Renewed calls for Home Office to rethink digital-only settled status documentation

Written by Jim Dunton and Sam Trendall on 11 April 2019 in News

Parliamentary committee ‘remains very concerned’ about plan to eschew physical documents

Credit: Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment

Home secretary Sajid Javid has been asked to reconsider his plans not to provide physical documentation to EU nationals who successfully apply to the Home Office's settlement scheme.

The scheme, which will give non-UK EU and EEA nationals the right to continue living and working in this country after Brexit, had received more than 150,000 applications by the beginning of last month.

Earlier this year, members of the House of Lords EU Justice Sub Committee took exception to the government’s plans to issue a code rather than a physical document to successful applicants to prove their pre-settled or settled status, warning Javid the lack of documentation had “clear parallels” with the Windrush scandal. They said because of these parallels “and the fear that this causes for EU/EEA citizens, the Home Office must provide physical documentation".

The committee has now said its concerns have not abated in spite of a 10-page response from Javid to a list of queries about the scheme. In a letter made public this week, it called for “further justification” for the department's opposition to providing physical proof of status.

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Committee chair Baroness Helena Kennedy said that while Javid’s most recent update had reassured peers about some aspects of the scheme, the Home Office needed to do more to ensure the system is “fit for purpose and does not lead to problems in the future”.

“We are pressing the home secretary for further information about our key concerns, and seeking to make constructive proposals for improvements,” she said.

“In particular, we remain very concerned about the government’s resistance to providing physical proof of status, and we are asking why the centralised system cannot work in tandem with physical proof."

In her response to Javid's letter, Kennedy said although the committee appreciated the Home Office's motivation to eliminate the potential for people to create counterfeit papers, it was not convinced a digital system would be made less secure by issuing accompanying documents.

Confirmation letters and emails sent to successful applicants will not count as proof of their status, she noted.

“We can see that there are situations where a digital system may be simpler and more convenient, at least for the Home Office, though we are not persuaded that it will necessarily be safer,” Kennedy said.

“We continue to believe that it essential that individuals who are granted settled status have the opportunity to acquire a document as evidence of their right to be in the United Kingdom which will provide them, especially the vulnerable, with reassurance as to their status.

“We propose that the documentation could include the citizen’s reference number to allow crosschecks against the online system, as is the case with other documentary systems such as passports. We urge the government to reconsider options for providing physical proof.”

It is understood that Home Office officials have not entirely ruled out the possibility of 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 unless there is a compelling reason not to.

Javid’s March update to the committee said the Home Office had allocated £3.75m to fund the first phase of a national awareness-raising campaign for the scheme and had created a £9m “grant fund” to help voluntary and community organisations support EEA citizens who may need additional help with their applications.

The letter was published after the Public Accounts Committee shared a memo from Home Office permanent secretary Sir Philip Rutnam saying the Home Office was planning to £165m of its £395m budget for Brexit preparation on developing the settled status scheme in 2018-19.

The letter, sent on 23 July 2018 but only published this month, said the department was spending £150m of its EU exit budget to train staff and strengthen infrastructure and systems at the UK border. A further £30m was being used to fund "wider Home Office activity" on security, policy, passports and project management; £30m to support the delivery of the Sandhurst agreement with France on border security; and £20m to manage programme risk.

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