August 2020

The problems of a digital-only immigration system by Charlotte Rubin

When the government first outlined its vision for a new, post-Brexit immigration system in December 2018, they clarified that they wanted the system to be modern, efficient and in keeping with the “shift towards digital status in all areas of life”.

The first large-scale project where this “shift” became prominent is the EU Settlement Scheme, the framework under which EU citizens need to apply for status if they want to remain lawfully in the UK after the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020. Under the Scheme, EU citizens do not receive physical proof of their status, having to rely instead on a digital-only status, which they can access via the government website.

Under the hostile environment, introduced by Theresa May in 2012, the government forces service providers like landlords, employers, banks and universities to ask everyone they provide services to prove their status, effectively delegating its border control responsibilities to non-governmental entities. As a consequence, non-British nationals in the UK have to prove that they are legal at every turn. In order to live and survive in the UK as a non-British national, easy access to proof of one’s immigration status is therefore essential.

The Home Office argues that the digital-only status reflects that, as it allows EU citizens to “check their status from anywhere, at any time” from their phone. The government stated that “the EU Settlement Scheme protects the rights of EU citizens in UK law and gives them a secure digital status, which unlike a physical document, cannot be lost, stolen, damaged or tampered with”, selling the digital-only access as advantageous and useful for all parties involved. This reasoning fails to consider many factors which can prevent EU citizens from accessing their status, and therefore, accessing their rights.

Firstly, sharing and evidencing a digital status is hindered by numerous practical obstacles such as lack of IT knowledge, literacy, language barriers, or age differences. At Seraphus, we have encountered many EU citizens, especially elderly or isolated communities, who for example do not have email addresses or phone numbers. Both are necessary not just to apply for (pre)settled status, but also to access and share their status with service providers further down the line. For now, free advice and support is available to help EU citizens who for whatever reason are not secure in their application, apply under the EUSS, but there is no indication that this support will carry through once the deadline for application has passed, and citizens will need assistance to change, update or share their status instead of simply to obtain it.

This will harm many EU citizens once the points-based system come into force in January 2021. Most importantly, EU citizens are highly likely to be discriminated against similarly to how it occurs against third-party nationals today under the “right to rent” rules. In fact, only 3 in 150 landlords said they would be prepared to do these digital checks when renting out a flat, meaning that candidates with physical proof of their status will be prioritised over EU citizens who have go through the hassle of accessing their status online. The risk of being discriminated against increases, as it always does, for more vulnerable segments of the population, including those from isolated, older or BAME communities, women, children, and those with disabilities.

As Christopher Desira wrote, barriers also exist for the third-party requesting access to the status, multiplying the likelihood of discrimination. For example, a private landlord with a basic understanding of English and IT will find challenging to access and understand an EU citizen’s digital status, and therefore prefer to rent their property to someone where that hurdle need not be overcome, i.e. a British national who simply has to show their passport to prove that they have the right to rent in the UK.

Thirdly, the risk of any type of digital-only access scheme is that there can be a system outage at critical times, leaving EU citizens out in the cold when needing to show their status. In addition, digital security is a hot topic. Digital records can be breached, hacked or made unavailable, with not only consequences for the EU citizen who at that moment is unable to prove their status, but also for their privacy in the longer term. How securely is all this digital data stored, what are the contingency measures in case of a breach, and who is the data shared with? The government have answered none of these arguably critically important questions.

Non-EU family members who are eligible under the EUSS do receive a physical, credit-card sized document evidencing their settled or pre-settled status, so it is clear that if the Home Office wanted to, they could give EU citizens the option to request a hard copy document as well. The question remains why they then decided against it after a petition calling for physical documents as proof of (pre)settled status was brought to them in August 2019. Physical proof of immigration status, even on an optional basis, is not only easy implemented, but also an important basic right, especially since the government’s own assessment concluded that digital-only access to status would cause serious issues, and that a physical backup should be retained until the online system is streamlined and perfected to a standard which actually benefits EU citizens instead of hurting them.

If you have any questions regarding absences or the EU settlement scheme, please do not hesitate to contact us here or send us a question on WhatsApp.

Briefing: how to hire a non-British worker by Charlotte Rubin

Notice: we do not help non-EU / overseas / foreign workers find jobs in the UK. Our service is available only to established national businesses that are looking to hire foreign workers, or for foreign workers with job offers in the UK.

Under the new immigration system, set to come into force on 1 January 2021, freedom of movement for EU/EEA/Swiss ('EU') citizens will end. Just like non-EU nationals, EU citizens who are not settled in the UK will have to apply for working visas if they wish to come work in the UK. Conversely, employers wanting to hire EU workers will have to apply for a migrant sponsor licence, just like they have to do now for third-party nationals.

Being a sponsor does not mean that the employer has to pay for the migrant worker’s visa application. It simply means that as a UK company wanting to hire overseas workers, the Home Office will do a check on the company’s organisation and trustworthiness in dealing with migrant workers, and assess whether the company is able to monitor and follow that their migrant employees comply with their visa conditions.

There are two types of working visas, and similarly, companies can get a licence to hire either type of worker. The first one is the Tier 2 worker visa, tailored towards non-British nationals coming to the UK as skilled workers with permanent, long-term job offers. This post will focus on how to apply for sponsorship to sponsor those Tier 2 workers. The second type is the Tier 5 worker, who comes to the UK temporarily. Good examples are seasonal workers (e.g. in agriculture) or charity workers.

For both types of sponsorship licence, the Home Office announced in February 2020 that “Employers not currently approved by the Home Office to be a sponsor should consider doing so now if they think they will want to sponsor skilled migrants, including from the EU, from early 2021." If you are an employer who intends to hire non-British workers from January 2020 onwards, it is now beyond time to apply for your sponsor licence, especially since the government has announced multiple changes to the sponsorship system which will make it easier for businesses to obtain a licence.

To facilitate the transition from free movement laws to the new points-based system, the government has proposed to lift the “cap” on numbers of migrant workers, meaning there is no longer a limit on how many companies can obtain such a licence every year. The government has also announced that the required skill level for sponsored job role will be reduced from January onwards, and roles requiring a skill level equivalent (roughly) to A-levels will be eligible for sponsorship, instead of the higher requirement of bachelor’s degree that is in place today. This, again, is to smoothen the transition from EU free movement to the stricter migration rules of the points-based system. Additionally, from January onwards, the Resident Labour Market Test (RLMT) will no longer apply, meaning that you will be able to hire foreign workers even if there are suitably qualified resident workers able to fill the role for which you are recruiting. This was previously not the case.

For all of these reasons, now seems like the perfect time to apply for a Tier 2 Sponsor Licence. So how should a business go about the application? Applications are made to a specific Tier 2 Sponsor Licence applications team at the Home Office. The process involves two different steps: an initial online form, and then a file of hard copy supporting documents which are due to be submitted within 5 working days of the online form.

The basic criteria that a company needs to meet to receive a sponsorship licence are numerous. Firstly, the business must be based in the UK. Secondly, the business must be “genuine,” and trading lawfully in the UK, meaning that the business will have to provide details of their organisational and sectoral structure. Supporting documents will need to include, for example, an up to date hierarchy chart detailing any owner, director and board members.

Thirdly, the business must be “honest, dependable and reliable,” a subjective and relatively vague requirement which is usually proven by submitting previous projects, reviews and contracts that show that the company lives up to its promises. Broadly, the supporting documents serve to show the Home Office that the sponsor company is capable of complying with sponsor duties and responsibilities and does not pose a threat to immigration control. The more details the sponsor provides, the better. That is why the business owner will also have to include details about the role(s) they are looking to fill, to ensure that these roles meet the skill, salary and qualification requirements for eligibility for foreign workers.

As such, to hold a Tier 2 Sponsor licence, the applicant organisation must have Human Resources systems in place to ensure that they are able to meet the various sponsor's duties and responsibilities as set out in the guidance. No details are provided as to what such a system entails, but broadly, the company must use this system to ensure accurate monitoring of employees’ immigration status, track and record their work attendance, and keeping copies of relevant documents for each employee.

As reiterated in the guidance, sponsorship is a privilege, not a right. That is why the process is not as straightforward as it could be – the applicant company has to earn the privilege of being a sponsor, and the burden of proof lies on them to demonstrate that they have done so. If you are looking to hire overseas workers, do not hesitate to contact us to help you with your Tier 2 Sponsor Licence application.

If you have any questions regarding absences or the EU settlement scheme, please do not hesitate to contact us here or send us a question on WhatsApp.

Continuous residence for the purposes of the EU Settlement Scheme, and the effect of COVID-19 by Christopher Desira and Charlotte Rubin

For an applicant to the EU Settlement Scheme to receive either pre-settled or settled status, they will have to fulfil three key criteria. Firstly, they will have to prove that they are eligible to apply by evidencing their identity and nationality, and if necessary, their family relationship. Secondly, they will have to answer a few questions about criminality to see whether they are suitable for (pre)settled status. Finally, they will have to confirm and prove a period of continuous residence in the UK. This is the requirement that defines whether the applicant will be granted pre-settled or settled status, the latter obviously being a stronger and more permanent status for the applicant.

To obtain settled status, an applicant has to have been continuously residing in the UK for a five-year period. Applicants who are not currently living in the UK, but are applying based on their historic residency, will have to maintain their eligibility by proving that they have not been outside the UK for a continuous 5 year period immediately after the 5 year qualifying period of residence on which their application is based.

If a person has continuously resided for less than 5 years, they will be on course for pre-settled status. Once they obtain pre-settled status, they will need to continuously reside in the UK to maintain their status and further down the line, to reach the five-year requirement to qualify for settled status.

They can maintain their continuous residence by living in the UK for more than six months out of every twelve-month period. Applicants are permitted one period of absence of more than 6 months (but which does not exceed 12 months) for an important reason such as childbirth, serious illness, study, vocational training, overseas posting, or compulsory military service, without losing their pre-settled status. If the absence is longer, and it is not for an important reason, it will break continuous residence, and they will not be able to apply for settled status.

This might be the way the Home Office decides to deal with COVID-19 related absences – either it’s an important reason and the applicant “uses” their exception for it, or they return to the UK before 11pm on 31 December 2020 so they can re-start a new period of residence in the UK.

But this pre-existing rule is not enough, and does not cover every scenario where absences will affect those under the EUSS.

There are two key dates in relation to the EU Settlement application process: the eligibility deadline and the application deadline. The application deadline is 30 June 2021, but a person has until 31 December 2020 to become a person eligible to apply. This means that for EU citizens, residence in the UK must commence before 11pm on 31 December 2020 in order for them to qualify for status. Similarly, for most family members, the relationship must exist before 11pm on 31 December 2020 for the relationship to be considered under the EUSS.

As a consequence, absences can affect both EU citizens and family members in different ways. For example, imagine a Bulgarian national intends to come to live in the UK and would like to do so under the EUSS. They must move to and commence residence in the UK before 11pm on 31 December 2020 in order to get pre-settled status, which after five years of residence can then be “upgraded” to settled status. If they cannot move before 31 December 2020, then they will have a much more difficulty immigration process to get through in the new 2021 immigration system. This is quite a straightforward scenario – EU citizens know that their time to enjoy free movement and move to the UK is running low.

More pressing will be the ability to establish a family relationship before 11 pm on 31 December 2020. Imagine a French national who is intending to marry a Cameroon national. Imagine the couple have not known each other for very long, so they are not entitled to the status of “durable partners,” but they intend to get married in April 2020. Due to COVID-19, the marriage was delayed; it could not take place either in the UK or Cameroon due to the travel restrictions and social restrictions, most importantly because neither party to the marriage could travel. As a consequence, come the EUSS deadline for eligibility of 31 December 2020, the couple will be unable to establish their relationship existed (in the strict sense of the rules) before 11 pm on 31 December 2020, and as a consequence the Cameroon national will not be able to bring herself within the scope of EUSS status.

The couple will be locked out of the easier EUSS family permit route and will instead need to consider the strict rules for entry as a spouse, which are much more complicated. If the French national has previously obtained settled status under the EUSS, they will be able to sponsor their Cameroon partner under the spouse visa rules. If the French national merely has pre-settled status, however, this will be impossible. They will be separated from each other for a considerable period of time until the French national acquires settled status and then applies to bring their spouse in on a spouse visa.

These types of situations are not just typical for married couples. Unmarried (durable) partners must be in their relationship with their EEA partner before 31 December 2020 as well. To be eligible to apply for (pre-)settled status as a durable partner, the durable partnership must first be assessed as genuine by the Home Office. “Genuineness” is generally hard to prove. In the case of a durable relationship, the Home Office requires durable partners to apply for a document under the EEA Regulations to evidence their relationship. That document must be issued and received before the durable partner can then apply for status under the EUSS, meaning that if you’re an unmarried partner (i.e. durable partner) an application for that document must be made before 31 December 2020. If you’re a dependent relative (other than someone in the ascending lines of the EU citizens, spouse, or civil partner of the EU citizen), again, you must hold a relevant document for which an application must be made before 31 December 2020.

So, if COVID-19 prevents an applicant from being able to travel and/or apply for the necessary documentation in time, then they will be locked out of the EUSS. There are countless scenarios where this could go very wrong. For example, if an EEA national has died due to Covid-19, then their family members who are left behind should be able to apply for pre-settled or settled status. But under the current rules, those family members would only be eligible for status if they lived with the EEA national for at least one year immediately before they passed away. Setting aside the tragedy and trauma of losing a family member without even being able to say goodbye to them, what happens if the family member was unable to return to the UK in time due to travel restrictions, and they could not reach one year of living together? They will be locked out of the EUSS.

Or what if an applicant wants to retain their residence rights after divorcing their EEA partner? In order to do so, the marriage needs to have lasted for at least three years before starting the divorce proceedings, and both partners must have been living in the UK for at least one year before they apply. Again, if COVID-19 prevented the applicant from reaching that one year threshold before 31 December 2020, they will be locked out of the EUSS and it will not be possible for them to retain their rights.

This would simply be unfair. COVID-19 has had an impact on virtually every aspect of society and government. The immigration system is no different. The process of Brexit has been halted, slowed and changed by the virus as well. That is why the Brexit Civil Society Alliance wrote a letter to the Home Secretary asking for exemptions to the rules to deal with any breaks in continuous residency caused by COVID-19, so that no EU citizen is forced out of status through absolutely no fault of their own.

The Home Office replied stating that "continuity of residence by EEA and Swiss citizens applying to the scheme and who may have been stuck overseas as a result of COVID-19 is one of a number of issues the Home Office is working through. We are taking a pragmatic approach to ensure individuals are not penalised for issues arising from the COVID-19 pandemic."

Based on this response and our internal discussions with the Home Office, it doesn’t appear that COVID-19 will kill applications under the EU Settlement Scheme. In fact, the Home Office have confirmed verbally that absences due to Covid-19 will be considered as a serious reason for those who are on course to apply for or have received pre-settled status. This means that one absence of more than six months but not more than twelve for COVID-19 related reasons will not be considered to have broken continuous residence.

Although it is a step in the right direction, this is the only flexible approach the Home Office have referred to, and it fails to cover all of the other possible scenarios where absence will cause other problems.

Home Office policy on absences affecting those under the EUSS is yet to be determined because, they stated, COVID-19 related absences is an issue that affects all immigration categories and not just the EUSS, so they are trying to work out a holistic approach throughout the immigration system. It might be that the Home Office are taking this issue seriously, and it’s therefore taking time to put together a comprehensive, flexible and compassionate policy to deal with it. However, it might also be that part of it was a wait and see approach to see how serious of an issue absences might be for some visa categories.

But a wait and see approach will not suffice. As EU free movement law fully applies during the transition period, the issue of absence has to be assessed under Article 16(3) of the Free Movement Directive in the same way as for mobile EU citizens having their residence in an EU Member State. A longer absence due to the coronavirus/COVID-19 crisis should be treated as force majeure (unforeseeable circumstances that prevent someone from fulfilling a contract) and should not, therefore, be deemed to break continuous lawful residence.

In the meantime, any absences due to Covid-19 must be documented and evidenced, as the Home Office never takes an applicant’s word for truth. If your continuous residence is endangered due to COVID-19, you are going to need to have evidence that the enforced absence is linked to Covid-19 as well as that your return to the UK was completed as soon as it was safe and reasonably possible. The reality is that unless the Home Office decide to declare COVID-19 as an event of force majeure, the burden is going to be on applicants will need to put their case to the Home Office in order to have the best chance that discretion will be exercised in their favour.

If you have any questions regarding absences or the EU settlement scheme, please do not hesitate to contact us here or send us a question on WhatsApp.


UKVI Asylum Operations Key Updates

The Home Office are continuing to adapt the ways they work during the coronavirus crisis and have provided the following key updates to services for asylum seekers.

UASC SEF and Witness Statement returns

As part of a focus on minors applications, including planning to facilitate the restart of asylum interviews, we have contacted legal representatives in all cases where SEFs and Witness Statements are outstanding in order to request their completion and return at the earliest opportunity. Where there are obstacles to SEF and Witness Statement completion and return, we ask that representatives contact their local asylum office to explain the issues faced, plans for resolution and expected timeline for completion and return.

The Home Office remains committed to working with legal representatives to resolve issues, reduce delays and progress minors claims in accordance with the Immigration Rules.

Resumption of Asylum Substantive Interviews

As you will be aware, substantive asylum interviews were paused on 19 March 2020 due to the impact of Covid-19. More recently, Asylum Operations has been working to enable substantive interviews to restart with safety as our priority for all attendees, initially through the use of videoconferencing. We have now published guidance on the resumption of substantive asylum interviews on Gov.UK. This guidance should be read in conjunction with the Asylum Interviews guidance as normal.

Briefing (pt.2): our submission to the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration by Chris Benn and Charlotte Rubin

The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) is currently putting together a review of the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) to present to the government. As the official lawyers contracted by the European Union (EU) to provide legal and policy advice to the European Delegation in the United Kingdom on the EUSS, Brexit and EU Citizens' Rights, we made a submission to on the progress of the Scheme.

Applying to the EUSS is mandatory for all EU citizens and other EEA/Swiss nationals who wish to continue living in the UK lawfully after the transition period. EU citizens have until 30 June 2021 to apply under the Scheme. If they do not apply in time, they will be unlawful residents in the UK. The Scheme’s strong suits and shortcomings have been discussed many a time. Our data and experience, collected since we started working with the EU delegation in 2018, enables us to map certain problematic patterns within the scheme and the way it operates. In last week’s briefing, we discussed the EUSS process up until the stage of applying to the Scheme, with a focus and communication and outreach that has been done to reach vulnerable EU citizens who need to apply to the Scheme. This week, we look at the next stage, namely what happens after submission of applications.

The government has hailed the EU Settlement Scheme as a great success, with 98% of applicants under the Scheme being granted status, and relatively few applications being refused. These numbers do speak for themselves to some extent. In recent months, however, we have seen a rise in refused and void applications.

Applications can be refused for different reasons, the main ones being that the applicant is not eligible for status under the Scheme, or that they are not suitable for status. The last set of EUSS statistics which included a breakdown of eligibility versus suitability refusals were issued in May 2020. These statistics stated of the 2,300 refusal decisions, 1% are refused on suitability with the remaining 99% refused on eligibility.

This may seem like a small percentage of suitability refusals. However, it only reflects suitability refusals where a valid application has been made to the EUSS. The most vulnerable applicants who are at risk of having their application refused based on suitability grounds are prisoners and immigration detainees. These individuals are severely restricted in their ability to make an application to the EUSS, and lack the adequate legal aid to do so. As a consequence, the likelihood is that they will receive their deportation decision before they are able to lodge an EUSS application. They are then stuck in a vicious circle: the deportation decision prevents them from being granted EUSS status, but they did not know they had to apply before they received the deportation decision.

The effect of this is the same as a refusing an EUSS application on suitability grounds. The Home Office guidance on ‘EEA decisions taken on grounds of public policy’ sets a low bar for the issuing of a deportation decision, meaning that many of these EEA nationals only have to reach that threshold in order to be liable for deportation. Arguably, this is inconsistent with the approach required by the Withdrawal Agreement, which grants EEA citizens more extensive protections. In other words, these EEA citizens are being refused the rights and benefits of their respective Withdrawal Agreements. As things stand now, these cases are not being clearly reported in the statistics. As a consequence, it is difficult to assess whether or not there is a systemic denial of Withdrawal Agreement rights, but the possibility is definitely there.

Regarding refusals on eligibility grounds, which forms the other 99% of refusals, the narrative presented by the Home Office is that caseworkers will only refuse an application if they have made numerous efforts to contact applicants to seek additional information. It is only when these request for additional information are not responded to that the Home Office is ‘forced’ to issue an eligibility refusal. In reality, this presentation is not consistent where the application can be refused because the applicant is applying as either a durable partner, or a dependent relative. Family members and dependent relatives have to send a “mandatory document” proving their relationship with the EEA national as part of the application process. If they fail to do so, these cases are refused quickly once the Home Office has confirmed that the applicant did not submit a relevant document, without necessarily contacting the applicant to request for additional information. In fact, applicants whose application was refused on those grounds of failing to provide a “mandatory document” confirmed that the Home Office made no attempt to contact them to request the relevant document and instead, refused them after a significant delay only informing them about the requirement to hold a relevant document in the refusal decision.

Following from that, it is essential that refusal decisions based on the fact that the applicant has not obtained a relevant document under the EEA Regulations prior to applying into the EUSS are issued before the deadline 31 December 2020. This is necessary because any refusal decision received after this date will prevent the family member from applying for an EEA Regulations relevant document which is mandatory to then succeeding under the EUSS. In essence, if they receive their refusal late, these applicants will be locked out of being granted EUSS status irrespective of whether or not their family situation meets the conditions of the Withdrawal Agreement. This would be denial of status on a procedural basis not on a substantive basis, and should be avoided at all costs.

In addition to a quick processing of these cases, Seraphus recommended that EUSS applicants who require EEA Regulations relevant documents should be entitled to apply for these up to 30 June 2021 based on a relationship that existed by 31 December 2020. This would be consistent with the intentions of the Withdrawal Agreement to ensure that family relationships in existence by 31 December 2020 are protected. By comparison, this approach is no different from requiring EUSS applicants to be resident in the UK before the end of the transition period and then having an additional six months to make the EUSS applications evidencing their eligibility.

When the Scheme was initially rolled out in 2018, there was no process in place to appeal a refused decision, meaning people whose application was refused had no way of challenging this decision. After complaints and campaigns to promote access to justice and a fair trial, the Home Office introduced the right of appeal for the EUSS in January 2020, but only for applications made on or after 31 January 2020. As a consequence, applicants who applied before 31 January 2020 are still unable to appeal their refusals. There does not seem to be any specific logic in denying an appeal right to applicants based on what is essential an arbitrary date for the purpose of the EUSS. Many of the cases refused before the cut-off date were part of the more complex share of applications, and were pending for a significant period of time (6 to 12 months), prior to refusal. Due to the lack of appeal routes, these individuals are forced to re-apply under the Scheme and again, wait for months before finding out the results.

As for invalid applications, there seems to be a communication breakdown between the Home Office and the applicants. Some EEA nationals come to outreach events and ask questions thinking they have valid applications pending but on examination, do not have any type of application outstanding. Applicants who do not have a certificate of application and are not aware of the necessity of this certificate have misunderstood something vital about the EUSS process which will ultimately lead to their application being invalidated. The reasons for this type of misunderstanding are diverse – for example, where applicants think that by scanning their passport or national identity card to the Home Office, they have made an application for status to remain in the UK. They do not realise that there is an additional online application form which must be submitted in order to complete the application process.

After the EUSS deadline has passed, there will be significant numbers of eligible citizens who believed that they had successfully made in EUSS application but instead have had their applications invalidated without their knowledge or understanding of what this meant. It is unclear whether such an excuse will be accepted by the Home Office as “good reason” for a late application, if the applicant in question realise that their initial application was not completed and then wants to reapply after the deadline.

To sum up, applicants and front-line workers need clarity on what reasons will constitute of good reason to apply to the EUSS after the deadline, as it looks like many individuals with previous refusals or with incomplete applications will end up having to apply after the deadline, and it is unknown whether those applications will be accepted. Refusals under the EUSS – whether on eligibility or suitability grounds – need to be communicated more effectively and more quickly. Additionally, the most complex applications such as family member applications, which cannot be made through the app but have to be submitted in paper-form, need to be prioritised as they are more time sensitive.

We will also need to assess whether the Home Office practice generally is in accordance with the Withdrawal Agreement. EU citizens, and their family members, living in the UK before the 31 December 2020 are beneficiaries of the Withdrawal Agreement and restrictions on those benefits, including the above practices, might be unlawful.

Briefing: our submission to the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration by Charlotte Rubin and Chris Benn

The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) is currently putting together a review of the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) to present to the government. As the official lawyers contracted by the European Union (EU) to provide legal and policy advice to the European Delegation in the United Kingdom on the EUSS, Brexit and EU Citizens' Rights, we made a submission to on the progress of the Scheme.

Applying to the EUSS is mandatory for all EU citizens and other EEA/Swiss nationals who wish to continue living in the UK lawfully after the transition period. EU citizens have until the 30 June 2021 to apply under the Scheme. If they do not apply on time, they will be unlawful residents in the UK. The Scheme’s strong suits and shortcomings have been discussed many a time. Our data and experience, collected since we started working with the EU delegation in 2018, makes it possible to map certain problematic patterns within the scheme and the way it operates. In the first part of this briefing, we discuss the EUSS process up until the stage of applying to the Scheme. The next stage, regarding outcomes of applications, will be the subject of a separate briefing next week.

The first important step to a successful Scheme such as the EUSS is raising awareness. The individuals concerned, in this case EEA nationals in the UK, need to know and understand what they need to do in order to remain in the UK lawfully. The government has made a significant effort to reach out to EU citizens in the UK and ensure that they apply in time. However, there are multiple caveats to the Home Office marketing and outreach campaigns.

Firstly, it is simply impossible to estimate the number of EU/EEA nationals who are eligible to apply to the Scheme, and therefore impossible to track whether they have done so or not. It is clear from the comparison of EUSS applications with the ONS population data that there is a clear underestimate of the numbers of EU citizens who reside in the UK. This raises issues relating to how many more potential EUSS applicants have not applied and how they will be provided with the information and assistance for they need to be successfully granted status under the EUSS. The Home Office appears to understand that much of the remaining EUSS work will relate to complex cases and vulnerable applicants however, it is not clear to what extent the Home Office intends to provide sufficient resources and support to these applicants.

Although there will be additional funding provided to successful organisations for the period between September 2020 and April 2021, this funding will not be sufficient to assist highly complex cases because the reality is that no funding is enough to reach every single eligible person. Additionally, whether or not there will be any funding for assistance from April 2021 onwards in the build-up to the deadline and the period afterwards, is unknown. What we do know is that applicants will face the additional burden of having to demonstrate they had good reasons for failing to apply to the EUSS if they apply after the deadline, and so funding is direly needed.

Secondly, certain groups of applicants have been neglected from the very beginning. One such group with whom the Home Office has failed to engage is prisoners and immigration detainees. Organisations involved with detainees and the EUSS have consistently raised issues with the Home Office relating to the provision of information, advice and the ability of detained EEA citizens to access the EUSS. Feedback from these organisations shows access to information about the EUSS for those in prison and immigration detention is extremely limited.

In many cases, it appears that EEA citizens are issued with deportation decisions prior to the end of their sentence with little access to immigration advice on whether they can challenge their deportation decision, which would in turn make it possible to make a successful EUSS application. The Home Office states that there is engagement through the Ministry of Justice with respect of EEA citizens in the prison estate however, there is very little detail on what this engagement is in practice, and how it is helping prisoners and immigration detainees understand their legal rights. It seems clear that from a political perspective this is a cohort of potential EUSS applicants who the Home Office would rather not provide any assistance to irrespective of whether they have rights under the Withdrawal Agreement or not. This approach is completely unsatisfactory, and additional efforts to highlight the difficulties that this group and their family members are facing need to be made.

Obviously, the EUSS process does not stop once applicants are informed and applications submitted. Unfortunately, there are many flaws in the way the Home Office deals with certain types of applications once they have been submitted. One such issue is the persisting delay in dealing with complicated applications from often vulnerable individuals. To make matters worse, the government website fails to adequately explain how and why such delays may happen.

This is not a new criticism - in response to the previous ICIBI report published in February 2020, the Home Office accepted that the information given relating to processing times needed to be improved. Yet, the information provided on the website is still woefully inadequate, as it merely sets out a list of situations where processing may take more than a month. In addition, if applicants seek to enquire why their case has been delayed, they are not given any useful information by the Settlement Resolution Centre, which is supposed to be their first point of contact if they encounter any issues.

A recent Freedom of Information release gave figures on EUSS applications that were pending for more than three months and those pending for more than six months, revealing that at least 36,000 applications had faced delays of over three months by October 2019. Clearly, the information is available to the Home Office. So why is nothing being done about it? In light of certain cases taking more than six months to be resolved, even up to 12+ months in some cases, the information available to the public remains fundamentally misleading and as a consequence, causes significant anxiety for applicants whose cases face significant delays.

Another reoccurring issue is the Home Office statistical analysis. Firstly, the monthly reports demonstrate that the rate of applications for the EUSS have declined since March 2020. Part of the decline is likely to be attributed to COVID-19. It also seems likely that the high number of applications/grants today means there is a diminishing pool of eligible applicants for the EUSS (though no one can accurately estimate how many citizens are left to apply due to well documented issues with the EUSS/ONS statistics, which is an inherent flaw of the Scheme in itself). As the level of applications has tailed off there is an opportunity for the Home Office to clear the backlog of pending applications and to focus on more complex cases. Yet, the published statistical reports provided by the Home Office show the current backlog of the EUSS is still significant. As of June 2020, it consisted of over 250 000 applications.

For the first time since the introduction of the Scheme, the Home Office intends to produce statistics relating to paper application forms to the EUSS in the next set of quarterly statistics to be released in August 2020. Even if this is finally the case, it seems highly unlikely that the statistics will include any information on the average processing times for the mandatory paper application routes. This is another instance where the Home Office fails the Scheme’s most vulnerable applicants: paper applications are often the most complex, as they include people who do not have ID documents or family members of EEA nationals. In order to increase transparency and help vulnerable individuals, applicants should receive updates at various points in the application process if their application is being delayed. In order to relieve their anxiety, these updates should include meaningful information about why their case is taking a long time to be processed.

Instead of fixing the statistics and giving more information about the progress of the Scheme, EUSS monthly statistics from July 2020 onwards will contain much less information than was previously the case. The reports will no longer contain a breakdown of applications by nationality which has been of vital importance to understanding EUSS application trends.

This will make the work of people in the field – lawyers, statisticians, social workers, government officials, etc. – even more challenging than it has been ever since the Scheme came into existence.





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