Mahatma Gandhi famously said that a society can be judged on how it treats its most vulnerable members, and so it should be for Britain’s post-Brexit settlement scheme for EU citizens who live and work here.
Early on in the post-referendum Brexit negotiations, both sides were keen to stress they wanted to protect the rights of each other’s citizens already resident within their jurisdiction. During the referendum campaign itself, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Priti Patel issued a joint statement saying EU citizens would “automatically be granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK and will be treated no less favourably than they are at present."
When the UK unveiled its system, requiring EU citizens to apply for settled or pre-settled status by the of 30 June 2021, the earliest possible under the withdrawal agreement, there was considerable concern that many might miss the boat or be let down by delays in the system.
It is reassuring, and a clear achievement, that ahead of the deadline the government was able to process more than 5.4 million applications. Before the settlement scheme opened, the estimated population of EU citizens in the UK was only 3.7 million.
However, processing large numbers of applications is only the job half-done. In our report published today the Lords European Affairs Committee raises concerns that vulnerable people – such as the old, those who lack capacity and victims of abuse – still face risks to their rights in the UK, both now and in the coming years.
Of the 5.4 million applications processed, more than two million have been granted pre-settled status, mainly for those resident in the UK for less than five years. They will have to reapply for settled status when they reach five years residence.
Faced with an individual, rather than UK-wide deadline, many of these people may simply overlook what is required of them. This will be particularly true of vulnerable people, as the pre-deadline support networks fall away. Individuals in this situation need greater legal certainty that a late application will not mean refusal of settled status.
We are also concerned about the digital-only nature of the scheme. People granted settled status do not receive a physical document to prove their right to live and work in the UK. This is particularly risky for older people and the digitally excluded who may not even have a laptop, tablet or smartphone to prove their status. It is notable that only 2 per cent of applicants for the scheme are aged over 65; support organisations we spoke to feared this implied low take-up in this demographic.
The situation in the UK contrasts with that for UK citizens in the EU where a physical card proving residence rights is available. The UK government has welcomed that initiative for Brits abroad, so why ignore calls for EU citizens to have it here?
Unfortunately, there is already evidence that potential landlords and employers are reluctant to accept a digital record of residence rights. This opens EU citizens up to obvious potential problems, and again the most vulnerable will be the most at risk.
Overall, the government has made a good start in how it manages the status of EU citizens in the UK, but the game is only at half-time; it still has much to do to make sure the scheme is a success. The Gandhi test applies. The government must ensure the most vulnerable are able to access their rights to live and work here, and crucially, can prove their status easily.
Lord Kinnoull is the chair of the House of Lords European Affairs Committee