The government’s EU settlement scheme is risking a repeat of the Windrush scandal, according to the Home Affairs Committee. A new report by the MPs warns that the design of the scheme, which does not grant status to eligible EU citizens in the UK but rather requires them to apply for it, means that EU citizens – who may have been legally in the UK for years and made it their home – could be left in an ‘uncertain situation regarding their rights and eligibility to remain in the UK’.
Yvette Cooper, chair of the Committee, warned that the government were ‘not learning the lessons from the Windrush scandal’. The MP said: ‘The problems faced by the Windrush generation showed how easily individuals can fall through gaps in the system through no fault of their own and how easily lives can be destroyed if the Government gets this wrong.’
‘The EU Settlement Scheme is now live, but there remains a lack of clarity over many aspects of the Scheme,’ the Committee said. ‘EU citizens in the UK need certainty, and the Government should give it to them.’ The MPs called on the Government to improve public awareness and understanding of the scheme and of the importance of applying. Too many people were at risk of failing to apply, it said, and this will have ‘serious ramifications for their future in the UK’. It recommended that, in addition to current plans for a national advertising and awareness campaign, the Government worked with local and national community and support groups, to ‘ensure that information reaches hard-to-reach groups’.
The MPs also raised concerns that the design of the scheme meant that ‘many’ EU citizens in the UK are at risk of being left out, ‘including children or the elderly who have lived here many years’. It called on the Government to ‘acknowledge the difficulties’ that will be experienced by many vulnerable groups when applying and recommended that it took action to ensure extra support was targeted towards ‘children and vulnerable people to mitigate the risk of them being left out and potentially jeopardising their future in the UK’.
The Home Secretary’s assertion that the ‘correct’ immigration status granted to a successful applicant was the status for which they are able to demonstrate they qualify, was also a cause for concern. The Committee regarded it as ‘callous’ and warned that the rigid enforcement of such a line, when there were ‘many reasons’ why someone may be unable to provide sufficient evidence, would ‘allow for the possibility of long-term EU residents of the UK – who, for whatever reason, are unable to evidence their eligibility for settled status – being granted a lesser status than that to which they are rightfully entitled’.
The committee identified ‘too many gaps and ambiguities in the Government’s guidance – including what will happen to individuals who do not apply before the deadline and how it will ensure that citizens are not disadvantaged in the case of a no deal Brexit’. It said ‘the determination of the Government to end free movement on the date of departure if the UK leaves the EU without a deal could lead to a situation where long-term EU residents of the UK are, in the period between exit and closure of the Settlement Scheme, disadvantaged and discriminated against in areas such as employment or housing if they are not able to evidence their entitlement to remain’.
Technical issues in applying to the Scheme, with people struggling to navigate the online system, were also flagged up by the report and doubts were expressed as to the Home Office’s ability to handle the number and complexity of the applications it would receive.
‘The Home Office must ensure that it has sufficient human and technological capacity to handle the workload of applications and inquiries that the Settlement Scheme will attract,’ the report recommends. ‘This will require robust digital systems and the hiring of more caseworkers, with extra surge capacity for the inevitable rush both now at the start and towards the end of the Scheme.’ It goes on to say that ‘almost 10% of cases were outstanding a month after the close of the second pilot phase, and many vulnerable applicants waited many weeks for a decision. A repeat of this for the whole cohort of EU citizens would not be acceptable and would further damage public perceptions of and confidence in the Home Office’.
The Committee calls on the Government to ‘protect the rights of EU citizens in the UK’. It says: ‘The Government should guarantee in law that any EU citizens living in the UK before Brexit (and who would be eligible for status under the Settlement Scheme) are legal residents of the UK and are able to continue to live and work as they have done until now. The Settlement Scheme should operate to provide them with proof of their entitlement to remain. This would mean that EU citizens in the UK are protected post-Brexit from difficulties and uncertainties which blighted the Windrush generation. EU citizens are our friends, colleagues and valued members of UK society; it is only right that the Government should give them certainty and security.’