The government has launched its EU Settlement Scheme, designed to grant post-Brexit residency to EU citizens and their family members, who have until 30 June 2021 to apply.
It is estimated that the total number of applications could run to more than 3.5 million. The Home Office is extending its live trial to all EU citizens who hold a valid passport and any non-EU citizen family members who hold a valid biometric residence card.
It will require applicants to prove their identity by using a mobile app which is part of an integrated online application process, at a cost of £65 for adults and £32.50 for children under 16.
However, critics have warned that thousands could be left without legal status to remain in the UK if applications are not processed quickly and effectively. Particular concerns have been voiced around harder-to-reach people such as the elderly, those who don’t speak English and those who are being exploited.A report from think tank British Future, Getting it right from the start: Securing the future of EU citizens in the UK,
identifies seven potential barriers to people successfully securing ‘settled status’ or ‘pre-settled status’. These include: people not hearing about the scheme, not realising it applies to them, struggling to provide evidence of residency or finding the system too hard to navigate, or because the system has technical difficulties matching names and official records. The report sets out suggested remedies in each case.
The expansion of the scheme follows two 'private' test phases. The second phase saw 29,987 applications submitted with 27,211 decisions made. Of those, no cases were refused. This phase was open to 250,000 people in selected universities, health and social care bodies.
The Home Office said 70% of applicants had been granted settled status, with the remaining 30% granted pre-settled status, which is given to those who have been in the country for fewer than five years. There was positive feedback from 77% of applicants, it reported.
But Jill Rutter, director of strategy and relationships for British Future and co-author of the above report, warned of "dire consequences" if the government fails to provide an effective scheme: “The Home Office must invest in getting the EU settlement scheme right from the start. Failure to do so could cause massive problems in years to come, on a far bigger scale than the Windrush scandal," she said.
“The application system should work simply and efficiently for the vast majority of EU citizens. But there will always be more complex cases where people find it harder to navigate the system or to prove their residency – and the sheer scale of this task means even a low rate of failure equates to tens of thousands of people.
"This is an important test for the Home Office. The stakes are high," she added. "Get it right and the UK sends a strong message that EU citizens are welcome and the government is in control. Get it wrong and the consequences are dire.”
Rutter told HR magazine that employers must communicate with EU staff on the implications of the settled status: "We are extremely concerned about how the new system will affect EU employees. Employers have a huge role to play in communicating with every member of staff who may be at risk," she said.
"A common misconception, for instance, is that whole families can make one application for settled status, when in fact every individual in a family has to make an application, so employers are massively important in making sure workers have got it right."
David Frost, group organisational development director at Total Produce, agreed on the important role employers and HR must play. "I think it is important that HR provides guidance on how EU nationals should apply for settled status. It’s also important that HR encourages employees to apply as quickly as possible in order to avoid a last-minute rush," he advised. "I think a managed communication campaign is the best approach."
Frost added that while some employers might consider covering the application fee, not all would be able to afford this. "In terms of paying for the fee it’s difficult to generalise," he said. "Many employers will have very tight profit margins but it’s a point that company boards will need to consider."
Jonathan Beech, managing director at Migrate UK, stressed that the new scheme will not backdate settled status. He explained that currently European Economic Area (EEA) nationals who have resided in the UK for longer than five years may be eligible under certain circumstances to apply to naturalise as British citizens immediately. But under the new regime people who have lived in the UK for over six years and satisfy the other requirements will still be required to wait a year before they can apply to naturalise as a British citizen.
"The new EU registration scheme allows for EU nationals to apply for settled/pre-settled status before the scheme goes live to all EU nationals on 29 March 2019. The most important thing to note is that this will not backdate settled status as per the current EEA Permanent Residence rules," Beech told HR magazine.
Further criticism has been levelled at the government over the app only being available for Android smartphones and tablets and not Apple’s iOS devices.
Beech added that while the scheme offered some benefits, there are some key oversights, including the fact that many EU nationals are reliant on ID cards, and faults with the Home Office app: “The benefit of this scheme is that it allows employers to apply early with their workers and spread a sense of security throughout their organisation that they are making steps towards securing a future for them and their family members," he said.
“However, this comes with a number of obstacles. Firstly, each applicant must hold a valid passport, and with many EU nationals relying solely on their National ID cards, this would restrict them in applying. Secondly, to start the application process, the migrant must download the Home Office app from Google Play Store or find a location (there are 13 locations) where an Android phone can be used.
"Lastly, with there being a huge number of applicants looking to apply, as stated in previous months, it is more than likely that the system will fall over when attempting to process the millions of applications which will undoubtedly be flooding in. However, this is one of the aims of the public test phase to combat any issues with the system prior to the nationwide launch in March 2019.”