The Home Office’s settled status app would shame a start-up that hired a teenager

A mean-spirited idea made orders of magnitude worse by its botched execution, with the best possible upside being the continuation of the status quo. Sound familiar?

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If you want an illustration of how shambolic, mean-spirited, and bureaucratic Brexit has become, then you need look no further than the “settled status” scheme, meant – in theory, at least – to offer some certainty to EU citizens about their post-Brexit future in the United Kingdom.

The scheme is the government’s means of honouring a commitment in Theresa May’s as-yet-and-possibly-forever-unratified withdrawal agreement to guarantee EU citizens’ rights in future, with the same status as they have now.

The proposals have been controversial from the beginning, both in tone and in implementation. EU citizens – many of whom have lived here for decades, married and raised families – have to “apply” for the settled status, rather than having a presumption of being granted it.

And until a recent government U-turn, applicants had to pay £65-a-head to apply for settled status. For many, this merely adds insult to injury, but for low-income families it poses a potentially severe blow to their future in the UK.

But beneath these obvious flaws in the system lie many examples of even worse implementation: problems which could leave millions, especially vulnerable people, unable to apply for their status, and potentially making them future targets of the Home Office’s “hostile environment”.

One of the simplest issues with the scheme is how poorly it has been explained and advertised. Many EU citizens living in the UK have applied for and been granted permanent leave to remain – essentially, a permanent right to live in the UK, and part of the pathway to become a UK citizen.

These people might understandably feel like they have a permanent right to live here, and so don’t need to apply for their new status. They would be wrong: all EU citizens living in the UK need to apply for settled status – and all too often with Home Office schemes, ignorance is not accepted as an excuse.

Even if they know they need to apply for the scheme, the app on which it runs would shame a start-up who’d hired a teenager for a few hundred quid. The only means of applying for the scheme is through an online app, which only works on Android phones – not on iPhones or any other model. Even worse, it doesn’t even work on all Android models: older and newer phones don’t run it either. How many of the more than three million people who need this service will have this exact phone setup?

Those who lack the ability to apply through the app need to go a registration centre. At present, there are just 13 such centres, and even when the scheme is fully underway there will be just 50 across the country. That isn’t many.

In theory, once people have entered their details through the app, the system will match them against the national insurance and other databases to automatically confirm they have been resident in the UK for five years. But many early applicants are reporting this automatic matching has not worked for them, leaving them needing to find and provide physical proof of this residence.

This is not too complex for someone who has been in the workforce for the full duration required – but what of children, people who have been unemployed, people who are retired or disabled and unable to work? There are vague claims it will check against DWP systems, but little clarity as to what that means – and almost no information on what extra support will be available to vulnerable people.

The UK government is committed by law to make sure its services do not disadvantage these groups. It is virtually impossible to see how they have not breached that with this cobbled-together shambles of a scheme.

We are just two months away from Brexit, and the Home Office “settled status” scheme is not scheduled to come into force until 30 March. At that point, we have no idea if we face no-deal, an extended Article 50, some form of ratified deal, or some utterly unknown situation.

This scheme could have been a way of providing some stability for a group who desperately need it, at a time of massive uncertainty. Instead, it has become just another source of stress, another rushed and bungled government IT project.

Settled status has become Brexit in a microcosm: a mean-spirited idea made orders of magnitude worse by its botched execution, with the best possible upside for those dragged through it being maintaining the status quo. What a sad state we’re in.

Update, 31 January: A Home Office spokesperson has been in touch to say the following:

“Applicants are able to use any desktop, laptop, tablet or mobile device to make an application. The App is only to check identity and will be optional when the scheme is fully rolled out. Once the system is fully open, there will be further routes available to have identity documents checked, including a postal route for submitting ID evidence and over 50 locations where applicants can have their passport verified if they wish.”

James Ball is the Global Editor of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. He tweets @jamesrbuk.