A year since the EUSS deadline, many EU citizens are still in limbo

By Emma McClelland and Olivia Vicol - 30 June 2022

One year ago on 30 June 2021, the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) introduced to give EU citizens and their family members status in the UK after Brexit, came to a close. The government portrayed the EUSS as a major success, citing application figures in the millions, and the fact that for the first time the scheme offered a digital status which could not be "lost, stolen, or tampered with". 

In this blog post we argue that, one year on, the story remains significantly more complex. The digital-only structure of the scheme, which prevents vulnerable applicants from viewing and proving their status, IT glitches, and a structural problem of understaffing across the Home Office continue to leave a significant number of EU citizens in limbo - uncertain about their status in the UK, and doubtful of their ability to exercise their basic rights to work, rent, and travel. We captured these issues before in our Lives on Hold report, published two months after the end of the scheme. One year on, we show that the issues persist.

Behind the headline of 6 million concluded applications

According to the latest quarterly statistics from Gov.UK, the total number of applications made to the EUSS as of 31 May 2022 stands at 6,648,700. Of those, 596,500 were received after 30 June 2021 (i.e. they were late applications). The total number of 'concluded' applications as of 31 May 2022 stands at 6,403,000. Of those, 958,900 were concluded after 30 June 2021 (i.e. after the deadline). 

It's important to note that 'concluded' does not necessarily mean the applicant received pre-settled or settled status. They also include refusals, withdrawn or void applications, and invalid applications, which together account for over half a million people. 

Stuck in the backlog for over one year

The most common issues brought to the attention of our service providers was the sheer time the Home Office takes to make decisions. Our colleague Maria, one of our five team members accredited to provide EUSS advice, tells of her beneficiary, a Portuguese woman who has now been waiting for over a year for a decision on her child's EUSS application. We called the Home Office repeatedly and were told that 'technical issues' were to blame. But this leaves the mother uncertain about her child's future, and anxious to travel for fear of problems at the border. 

For those who applied late to the scheme, these kinds of consequences are particularly pervasive. Service provision officer Andrei has one beneficiary who applied late due to a misunderstanding. Lacking confidence in his digital ability, he had asked his daughter to fill out his application but, due to a mix-up, the application was never fully submitted. He finally applied with our help, submitting plenty of evidence proving his eligibility, from payslips to HR information. And yet, he has been waiting for four months for a response and, in that time, lost his job because his Certificate of Application took so long to come through. 

The same protracted problem appears to be happening with administrative reviews, a process by which applicants can challenge refusals. Service provision assistant Maria explained that one of her current cases concerns a man whose EUSS application was rejected, as he missed a call from the Home Office that was intended to secure additional evidence. He has since been through an administrative review but has now been waiting eight months for a response! 

The pitfalls of a digital-only system

Another issue that has been blighting applicants to the EUSS comes as a direct result of the Home Office's digital-only approach to the Scheme. Digital exclusion disproportionately affects disadvantaged users, reinforcing existing inequalities of income, age, gender and ethnicity, as well as physical ability and mental health (see our previous work). Even where users are digitally literate, IT glitches are not uncommon. Maria recalls a period of time where a swathe of beneficiaries reached out because they could neither see their application in the system, nor generate a share code. 

While that technical error was eventually resolved, another beneficiary contacted Maria having submitted an application for her child. While they both received status under the scheme, she now cannot see her child's status in the system when a share code is generated. On calling the EU Resolution Centre, we were told that this was an error, but - at the time of writing - this had not been resolved and the mother is due to travel soon, something she is understandably concerned about. 

Access to Universal Credit for those with pre-settled status

The DWP requires claimants with pre-settled status to prove an additional 'right to reside' to qualify for means-tested benefits. We can't understate how complex and exclusionary this is. Traditionally, benefits administrators tend to look at a claimant's history of 'genuine and effective' employment when deciding whether to grant them Universal Credit, or other narrow factors like a claimant's proven illness or disability. Failing that however, the law also requires them to consider whether, without benefits, a claimant risks falling into destitution. Simply put, no one should be denied benefits, if that violates their rights under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (read more from the EU Rights Hub at the University of York). 

The fundamental rights of EU citizens with pre-settled have been violated all too often. Many of those who work precariously in the gig economy, and who lack the formalities or even the regular work hours to prove a history of 'genuine and effective' employment, were excluded from Universal Credit just when they needed it most. This also applied to single parents of very young children, and to those who become destitute as a result of domestic or intimate-partner violence. Magda, another one of our service provision assistants, described a young Polish woman who had to sleep in her car after the was denied benefits.

The ramifications of this are wide-reaching. As Benjamin Morgan, Research and Communications Coordinator at the Public Interest Law Centre, previously commented, it is "likely to result in more EU citizens and non-EEA family members with pre-settled status turning to social services for support (e.g. under the Children Act 1989 or Care Act 2014), increasing the cost burden already faced by underfunded local authorities."

Morgan continues: "The privileging of  [economically] 'active' EU citizens puts women at a disadvantage since unpaid caring responsibilities frequently result in interruption to paid employment. Female EU citizens living in the UK are more likely than male counterparts to do unpaid, low-paid or informal work that may lead to their being excluded from 'worker' status. Paid work done by women may be more likely to be assessed as 'ancillary and marginal' rather than 'genuine and effective'."

How can these issues be resolved? 

  • Provide people with a physical proof of status

While a share code works for some people, for the disabled, modestly educated, and less affluent - many of whom come from racially disadvantaged groups - a physical proof of status is the only viable option. Our friends at the3million recently revealed that they had received reports of people denied boarding onto flights, "being asked for physical proof of status when such physical proof does not exist". EU citizens should be given the option of physical proof of their immigration status under the EUSS. If you agree, you can write (or Tweet) your local MP. 

  • Stay informed on Universal Credit Eligibility Criteria

While claiming income-based benefits is harder for people with pre-settled status, it is their right to do so, and the DWP's duty to assess their claims carefully, including the risk that without benefits they fall into destitution. Last month, we announced the launch of our Universal Credit eligibility tool, a free online resource, translated into multiple languages, that helps people understand the eligibility criteria and the evidence they will need to provide in order to access it. This includes the additional 'right to reside' eligibility criteria for those with pre-settled status. If you know anyone who is struggling to understand Universal Credit, please send them a link to our tool

  • Facilitate the transition from pre-settled to settled status

Currently, people with pre-settled status have to make a new application for settled status once this expires. Many of the issues that affected people applying for pre-settled status, such as lack of awareness, digital literacy, invalid ID documents, or incomplete evidence, will rear their heads again. Those who could find themselves in a better position to access Universal Credit may miss out on months of support. The Home Office could mitigate these issues by facilitating this upgrade. This could mean renewing status automatically, once an applicant has met the qualifying residence criteria. Or, at the very least, communicating eligibility for a new status to all existing pre-settled status holders.

  • Increase capacity - of EUSS application assessors and of the EU Resolution Centre (EURC) 

Too many people are waiting months on end, without adequate communication, for decisions on their EUSS application or administrative review. This is leaving many of them unable to work, afraid to travel for fear of being stopped at the border, or afraid more generally about their and their family's future in the UK. Additionally, many of our beneficiaries describe waiting for over an hour before an EURC adviser takes their call. To support EU citizens and their family members, it is crucial that the Home Office bolsters its capacity, as well as the capacity and public visibility of the EURC. 

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