The Home Office released its Policy Equality Statement earlier this month in relation to the EU Settlement Scheme. Almost 4.3 million people have now applied under the Scheme to stay in the UK after Brexit, far exceeding the Home Office’s estimate of the eligible population. Despite this arguable success, significant concerns remain about vulnerable population groups being at risk of missing out on the application window and losing their rights of residence as a consequence.
The Policy Equality Statement is an important document, as it assesses whether the entirety of the EU Settlement Scheme is compliant with anti-discrimination laws such as the 2010 Equality Act. Essentially, it is the Home Office’s self-evaluation of whether the Scheme is proportionate and whether it risks discriminating against protected groups, such as EU citizens with disability, women, or other minorities.
The overall conclusion and general theme of the report is that whilst the Home Office acknowledges that there is at least some indirect discrimination built into the Scheme, it is not enough to be considered unlawful, and can be justified as a “proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”. For example, the Home Office findings confirm that disabled applicants will encounter difficulties navigating the online-only application system. However, the report explains this arguably discriminatory hurdle stating that the overall aim of the online system to render the application system simpler and more accessible justifies it. Additionally, the report states that the risk of discrimination has been mitigated by funding for charities and outreach to help vulnerable groups like disabled people through the application process.
Similarly, the EUSS application system is found to indirectly discriminate against women. The Statement notes that the automated checks for evidence of continuous residence fail to cover certain welfare payments which women are more likely to receive, such as Child Benefits, making the application process more complicated for women. While the Home Office acknowledges that “this could put women at a particular disadvantage”, the potential discrimination is justified because the system “reduces the overall administrative burden on applicants in general”, and therefore this is in compliance with the Equality Act. The Home Office also points to how it has tried to “mitigate any potential disadvantage”, in this example by accepting a wide range of other residence evidence where the automated checks do not suffice.
The worry from all this is that a lot of people who the Scheme is objectively discriminating against will not be able apply before the deadline of 30 June 2021, and become unlawful residents in the UK as a consequence, even though they qualify for residency. It is very hard to predict how many people will fall through the cracks like this. In fact, considering that Home Office data expected 3 million applications to the Scheme in total, yet they have already received 4.3 million of them with over seven months left to apply, the Home Office arguably has no idea how to estimate any of these numbers.
To sum up, the Home Office admits that there is indeed discrimination against various minority groups, but that the exceptional circumstances of Brexit, combined with efforts made to mitigate the discrimination in question, suffice to justify it, and it is therefore not a legal issue. It will be a waiting game to see whether claims will be brought against this conclusion, or any other claims made in the 105-page-long document, and if so, whether the courts will agree.
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