A cross-party report published last week urges the UK and EU to ensure that the citizens' rights protections in the Withdrawal Agreement are fully implemented for UK nationals living across the EU and EU citizens in the UK. All recommendations were agreed upon by the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union. Broadly, the Report, to which Seraphus submitted written and oral evidence, underlines the necessity of many long-standing demands of professionals and third-party actors in the field of immigration and EU law.
For UK nationals in the EU, the Report makes three key recommendations. Firstly, it states that UK nationals living abroad need to be made aware of what they need to do to secure their rights. The Report calls on the Government, together with the European Commission and each Member State, to increase monitoring of the processes in each state. It also reiterates that the registration/application processes should be simple and avoid any unnecessary administrative burdens.
Secondly, the report states that deadlines for UK citizens to apply should be extended where necessary. In fact, of the thirteen Member States that have decided to require a new application for UK citizens to remain there legally, seven have already extended the deadline beyond 30 June 2021, which is the standard date for the end of such application schemes. The Committee urges other Member States to consider similarly extending the deadline if it becomes apparent that large numbers of UK nationals have not applied. In general, the Committee recommends countries take a pragmatic approach to delays, such as where Covid-19 causes a reduction in their capacity to manage applications.
Thirdly, the Report reiterates that UK nationals should be actively encouraged to register under the system of their host country. Due to free movement laws in operation over the past decades, many Brits living in countries such as Spain, Greece, France or Portugal are not necessarily registered with the local authority. It is almost impossible to estimate how many UK nationals are unregistered. Encouraging registration now, with the end of the transition period approaching, is vital, as it is often the first step in securing rights protected by the Withdrawal Agreement.
EU nationals in the UK face similar challenges if they want to stay in the UK lawfully. Unsurprisingly, then, the Report mirrors these requests to protect EU nationals in the UK in the same way as UK nationals abroad should be protected. In sheer numbers, the figures of EU citizens needing to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme to remain in Britain is far greater than the number of Brits needing to apply to similar schemes abroad. The concerns for EU citizens’ rights are therefore urgent.
The main issue identified is that although the EU Settlement Scheme has been a significant achievement (with over 4 million applications), it is still unknown how many EU citizens have yet to apply, as there is no clear data on the matter. Following from that, the report expresses concern over the application deadline of 30 June 2021, and what will happen to people who fail to apply before that. The committee urges ministers not to apply an unduly restrictive approach to late applications and to look for reasons to grant status rather than to refuse it.
The report also emphasises the danger for people with pre-settled status not knowing or understanding that they will need to upgrade their status before their pre-settled status expires. It urges the Government to publish guidance for caseworkers on how it will inform citizens with Pre-Settled Status that they are able and required to apply for an upgrade to Settled Status when the time comes.
Another concern highlighted is the danger for vulnerable individuals and groups in the UK. The report is unequivocal in stating that these individuals need more tailored support. Difficulties faced by some EU citizens, for example language or technology barriers, or problems with producing documentary evidence of their residence, are not uncommon. Communication with, and support for, these citizens, either directly from Government or through existing community organisations, must be prioritised as the 30 June 2021 deadline approaches.
There remains a lot of work to be done concerning communication and outreach, and that is why the report also recommends for funding to organisations providing support and advice to EU citizens to be extended beyond the end of this financial year (March 2021) as the government previously promised.
Finally, the Report argues that EU citizens in the UK should be able to apply for a physical document proving their legal residence in the UK. At the moment, EU citizens who successfully apply to the EU Settlement Scheme merely receive a digital confirmation. They have to log in and access their status online every time proof of legal residence is required, for example when opening a bank account, accessing benefits, renting a flat or changing jobs. The report urges the government to reconsider this, as it risks discriminating against EU citizens. This is because from 1 January 2021, identity checks will be performed online instead of through the familiar ID or passport check, only for EU citizens. For non-EU citizens, the same checks will be carried out in a way that is already known and familiar. The Government is urged to set out how it will monitor and review the rollout of these digital checks, parallel to the physical checks for third-party nationals. It also asks the Government for an update on progress establishing the planned Independent Monitoring Authority. This recommendation is especially relevant after last week’s debate in the House of Commons, where the government voted against a proposal to give EU citizens physical proof of status.
The key theme running through the entire report is the need for transparency and clarity. A lot of the recommendations are about outreach, awareness and simplicity of proving status. These are all things the government have been doing, but not enough. EU citizens in the UK as well as UK citizens abroad need to be made aware of what is expected from them, so that the end of the transition period can happen as smoothly as possible.
The EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS), to which all EU/EEA/Swiss citizens living in the UK should apply should they wish to remain in the UK after the end of the transition period on 31 December 2021, confirms the applicant’s right of residence in the UK after Brexit. This aim – to provide EU citizens who live in the UK with status to remain after free movement ceases to apply in the UK – seems simple enough. However, as we have written many times before, the Scheme is not perfect, and has many gaps. Here, we focus on one of those gaps: social security for EEA citizens, an issue which the EUSS does not address, as it fails to confirm explicitly that people who obtain status under the Scheme are protected by the Withdrawal Agreement. Whether someone is protected under the EU Withdrawal Agreement is important, as it determines whether the applicant in question is entitled to social security benefits in the UK.
The relevant framework to understand whether a person is entitled to social security in the UK after Brexit is quite complicated. It requires an understanding not only of UK and the member state’s immigration rules, but also its social security rules, the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement, the Free Movement Directive and the European Union Social Security Co-ordination Regulations (883/2004).
The 883/2004 coordination Regulations do not establish a single, unified social security system across the EU, but instead provide a reciprocal framework to protect the social security rights of people moving within the European Economic Area (EEA) states (and Switzerland). As such, each member state can choose what sort of benefits-in-kind and cash benefits it funds for nationals from another member state.
The coordination Regulation tells us which country is responsible for paying a person’s benefits, where those benefits can be received and what benefits may be redirected. In short, it simplifies the process of claiming and making benefits, allowing all benefits to be made in one single payment across borders. It provides a mechanism for countries to speak to each other, to resolve who meets the costs and where they will be paid, with an ability to challenge those decisions.
Member States however remain responsible for their own social security systems: it is up to them to decide which benefits are granted, at what rate, as well as define conditions for entitlement. So, a person’s entitlements is dependent on the domestic rules that are in place during their periods of residence in the respective EEA country and the UK.
All benefits referred to in the coordination Regulations are included in the Withdrawal Agreement at Part Two, Title III. This section ensures that if a person is entitled to benefits now, before the end of the transition period, they will maintain the right to those benefits and, if they are entitled to a cash benefit from one country, they will in principle be entitled to receive it even if they decide to live in another country. Title III also covers groups of people, other than those persons meeting the Free Movement Directive, who might also benefit from coordination.
There are four main principles for coordination. The first is the ‘single state principle,’ which sets out that at any one time, a person is covered by the social security system of one single country and is only liable to make contributions in one country – this is what we call the ‘competent state.’ The second is the prohibition of discrimination and guarantee of equal treatment, which sets out that a person has the same rights and obligations as a national of the Member State where they are covered. The third is the idea of ‘aggregation’ which establishes that periods of insurance, employment or residence in other Member States can be taken into account when determining a person’s eligibility for benefits. Finally, the last principle concerns exportability, and explains that a person can receive benefits from one Member State even if they are resident in another Member State.
All the persons who fall within the scope of the provisions set out above get the benefit of the rules and objectives set out in the coordination Regulations, its implementing Regulations and its governing EU treaty provision (Article 48 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union). In other words, the full coordination rules apply and so there is protection for social security, healthcare, and pensions.
There is a saving provision: anyone who does fall within the four categories set out above, but who falls within Article 10 of the Withdrawal Agreement is also covered (as are their family members and survivors) and will remain entitled to social security benefits. Article 10 refers to the categories of persons who continue to have rights of residence under the Withdrawal Agreement. So, if it’s too complex to determine eligibility in one of the categories above, then a person can still remain protected by the coordination rules in the future if they have attained the right of permanent residence in the UK, as long as they retain that right of residence.
Now we come to the EU Settlement Scheme. As we have explained before (for example when assessing EEA applications for naturalisation), settled status does not confirm whether a person falls under these provisions. This can lead to complex coordination in the future. The UK may not be able to determine that a person falls within one of the four categories, and this may lead to disputes with other states also involved in the coordination of rights. So, without a document confirming that they fall within the Withdrawal Agreement, a person with settled status may be excluded from social security coordination provisions under the Withdrawal Agreement, unless they have enough evidence to show prior exercise of EU rights. This is obviously problematic.
Another point to note is that the persons who fall within Article 10 of the Withdrawal Agreement are only covered for so long as they have a right to reside under Article 13 (residence rights) of the Withdrawal Agreement or a right to work in their state of work under Article 24 (rights of workers) or Article 25 (right of self-employed persons) of the Withdrawal Agreement. Again, this risks excluding settled status holders based merely on five years’ presence from social security co-ordination provisions under the Withdrawal Agreement unless they can show the prior exercise of EU rights.
This issue is easy to resolve: applicants who receive settled status and have been beneficiaries of the Withdrawal agreement should simply receive a document to confirm that, which would enable them to claim the benefits they are entitled to without any complications. Unfortunately, the government has previously shown that it is not keen on providing physical status at all – let alone physical proof of entitlement to benefits.
The UK is well-known for its sky-high immigration and visa fees. These fees, which have risen steeply up to 20-25% per year since the early 2000s, are big business for the Home Office. In fact, in 2018, the Home Office made over £500m from immigration fees alone. In addition to immigration and visa fees, individuals may be liable for the immigration health surcharge, which is currently priced at £400 per person per year, but set to rise to £624 this fall. On average, an applicant will have to spend over £2,000 to get leave to remain in the UK (rising to £2,500 in a matter of months with the planned surcharge increase), and that is excluding potential legal fees. In short, living in the UK on an immigrant visa is an expensive ordeal.
Unsurprisingly, not everyone who needs a visa can afford these fees. The courts have ruled that for human rights based applications, charging fees which the applicant cannot afford is unlawful. Thus, if you are facing a bill for visa fees that you cannot afford, and are considering borrowing money in order to be able to extend your stay in the UK, it may be worth considering an application for a fee waiver. Here, we go over how to go about it.
Unfortunately, the fee waiver is only available in limit circumstances. The first limitation is that only applicants with a human rights claim are eligible to apply for a fee waiver, and only where their human rights claim constitutes “a substantive basis of their application.” Examples of applications that fall into this category are applications for leave to remain under the five-year parent route, the ten-year partner, parent or private life route where the applicant claims that refusal of that application would breach their rights under Art. 8 of the ECHR, applications based on other ECHR rights, applications from victims of human trafficking or modern slavery, and some applications for leave to remain under the five-year partner route.
Additionally, applications for indefinite leave to remain are never eligible for fee waivers, no matter the basis on which they are being made (human rights or not), limiting the scope of fee waivers further. Applicants are advised to extend their temporary leave to remain until they can afford the indefinite leave to remain fee independently.
Fees waivers do not necessarily cover all fees. It is possible, for example, for an applicant to pay their own fee but apply for a fee waiver for one or more dependant. It is also possible to ask for a waiver of the Immigration Health Surcharge only, and not the main application fee, if the applicant can only afford one of the two.
If the application in question is eligible for a fee waiver, then applicants for fee waivers will have to show that one of the following applies to them:
- They cannot afford the fee
- They are destitute
- They are at risk of imminent destitution
- Their income is not sufficient to meet a child's particular and additional needs
- They are faced with exceptional financial circumstances
Whether you can or cannot afford the fee is a hard thing to prove, and the Home Office tend to only accept fee waivers based on affordability arguments in exceptional circumstances. Generally, officials are instructed to look at applications very restrictively and their point of departure seems to be that an applicant should be able to afford the fee. As such, they will also consider funds from friends and family, or non-liquid funds, when assessing if an applicant can afford the fee.
Applications are made through an online form. After an applicant submits their fee waiver application, the procedure is quite restrictive as well. If waiver is granted, the applicant will be issued with a Unique Reference Number to be used when applying for leave to remain online. The application for leave to remain must be submitted within ten working days of the date of the decision (careful, not the date that the decision is received, but the day it was made). The person must then make an appointment at a Service and Support Centre within 17 working days. If the applicant fails to make the application within these timescales, they may need to make a new fee waiver application. If their leave has expired in the meantime, they may become an overstayer.
If the waiver application is refused, the status of an applicant will depend on whether the applicant had valid leave at the time of the application. The guidance states that there are no service standards in fee waiver applications, meaning they do not provide a standard timeframe in which an application must be decided. However, caseworkers are urged to make reasonable efforts to decide applications requests promptly, especially those involving a child or an applicant who is street homeless, disabled or otherwise in vulnerable circumstances.
Those who have valid leave at the time of application will be told about the refusal and be given ten working days to submit additional evidence to challenge that decision. If the new evidence submitted satisfies the caseworker that they are in fact eligible for the waiver, their application will be accepted, and they will be given another ten working days to submit the application for leave to remain.
If the new evidence does not satisfy the caseworker that they are eligible for a fee waiver, however, their application will be refused, and they will be given ten working days to submit an application for leave to remain and pay the application fee independently. If they do not do so before their leave expires, they will become overstayers.
So, in summary – fee waiver applications are only made online, which poses its own challenges. It is very important that applications for a fee waiver are made before the expiry of leave, to maximise one’s chances. And finally, the requirements are quite restrictive but it is always worth a try. The fact that fee waivers are available is a good development in and of itself.
If you want to know more about how to apply for a fee waiver please do not hesitate to contact us here or send us a question on WhatsApp.
In their most recent report, the Migration Observatory confirms what many lawyers and people working in the immigration field feared: no matter how much outreach and campaigning the Home Office plans to do, thousands of EU citizens in the UK are still likely to miss the EU Settlement Scheme deadline, which is set on 30 June 2021, and lose their lawful residence. These are not necessarily vulnerable individuals, but often simply people who do not realise that they need to apply to the Scheme. Broadly, the people most at risk of missing the deadline fall into five categories.
Firstly, those who are simply not aware that they need to apply. A perfect example of this are very long-term residents, who might think that they do not need to apply because they have lived here for so long, or EU citizens with permanent residence. In absolute numbers, tens of thousands of EU citizens fall under those categories. We know that at least 145,000 non-Irish EU citizens have been granted permanent residence from 2004 to 2019, who are not (yet) UK citizens. Many of these do now know that their permanent residence is not enough to warrant their continued lawful residence after Brexit.
Similarly, children of EU citizens whose parents do not themselves apply might not realise that their children need to do so, or mistakenly believe that their UK-born children are automatically UK citizens. In absolute numbers, this means a big group of children are at risk, as there are an estimated 689,000 children living in the UK with non-Irish EU citizenship. Other people who may not be aware that they need to apply to the Scheme are people who have been rejected for permanent residency or who were previously ineligible, and who do not realise that the criteria to obtain status under the EUSS have been made less restrictive. Additionally, people with criminal records and people who have been removed in the past might be reluctant to apply due to fear of being refused status or not meeting the suitability requirement), even if they are in fact eligible. In prison specifically, EEA citizens are in theory entitled to apply, but in practice unaware of the scheme or unable to submit their application due to practical difficulties.
The second category comprises of people who already face some kind of social exclusion, or who enjoy reduced independence or autonomy. Again, children are part of this group, specifically children in care and care leavers eligible to apply. According to Home Office estimates, there are around 5,000 children in care and 4,000 care leavers who would be eligible to apply to the EUSS, but some local authorities might not have information about their citizenship and hence do not apply on their behalf. In addition, some children might lack a valid ID and/or might not be able to provide evidence of their residence in the UK before coming into care. Other vulnerable groups include rough sleepers, victims of domestic abuse, victims of modern slavery and migrant Roma communities. According to government statistics, which tend to underestimate population numbers, there are currently at least 4,250 EEA nationals who qualify for homelessness assistance, 101 000 victims of domestic abuse, 1,400 victims of modern slavery and 200,000 Roma people, respectively. The numbers add up quickly.
Thirdly, some people might know about the EU Settlement Scheme, but struggle to navigate the application process. This could be due to practical difficulties such as language barriers, mental health problem or people with cognitive disabilities. It could also be due to technical difficulties, for example low digital literacy, low general literacy, or age. If we do the math again, these categories account for at least 600,000 vulnerable individuals: 244,000 people with language difficulties, 15,000 individuals who say their mental health impacts their daily activities, 42,000 people who have never used the internet before, 300,000 EEA citizens who have no formal qualifications, and 58,000 people aged over 75.
Lastly, people who lack evidence to prove their eligibility will also fail to acquire status, even though they might qualify for it. The biggest groups here are people who lack identity evidence to demonstrate their EEA nationality, of which there are at least 100,000 in England & Wales, and people who lack evidence of their relationship to a qualifying EU citizen. These people cannot simply rely on their residency in the UK to acquire status under the settlement scheme, but also need to prove that their relationship with a qualifying citizen is genuine. The number of people qualifying for status based on their family members is unknown.
Finally, an important group to mention are the people who may have acquired pre-settled status now, but who might now know or forget to upgrade that status to settled status once they have reached the five-year continuous residence requirement.
Need I go on? The report shows that traditionally vulnerable groups, be it people in poverty, social isolation, or living in precarious conditions, are more likely to miss the Scheme deadline than other EEA nationals. People without bank accounts, or leases, or bills in their name. It also shows how enormous that group of people is, and how many people may therefore end up without a status. This is why immigration practitioners call the EU Settlement Scheme a “Windrush Scheme on steroids” in the making. The Scheme is set up to reinforce existing inequalities, and filter out applicants who are perceived as less useful or desirable in British society, as people from challenging backgrounds are most likely to slip through the cracks and end up being in the UK unlawfully through no fault of their own. no matter how much money the government throws at their EU Settlement Scheme outreach campaign, not everyone that needs to know about the Scheme will be made aware of it.
Immigration practitioners have cautioned about this since the Brexit vote; the Migration Observatory report confirms it yet again. Meanwhile, the government knows about it, yet does nothing to ensure change. That should tell any layman enough about the intentions and goals behind the Scheme.