determined” that vulnerable citizens will not be missed out by the scheme. It added that it has published “non-exhaustive guidance” on what might constitute grounds for a late application; this includes applicants who are isolated, vulnerable, or lack digital skills.

The Home Office said that it is working with local authorities, the Department of Health and Social Care, and community organisations around the UK to try and directly communicate with older people or their loved ones. It added that some who have lived in the UK for many years may hold another form of status that grants their rights – such as British citizenship or indefinite leave to remain.

A government spokesperson said: “Citizens’ rights continues to be a key priority for the government. We are delighted that there have been more than 6 million applications to the EU Settlement Scheme and more than 5.1 million grants of status to 30 June. The Citizens’ Rights report recognises this as a significant achievement. We welcome the report’s comments on our constructive relationship with the EU and Member States. We are continuing to work closely with both to ensure that the rights of UK Nationals in the EU are upheld, as the UK has done for EU citizens in the UK.”

Those wishing to access assisted digital support for the EU settlement scheme for themselves or someone they know is encouraged to contact We Are Digital 03333 445 675 or visa@we-are-digital.co.uk.

 

About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology. He can be reached on sam.trendall@dodsgroup.com.

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