Almost two years ago, 3.6 million EU citizens living in the UK got firmly strapped into a rollercoaster ride that is still running – and the new settlement scheme that is currently being trialled will not provide a soft landing.
From 29 March 2019, the UK’s EU citizens will be forced to apply just to stay in their homes. Friends, neighbours, colleagues, carers will cease to be the same as everyone else, and will have a separate digital ID, without which they will not be able to live, rent, work and access healthcare after Brexit.
Along the way, they will be told they will pay £65, sign away their data – which the Home Office can share with undisclosed third parties – submit additional evidence if their digital records aren’t seamless, told that they will not have to pay £65 after all, undergo a systematic criminality check and hope they won’t fall into the Home Office’s 10 per cent error rate. Those who are not proud owners of an Android phone will have to borrow or buy one to even be able to start this process. There is no option for a paper application and not much assistance for the estimated 30 per cent of people who will struggle with the system.
EU citizens are not simply registering for rights: they are applying for them, and can be turned down. The message this sends is that the contributions they have made over the last decades are meaningless. They are having to prove their worth, just to get something they already lawfully had.
It could all have been so easy. The UK has never registered its resident EU citizens, and we all understand that there needs to be a way to distinguish between us and those arriving after Brexit. A simple registration with proof of identity and address, at local council level, would not have caused the anxiety and upset I now see among my European friends. Their trust in the current UK government has been eroded over two long years, from when Vote Leave wrongly assured them their status would be automatic, through to witnessing how behind-the-scenes tweaks to immigration rules led to the wrongful deportation of UK citizens in the Windrush scandal. These same immigration rules will apply to 3.6 million extra citizens, their rights set out in bits of secondary legislation that can be changed without scrutiny. Just such a change has already removed vital protections from the Windrush generation.
Of course, for most people the streamlined settled status system will be easy – if we ignore, for the moment, that the rights it will give us access to aren’t protected in the long term. My concern, however, is for anyone who does not fit the stereotype of working EU citizens with perfect digital tax records that the system is built around. Or those who inevitably don’t find out in time what they have to do, don’t have a valid passport, miss the deadline: they will become the next Windrush generation in years to come and on an unprecedented scale.
The scheme, once famously described by Amber Rudd as “as easy as getting an LK Bennett loyalty card”. has huge risks, even for those well-documented people in full-time employment. It is one of the largest tasks that the Home Office has ever had to undertake; and even if the current processing error rate stays at 10 per cent this still means 360,000 people could be refused the new status, through no fault of their own. HMRC records are being cross-linked to Home Office records and used to verify the residency of EU citizens; and the pilots of the scheme have already thrown up cases where official records do no match each other. Stay-at-home parents and children in care will be among those who may find it difficult to provide evidence of their residency in the UK.
The consequences of not applying are severe, yet so far take-up of the settled status trials has been low. Should people fail to apply or be refused, they will have no immigration status when the UK leaves the EU. This could lead to EU citizens becoming destitute, unemployed, at risk of exploitation, and unable to access basic services such as the NHS.
The issue here is not about the technical process or the Home Office’s much-declared good intention. This is about reassuring 3.6 million people that they share the same values, the same legal protection and the same positive outlook as their British friends. Instead of making them feel that they have to re-apply, re-qualify for the lives they’ve lived for decades, the UK government has a duty of care to show them that it has their interests at heart too.
the3million, In Limbo and More United are currently have been campaigning to improve settled status – you can support them here.