Christopher Desira is Seraphus’ director and founding solicitor. He has over 15 years of experience in immigration law. Since 2018, his team has been special advisors on Brexit to the European Commission Representation in the UK. In that position, his team gives free non-political information sessions on EU citizens’ rights in the UK in the context of Brexit.
So, you give workshops to advise on the EU Settlement Scheme. What happens at those workshops exactly, what is your goal there?
It’s a two-pronged aim, really. On the one hand, we want to communicate the scheme and the need to apply by the deadline, and then secondly, we try to give everyone the tools they need to make the applications themselves.
We try to explain the EU Settlement Scheme as in simple terms so that EU citizens and their family members can make applications under the scheme themselves without the assistance of a lawyer. The seminars are very practical-based – we tell them how to apply, what questions come up, how to answer those questions, what the pitfalls are and what evidence they need to provide.
What happens if people don’t apply by the deadline?
If someone does not apply before the deadline, on New Year’s Day 2021, under the current rules, they will be unlawful residents in the UK. That has immense implications: if you’re unlawfully resident, that means all of the hostile environment policies which are in place in the UK will apply to you.
The hostile environment mechanisms are built to make life in the UK as difficult as possible, forcing you to leave the country. Your employer will have the right to terminate your employment, your landlord could terminate your tenancy agreement, you can no longer use your driver’s licence, etc. If someone does not apply before the deadline, that is exactly what will happen to them: they will be unlawfully resident, and all of those mechanisms will start hitting them.
Brandon Lewis, a Home Office Minister, got into a lot of trouble about a month ago when he he told a German newspaper that EU citizens who fail to apply to the settlement scheme will be deported. But in reality, what he was saying was true, and this is part of the challenges that we face. The Home Office communication campaigns are good. They are becoming warmer and friendlier, sending out messages to EU citizens saying that the UK wants – and needs – them to stay. What the Home Office communication campaigns fail to do, however, is stress the importance of applying before the deadline. They don’t stress that if one doesn’t apply before the deadline, they will be unlawfully resident in the UK, and the Home Office have the right to ask them to leave. Those messages might start appearing nearer to the deadline, but it might be a little too late for some.
Who do you think bears responsibility for people failing to apply because they don’t have the knowledge and why?
There is a lot of people out there that are doing a lot of good work to try and make sure that we reach everyone we need to reach but the ultimate responsibility is with the Home Office.
Although they are doing a lot of good work on communications, it is likely not going to be enough. I worry that the communications may be used against late applicants later. So that for example, if someone applies late and their reason is that they did not know about the scheme, the Home Office can say: “We did all of this work to let you know, so that is not a good enough reason to apply late.”
In any case, whatever the Home Office does and whatever all these other organisations such as charities or the European Commission do, there will always be groups that don’t apply, no matter how much communications work has been done. The UK government has an obligation to those people as well. They need to make sure that 100% of people who need to apply under the scheme effectively do so. The Home Office can change current rules to ensure no one fall unlawfully resident on New Years Day 2021, and they may well do so, but if that doesn't happen those who apply late will be doing so while unlawfully residing here.
Which type of audience usually shows up to the workshops?
It depends who is organising the workshops and who they are advertised to; it varies immensely. We have done workshops set up by the advice sector who want to help their local community, for example. Those would be advertised to the whole European community there, so anyone can turn up. Sometimes it is more specific, for example if it is a Polish charity, it is catered towards polish citizens. Or if it is a consulate or embassy which organises the workshop, then it is only citizens from that specific country who turn up. And then there are also community champions. A community champion is someone within a community that is not a legal entity or part of a charity, who wants to help their community on their own initiative because they know their community needs help.
Each community necessitates different types of sessions and poses different challenges. The Home Office communications campaigns work for a lot of people, but there is going to be just as many people that will require their own community to help, and if there is no one within their community who is going to point that out, then they are going to miss out on the knowledge they need to apply under the scheme.
What are some of those challenges? What do you think is the biggest barrier for people to apply?
There is a long list. It could be language, or education. It could be physical or mental health issues, dependency issues, street homelessness, living in precarious residence accommodation, or a combination of a number of those. More broadly, it could be people living in religious or close-knit communities, like the Roma community for example. People with criminal convictions, however minor or serious, would also be less eager to apply because they would be worried about the impact of those offences on the outcome of their application.
It really is a long list.
Yes, and to make matters worse, usually someone who has some kind of vulnerability has more than one vulnerable characteristic. For example, someone who has dependency issues may also be street homeless. Needless to say, the more issues an individual has, the harder it is to reach them and the harder it will be to ensure those people apply without any legal assistance.
Another category of people I’m worried about is those who simply don’t apply on principle. I have met many people who have said they don’t want to apply to the settlement scheme. They think: “Why should I, I have been here for 40 years, what are they going to do? I’m 72 years old, are they really going to put me on a plane? Are they really going to send me home?” Well, unfortunately, the answer to that is yes, that is exactly what they will do, or at least they can if they want to under the current rules. However old you are, however young you are, if you don’t have a status and you’re unlawfully resident on New Year’s Day 2021.
Is the Home Office making an effort to address these issues?
To be fair to them, they have listened to advice on the fact that technology is going to be a barrier and they have tried to find ways to resolve that. For example, there is a service called assisted digital service, where people can get practical assistance with filling in the forms. They are listening where they can and want to.
Many local authorities are taking the initiative themselves with so-called “one stop shops” where people can turn up and use a computer if they cannot access one, and where staff will help them engage with the technical barriers as well. But it’s just not going to be enough; there will still be many people who will not or cannot apply unless they have someone holding their hands for the whole process, someone applying for them.
What do you think is the one thing which should be done differently in relation to the Settlement Scheme?
Part 2 of the withdrawal agreement discusses EU citizens’ rights. It outlines two ways of sorting out people’s residency rights. On the one hand, it discusses how to implement an application scheme to grant rights and how simple such a scheme should be. If a country does not want to implement that type of scheme, then it discusses an alternative system of declaring rights. The reason why there are two different mechanisms in the withdrawal agreement is because this is not just an issue in the UK– it’s a problem in the EU more broadly, as each member state will need to decide what they are going to do with British citizens living abroad.
So, in summary, each EU member states has two options. The first is to implement an application process, which means that at some point in the future, anyone that does not apply and gets granted a status will be unlawfully resident, at which point in time their residency rights end. That is the model the UK has adopted.
Alternatively, countries can introduce a declaratory scheme. A declaratory scheme essentially establishes that the rights one has now will be carried through with them for their lifetime. Residents can then obtain physical evidence of their lawful lifetime residence right by asking for it. This is kind of how EU law works: as long as you are doing the right things, you acquire EU rights, and these rights continue with you as long as you continue to do the right things. Applying this to the UK, as long as one would have lived in the UK by a specific date, they would continue to be lawful residents in the UK. That means someone could never be unlawfully resident as long as they lived in the UK before a certain cut-off date. All they need to do is show up and say they lived in the UK since before 31 December 2020, confirm some information, and the government would give them a piece of paper, no questions ask.
The settlement scheme should be a declaratory scheme instead of what it is now. I think that is the only way we can protect everyone, including the most vulnerable to exclusion, through this process.