The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) is currently putting together a review of the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) to present to the government. As the official lawyers contracted by the European Union (EU) to provide legal and policy advice to the European Delegation in the United Kingdom on the EUSS, Brexit and EU Citizens' Rights, we made a submission to on the progress of the Scheme.
Applying to the EUSS is mandatory for all EU citizens and other EEA/Swiss nationals who wish to continue living in the UK lawfully after the transition period. EU citizens have until the 30 June 2021 to apply under the Scheme. If they do not apply on time, they will be unlawful residents in the UK. The Scheme’s strong suits and shortcomings have been discussed many a time. Our data and experience, collected since we started working with the EU delegation in 2018, makes it possible to map certain problematic patterns within the scheme and the way it operates. In the first part of this briefing, we discuss the EUSS process up until the stage of applying to the Scheme. The next stage, regarding outcomes of applications, will be the subject of a separate briefing next week.
The first important step to a successful Scheme such as the EUSS is raising awareness. The individuals concerned, in this case EEA nationals in the UK, need to know and understand what they need to do in order to remain in the UK lawfully. The government has made a significant effort to reach out to EU citizens in the UK and ensure that they apply in time. However, there are multiple caveats to the Home Office marketing and outreach campaigns.
Firstly, it is simply impossible to estimate the number of EU/EEA nationals who are eligible to apply to the Scheme, and therefore impossible to track whether they have done so or not. It is clear from the comparison of EUSS applications with the ONS population data that there is a clear underestimate of the numbers of EU citizens who reside in the UK. This raises issues relating to how many more potential EUSS applicants have not applied and how they will be provided with the information and assistance for they need to be successfully granted status under the EUSS. The Home Office appears to understand that much of the remaining EUSS work will relate to complex cases and vulnerable applicants however, it is not clear to what extent the Home Office intends to provide sufficient resources and support to these applicants.
Although there will be additional funding provided to successful organisations for the period between September 2020 and April 2021, this funding will not be sufficient to assist highly complex cases because the reality is that no funding is enough to reach every single eligible person. Additionally, whether or not there will be any funding for assistance from April 2021 onwards in the build-up to the deadline and the period afterwards, is unknown. What we do know is that applicants will face the additional burden of having to demonstrate they had good reasons for failing to apply to the EUSS if they apply after the deadline, and so funding is direly needed.
Secondly, certain groups of applicants have been neglected from the very beginning. One such group with whom the Home Office has failed to engage is prisoners and immigration detainees. Organisations involved with detainees and the EUSS have consistently raised issues with the Home Office relating to the provision of information, advice and the ability of detained EEA citizens to access the EUSS. Feedback from these organisations shows access to information about the EUSS for those in prison and immigration detention is extremely limited.
In many cases, it appears that EEA citizens are issued with deportation decisions prior to the end of their sentence with little access to immigration advice on whether they can challenge their deportation decision, which would in turn make it possible to make a successful EUSS application. The Home Office states that there is engagement through the Ministry of Justice with respect of EEA citizens in the prison estate however, there is very little detail on what this engagement is in practice, and how it is helping prisoners and immigration detainees understand their legal rights. It seems clear that from a political perspective this is a cohort of potential EUSS applicants who the Home Office would rather not provide any assistance to irrespective of whether they have rights under the Withdrawal Agreement or not. This approach is completely unsatisfactory, and additional efforts to highlight the difficulties that this group and their family members are facing need to be made.
Obviously, the EUSS process does not stop once applicants are informed and applications submitted. Unfortunately, there are many flaws in the way the Home Office deals with certain types of applications once they have been submitted. One such issue is the persisting delay in dealing with complicated applications from often vulnerable individuals. To make matters worse, the government website fails to adequately explain how and why such delays may happen.
This is not a new criticism - in response to the previous ICIBI report published in February 2020, the Home Office accepted that the information given relating to processing times needed to be improved. Yet, the information provided on the website is still woefully inadequate, as it merely sets out a list of situations where processing may take more than a month. In addition, if applicants seek to enquire why their case has been delayed, they are not given any useful information by the Settlement Resolution Centre, which is supposed to be their first point of contact if they encounter any issues.
A recent Freedom of Information release gave figures on EUSS applications that were pending for more than three months and those pending for more than six months, revealing that at least 36,000 applications had faced delays of over three months by October 2019. Clearly, the information is available to the Home Office. So why is nothing being done about it? In light of certain cases taking more than six months to be resolved, even up to 12+ months in some cases, the information available to the public remains fundamentally misleading and as a consequence, causes significant anxiety for applicants whose cases face significant delays.
Another reoccurring issue is the Home Office statistical analysis. Firstly, the monthly reports demonstrate that the rate of applications for the EUSS have declined since March 2020. Part of the decline is likely to be attributed to COVID-19. It also seems likely that the high number of applications/grants today means there is a diminishing pool of eligible applicants for the EUSS (though no one can accurately estimate how many citizens are left to apply due to well documented issues with the EUSS/ONS statistics, which is an inherent flaw of the Scheme in itself). As the level of applications has tailed off there is an opportunity for the Home Office to clear the backlog of pending applications and to focus on more complex cases. Yet, the published statistical reports provided by the Home Office show the current backlog of the EUSS is still significant. As of June 2020, it consisted of over 250 000 applications.
For the first time since the introduction of the Scheme, the Home Office intends to produce statistics relating to paper application forms to the EUSS in the next set of quarterly statistics to be released in August 2020. Even if this is finally the case, it seems highly unlikely that the statistics will include any information on the average processing times for the mandatory paper application routes. This is another instance where the Home Office fails the Scheme’s most vulnerable applicants: paper applications are often the most complex, as they include people who do not have ID documents or family members of EEA nationals. In order to increase transparency and help vulnerable individuals, applicants should receive updates at various points in the application process if their application is being delayed. In order to relieve their anxiety, these updates should include meaningful information about why their case is taking a long time to be processed.
Instead of fixing the statistics and giving more information about the progress of the Scheme, EUSS monthly statistics from July 2020 onwards will contain much less information than was previously the case. The reports will no longer contain a breakdown of applications by nationality which has been of vital importance to understanding EUSS application trends.
This will make the work of people in the field – lawyers, statisticians, social workers, government officials, etc. – even more challenging than it has been ever since the Scheme came into existence.