Theresa May returned to the Commons on Monday to deliver an update on her Brexit plan B, but ended by offering only one concession: a promise to scrap the £65 fee for EU nationals living in the UK applying for “settled status” after Brexit.
The move came after migration experts warned that the post-Brexit system for registering EU citizens living in the UK could become the “next Windrush scandal”.
From 30 March, the scheme is set to be extended to all EU nationals who hold a valid passport and any non-EU citizen family members with a biometric residence card to register for settled status.
The test phases have proved relatively successful, with 77% of respondents providing positive feedback. However, the expansion of the scheme to more than 3.5 million EU citizens currently resident in the UK has led to warnings that thousands could be left in legal limbo if their application is not processed in time.
What is “settled status” and who will qualify?
EU citizens and their families who have been living in the UK for at least five years by the end of 2020 – the proposed end date of the transition period – will be able to apply for “settled status” giving them the right to remain and work in the UK indefinitely. Those who have been in the UK for less than five years by the cut off date can wait until they qualify and then apply.
Under the plan, EU citizens will be allowed to access the NHS and claim benefits “regardless of whether Brussels agrees to do the same for Britons living in Spain and other European nations”, reports The Daily Telegraph.
EU nationals will also be able to bring spouses and close family members from abroad to live with them in the UK.
How does the application process work?
The Home Office has said that EU citizens will have to answer three “simple” questions online if they want to remain in the UK after the country leaves the bloc.
People will be asked to prove their ID, note any criminal convictions, and say if they live in the UK. This information will then be checked on government databases before a decision is made.
In a welcome development for those who have been in limbo about their post-Brexit status since the EU referendum in 2016, Home Secretary Sajid Javid has said the government’s “default” position would be to grant, not refuse, settled status.
The scheme, which was first unveiled last autumn, has undergone two “private” test phases, the second of which saw just under 30,000 applications submitted. Of these, 70% have been granted settled status with the remaining 30% granted pre-settled status, given to those who have been in the country for fewer than five years, according to the Home Office.
After scrapping the £65 application fee, the prime minister announced that the full roll-out of the scheme will begin on 30 March, and that anyone applying during the pilot phase would be reimbursed.
MPs from all parties welcomed the u-turn, although some said the fee should not have been introduced in the first place.
Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator, said it was “a victory for common sense”.
How long will it take?
The scheme will operate online and via a new smartphone app and aim to deliver a decision within two weeks or sooner, Javid has said.
The home secretary said he hoped to process all 3.5 million EU citizens currently living in the UK by summer 2021, but to meet this ambitious target the Home Office would have process up to 4,500 applications a day. It currently takes about six months to process applications for permanent residency for EU nationals.
Will the Home Office be able to cope?
Following the recent Windrush scandal there are fears such a mammoth undertaking will see large numbers of people fall through the cracks or be caught up in bureaucratic red tape.
In a letter to the home secretary earlier this month, London Mayor Sadiq Khan warned that the proposal to charge a “settled status” processing fee of £65, or £32.50 for under-16s, showed that ministers had not learned the lessons of the Windrush scandal.
He said many would find the process of registering after Brexit “inaccessible and unaffordable”, and urged the government to waive the fee for EU nationals and their families who were resident in the UK before the referendum took place.
One of the main groups campaigning for the rights of EU citizens, the3million, said while the government’s scheme will give hope to many EU citizens, “questions remain whether the Home Office will have the capacity to change the hostile environment culture to a welcoming approach”.
Ed Davey, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, told The Guardian: “No one seriously believes that the Home Office will be able to grant settled status to everyone who’s eligible within two years. Thousands will be left effectively undocumented and subject to Theresa May’s hostile environment.”
What are the drawbacks?
“For hundreds of thousands of EU nationals, who have a straightforward and legitimate employment history in Britain and are comfortable using digital technology, their applications may well be resolved ‘within days’,” says BBC Home Affairs correspondent Danny Shaw.
“But for claimants hoping to bring in relatives, people unfamiliar with computers and those with a more sketchy background in Britain, perhaps involving some cash-in-hand work, the process may be a hurdle they’ll struggle with – or avoid altogether.”
Further concerns were raised after reports that the test phase was beset by technical problems. The Guardian reported in December that “a series of bugs were exposed in the phone app, which does not work on iPhones, including complaints that the passport recognition function did not work on all Android models”.
Teething issues aside, the Oxford University-based Migration Observatory has warned that some vulnerable citizens may find it difficult to navigate the system. The elderly, children in care, and victims of domestic abuse are considered particularly at risk.
“This could be because they struggle to provide documentation and complete the registration process, or do not realise they need to apply to continue living in the UK legally,” The Times reports.
Others may experience problems because of language difficulties, age, disability or a lack of computer literacy or online access.
Alternatively, says The Daily Telegraph, the new rules may prove too lax. The right for EU nationals to bring in their parents, grandparents, siblings, boyfriend or girlfriend to the UK under the new rules represented “a far better deal than other migrants who want to live and work here”.
The paper also says hardened criminals could be among the number granted the new settled status because the UK does not have the automatic right to check EU criminal records.