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.