UK settlement scheme closes on 30 June, but Home Office has 320,000 applications to process
Hundreds of thousands of European citizens could find themselves in limbo after 30 June and left without documented legal rights to remain in the UK if the Home Office does not clear a backlog of more than 320,000 applications for post-Brexit residency status, campaigners have warned.
There are just 50 days to go before the government’s EU settlement scheme closes and the most recent government statistics show that of the 5.3m applications, 4.98m have been processed so far.
“We are deeply worried not only about those caught in the backlog but also people whose applications haven’t even been acknowledged by 1 July. Without a ‘certificate of application’ they are not seen as legal residents and could face crippling NHS treatment fees, for example,” said Maike Bohn, one of the founders of the campaign group the3million.
A new body set up under the withdrawal agreement to ensure citizens’ rights are upheld after Brexit is “actively considering” statutory action against the Home Office. In a statement issued on Monday, the Independent Monitoring Authority for the Citizens’ Rights Agreements (IMA) said it was in talks with the Home Office amid reports of multiple concerns over the application process.
“The IMA has the right to take action when we think there are systemic issues which are affecting how the rights of EU citizens are being upheld by public bodies. We are hearing from concerned EU citizens who have issues with their applications for settled status and are therefore in talks with the Home Office,” said Kathryn Chamberlain, the IMA’s chief executive.
The IMA said people had raised concerns about the length of time it was taking to process applications, and there had also been reports of difficulties making contact with relevant government departments to make an application, make a complaint or correct details after an application had been made.
The settlement scheme is open to EU citizens and nationals from Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland, who should usually have started living or studying in the country by 31 December 2020.
The Home Office is urging all those who have not already applied to do so as soon as possible, following the advice on the government’s application website.
The minister for future borders and immigration, Kevin Foster, said “every day thousands of people are being granted status”, but he urged “those who are eligible to apply to do so as soon as possible to secure the status they deserve in UK law”.
He said EU citizens could be assured of their rights even if they had no decision on their application by 30 June.
“Someone who has applied to the EU settlement scheme by the 30 June deadline but has not had a decision by then will have their rights protected until their application is decided,” he said, adding the Home Office was doing everything it could to help those who are vulnerable to apply.
Campaigners say they cannot trust a promise.
“Hundreds of anxious citizens contacting us cannot live their lives on the back of these promises and are already facing hardship, whether at the border or when trying to rent or get a mortgage. Employers are not supposed to check for status yet, but in the real world many already are,” said Bohn.
“We’re extremely worried about the backlog, and the risk that thousands of people who are still waiting on a response from the Home Office will be considered unlawfully resident, and thus excluded from employment, welfare, and tenancies,” said the director of the Work Rights Centre, Dr Dora-Olivia Vicol.
Colin Yeo, an immigration barrister, said there was ambiguity in the law over whether EU citizens who have not received their pre-settled or settled status before the 30 June deadline will be in the country unlawfully.
However, those that the Home Office has not yet processed could find themselves in difficulties with employers and landlords who want to err on the side of caution to avoid the risk of the hefty fines that come with breaching the law, he said.
Failing a Home Office immigration status check can lead to people being denied bank accounts, having child benefit removed and their driving licences cancelled.
In 2017, the Guardian reported that the wife of an EU citizen was ordered to pay back £5,000 in past child benefit for their son, had her driving licence revoked and was threatened with deportation after becoming entangled in a Home Office immigration nightmare.
Yeo also warns of unforeseen dangers for those who fail the Home Office process.
“It is one thing being refused with six months to go; you can plan for this, but if you are refused just days before the deadline or even after the deadline, life could become very difficult,” he said.
The Home Office has been approached for comment.