For citizens of the remaining 27 EU member states who have their home in the UK, there are two important deadlines fast approaching. First of all, at 11pm on 31 December 2020 freedom of movement will end and EU citizens who wish to enter and settle in the UK will be subject to the same immigration rules as all other migrants. Those already resident in the UK by that date will retain some additional rights, safeguarded by the Withdrawal Agreement between the EU and the UK. To benefit from these safeguards and legitimise their residence status, EU citizens need to have entered the UK by the date and time above at the latest.
To be allowed to stay they will also need to make a successful application to the EU Settlement Scheme on or before 30 June 2021, when the so-called 6-month ‘grace period’ ends. If they have not successfully applied by that date, their right to rent a home, accept employment, open a bank account, receive free medical care from the NHS and, ultimately, their right to reside in the UK will cease. With some exceptions this applies to all EU citizens, irrespective of the length of their residence, employment status or whether they are married to a British citizen or not. It also applies to children and non-EU relatives, such as spouses and direct ascendants or descendants.
The EU Settlement Scheme is a so-called constitutive process, which means that an application will need to be made and approved, before continuation of citizens’ rights are granted. Many EU 27 nations have opted for a declaratory process for UK citizens that reside within their borders. All this requires from them is to merely declare their residence by a certain date, but they will not be penalised if they fail to do so and the declaration can still be made as and when it transpires this was not done at the time. Most EU 27 nations already have a compulsory registration process and most UK citizens will have registered when they first settled in the country.
The UK has had no compulsory registration requirement for residents up to now and while many immigrants have NI numbers and their records held at DWP and HMRC, there is no clear and accurate data on EU 27 citizens living in the UK. From applications received to date it is clear that the Home Office’s original estimate of 3.3 million was highly inaccurate and that the true number may well exceed 4 million. It also means that there’s no way of contacting EU citizens directly and inform them about the need to apply, let alone tell them about the consequences if they fail to do so. No campaign for any compulsory registration process has ever had a 100% success rate, no matter how much effort was put into awareness raising. With the numbers involved even 5% of people missed can amount to over 200,000 individuals. Many of these may well already face obstacles in their lives and may not be identified for many years. Children may also be affected, where parents were not aware of the need to apply for them, suggesting a new and much larger Windrush scandal may arise in years to come.
But even if they are aware of the need to apply, EU citizens can face many obstacles. The application is a digital process, requiring applicants to first download an app onto a suitable smartphone. The phone needs to support Near Field Communication (NFC) technology, to read the biometric chip on a passport or ID card. Older or cheaper phones can’t do that and for a while iPhones were not supported at all. The remainder of the application has to be completed online, but for anyone who is not competent with IT, or has a poor broadband connection (or none at all), this will be a problem.
To qualify for the scheme only three fairly basic criteria are required: evidence of identity, evidence of residence in the UK (before or on 31 December 2020, see above) and a declaration of criminal convictions in the UK or abroad, if any. Presuming the last question is answered with ‘none’, an applicant can be granted Settled Status if they can provide evidence they have lived continuously in the UK for 5 years or more, or pre-Settled Status if they can’t provide evidence of this.
Settled Status is equivalent to Indefinite Leave to Remain and will grant relevant EU citizens the same rights they hold now; the right to work, to education, to own or rent property, to receive health care from the NHS free of charge and to receive benefits they are entitled to. They will not lose their status, unless they leave the country for a continuous period of longer than 5 years, or commit a serious criminal offence.
Pre-Settled Status is the equivalent to Limited Leave to Remain. This will also grant the holder the rights to, to work, to study and to healthcare in the UK, but they may fail some tests for benefits, such as universal credit, as this requires evidence of habitual residence, which pre-Settled Status does not provide in itself. Pre-Settled Status expires after five years (or will be lost after two years of absence from the UK), but holders of this status can apply for Settled Status as soon as they can provide proof of five years of continuous residence in the UK. Continuous residence in this case is living and being present in the UK for at least six months in any 12-month period.
So far, so good. Provided you are aware of the scheme, have the right technology and the ability to operate this, you have valid ID documents, can provide evidence of your residence in the UK and do not have a conviction for a serious offence, you should be granted the status you are entitled to.
The real problems start if things are not that straightforward in your life. You are homeless or without a regular address, for instance, or you live or have lived in an abusive relationship, but rely on your partner to provide proof of residence, ID or your relationship with them. You may find it difficult to understand the language used for this process. You may have a disability, which prevents you engaging with the digital application process. Or, you may just have failed to renew your passport on time or need a first passport for a child born in the UK. With travel restrictions in place and reduced working hours at embassies, you may well find it difficult to get an appointment for renewal in time. You may live in care, whether as a child or an adult, and do not have the capacity to engage with the process. All reasons why EU citizens may face barriers in applying to the scheme, but far from a comprehensive list.
The governments in Westminster and the Devolved Nations have recognised that the scheme needs promoting and that specialist support must be available for those that face difficulties, and they have provided funding for this. In Wales, thanks to the generosity of the Welsh Government, this covers, free of charge, grassroots information and advice sessions and extends to free legal immigration advice for those with complex cases. Support organisations have been brought together under the banner of the Immigration Advice Service and support organisations work closely with the Welsh Government’s EU Transition Team to coordinate their services. At Local Authority level they engage with Community Cohesion Officers in advising frontline workers on the EU Settlement Scheme and how and where to refer anyone that may need support.
Settled was set up to reach EU citizens through a network of trained and accredited volunteers, many of them EU citizens themselves and able to reach and support people close to their homes. Covid-19 has, however, played havoc with our efforts to reach EU Citizens in Wales. Unable to travel and meet people face-to-face, we could not go to the places where they may live or work. Settled moved it’s information and support services online through Facebook forums, email and dedicated phone lines. Although effective for those that are able to engage with these media, for us in Wales it was difficult to build a comprehensive volunteer support network and identify those EU Citizens still in need of support, but who may be harder to reach.
To try and identify the gaps in reach of these support programmes, we have now embarked on a mapping exercise. We are keen to engage with existing networks, such as the Wales for Europe groups, to help us with local knowledge. Rural areas, and the North and Mid-West in particular are hard to reach for us from the South and ears and eyes on the ground will be of great benefit. Please get in touch if you want to know more about any aspect of the EU Settlements Scheme and our work, or if you think you may be able to help with our mapping exercise.
For volunteering, please contact Eva Plajerova on email@example.com.
If you want to support our mapping exercise or can help with distributing information, please contact Wiard Sterk on firstname.lastname@example.org.