In Conversation: The EU Settlement Scheme

By Emma McClelland - 08 June 2021

With over five million applications made to the EU Settlement Scheme, the UK government is hailing it a success. But in a conference with the3million and the Foreign Press Association (FPA) yesterday, experts found that many EU citizens are falling through the cracks.

We were pleased to be invited to speak on the panel, along with Maike Bohn and Nicolas Hatton, co-founders of the3million; James Besse, researcher at the University of Edinburgh; Luke Piper, head of policy at the3million; and Deborah Bonetti, director of the FPA in London, who chaired the discussion. 

Speakers covered the struggles EU citizens are faced with, from uncertainty over pending applications and what this means for people’s employment prospects, to the problematic digital system and status, which may cause barriers to social and civic participation. We fear that these problems are just beginning, and will worsen from 1st July. It is time the Home Office listens too.

“This is where the story starts”

There are less than 30 days to go before the EUSS closes, but the point echoed by all speakers was that the 1st July is not the end of the process, but the beginning. The question that remains to be answered is, as Nicholas put it: “Will we be able to live our lives, as promised, as before?” 

Unfortunately, the evidence presented by the3million and Work Rights Centre indicates that a lot of issues are emerging, and likely to worsen from July. As Luke summarised, the people most likely to be affected are:

  • Those that miss the deadline and will therefore have no right to work, claim welfare, and access healthcare.
  • People whose applications are pending (currently the backlog stands at 305,000 applications).
  • People who have status but struggle to prove it, mostly because of the digital system.

A surge in enquiries

The Work Rights Centre has seen EUSS enquiries increase fourfold since last year. Every month since March, the team has been responding to an average of 66 new EUSS inquiries (for reference: last year, our monthly average was 16). During yesterday's discussion we shared the things we see most frequently. 

  1. People are seriously concerned about the applications of family members. 27% (more than 1 in 4) of people asked us how family members (partners, parents, and children) could join them from abroad. To many, the fact that freedom of movement is no longer possible is just sinking in, and many didn’t realise that family members have to apply to the EUSS before they travel to the UK. 
  2. 15% of people were worried about the status of their children in the UK. It seems that many parents struggle to understand the fact that even if a child is born in the UK, they don’t get British citizenship automatically. Then there’s also the issue of missing IDs, which slow down applications. 
  3. There were serious problems with individuals’ applications. 9% were worried about how absence from the UK would affect their rights, with many others experiencing login issues (8%) or needing our help with an application (4%). 

These enquiries speak to bigger problems with the EUSS application at large, particularly the complexity of the digital-only system. James spoke to this point when he said: “We have heard from people who would go onto the website and enter their details and get an error message. Major problems also occurred when they tried to access a social service, such as employment or a bank account and would be asked for proof of their status.

"Then there is the issue of travel. One individual travelling to the UK was asked to pull up his status on his phone. He would lose connection on the airport WiFi, all while the queue was moving. This was made worse by the fact that the website would keep timing out!”

Like James, the Work Rights Centre has heard reports of IT glitches on the Home Office side, with people being locked out of accounts or logging in to see incomplete information. But we’ve also seen the issues of all those who struggle with digital literacy. Since March, we’ve been asking our users some questions to determine their awareness of, and ability to operate, the scheme. A whole 39% didn’t know that, if their details change, they need to update the Home Office and 38% said that they wouldn’t be able to prove their status by issuing a digital share code. 

As our director, Dr Dora-Olivia Vicol said: “It seems unfair that the kinds of people who keep the cities of the UK rising through construction, cleaning, caring and hospitality now have to pass this test of digital literacy to live and work in the UK.”

A digital-only EUSS risks disadvantaging EU citizens in employment

Employers are already asking EU citizens to prove their status by issuing a share code. This shouldn’t be happening yet, but it is. One of the beneficiaries who contacted the Work Rights Centre reported being unable to take up work because he’s still waiting on his status. Two others were rejected from jobs at the recruitment stage because their employer didn’t know how to use their share code, while another was asked to take unpaid time off. 

Dora-Olivia commented: “This is what the hostile environment looks like - it generates an excess of caution on the part of employers and penalises the most vulnerable who can’t afford to pay the fees for legal advice.”

As a charity, we are worried that what we’re seeing now is a preview of what we’ll be seeing from July when these right to work checks will be mandatory. We are concerned for two reasons:

  1. It isn’t clear how employers should check the right to work of someone who is still waiting on a decision from the Home Office - and there are 305,000 applications in the backlog. 
  2. It is not clear how people who struggle with digital literacy will be supported in proving their right to work.

Problems with the EUSS application also risk triggering problems with mental health. As Dora-Olivia explained: “So much hinges on being able to work, support oneself and fight the stigma of benefits abuse. This affects your sense of self and your dignity.”

Periods of absence

Another issue that EU citizens will continue to face after 1st July relates to periods of absence from the UK. As we discussed in a previous article, to obtain settled status, you must live in the UK for a continuous five years, without accruing an absence of more than six months in any 12 months. The Home Office lists some ‘acceptable’ important reasons that can be treated as exceptions, but people aren’t sure whether their reason was ‘serious’ or ‘acceptable’ enough. Most importantly, the lack of clarity means that they won’t know until the time comes to apply for settled status.

Maike had a poignant example, describing the case of a woman whose son is starting secondary school. She is worried that the time she spent abroad will damage her ability to obtain settled status, and needs to know whether she and her family can settle in the UK or not, to avoid disrupting her child’s schooling. Instead, the case workers have simply said, “you just have to apply when your pre-settled status ends and find out”. In other words, this means another two years of uncertainty.

How can we tackle these problems?

To prevent a crisis of disentitlement from 1st July, the Home Office needs to clear the backlog, moderate employers’ excesses of caution, and give EUSS holders simpler proof of status. Diplomatic missions can play their part in standing up to discrimination, enabling EU citizens to acquire the IDs they need to make their applications, and providing good information. 

The media is also valuable in providing good information and giving voice to expertise. This is particularly important as a poor understanding of the EUSS is making some EU citizens take dangerous risks. We are especially worried by people who are told by recruitment agencies in Europe that they can come to the UK from January 2021, work for a few months in agriculture or food packaging, then apply to the EUSS. That is bad information, which creates false expectations and poses the risk of labour exploitation further down the line.

As Luke said during the discussion, we would encourage people to tell us about their problems in accessing their status. If you have a problem, tell somebody. Charities like ours, the3million, Settled, and Seraphus exist to support you, and we can also make contact with the press, some of whom dedicate a significant amount of time to exposing the flaws in the EUSS system. Together, we can make our voices louder and push more effectively for change.

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