22 January 2019

How to get settled status right for EU citizens in the UK


With the clock ticking ever louder towards March 29th, the quest continues to find out what Westminster can agree on to unlock the Brexit deadlock. Yet there was always one issue that just about everybody in politics has always said they do agree on – that Europeans here must be welcome to stay in Britain.

Unfortunately, that has seldom been how it has felt to European nationals themselves. The impact of the referendum on more than three million EU citizens in Britain has been one of the most emotionally charged of all post-Brexit issues. This was only exacerbated by the refusal of the Government to make a unilateral guarantee back in the summer of 2016, until it secured agreement between all EU governments eighteen months later.

Principles now need to be backed up in practice too, and that reality comes into sharp focus after the Government’s new EU Settlement Scheme opened yesterday. EU citizens in the UK will need to have successfully applied to the Scheme by the end of June 2021 in order to have secure legal status to live and work in the UK.

The Government says that it is on track to make the scheme accessible and easy to use. It is committed to the scheme with a deal or without one, though there are concerns about weaker legal oversight mechanisms in a no-deal scenario, and much more uncertainty for British nationals in the EU. There has been significant investment in a new process to replace the nightmarishly bureaucratic Permanent Residency scheme and the Prime Minister’s announcement today that the £65 application fee will be waived will certainly be welcomed. But many EU citizens will still not trust that the required culture shift at the Home Office will materialise.

Plenty of EU nationals should find using the scheme straightforward. If the Government’s linked-up systems work, providing an identity document and national insurance details should produce a rapid green light for many.  But British Future’s analysis of the challenge, in a report published this week, shows why a third of cases could prove more complex. The sheer scale of the challenge means that, even if the scheme got it right for 95 per cent of the target population, 175,000 people would still be living in the UK having lost their legal immigration status: potentially unable to work, rent homes or access the NHS. That would create an enormous amount of anxiety and misery, on a much wider scale than the Windrush scandal.

We certainly need a relentlessly practical focus on identifying the key risks and finding solutions to them. People might not hear about the scheme and Europeans who came to Britain long before 1972 may not know that they must apply. Nor might the parents of many children born in Britain, where the rules can be bafflingly complicated.

Some Europeans may struggle to provide evidence they have been here for many years, or could need help navigating the online systems. There are several practical things that the Government and parliament need to do: investing in staffing the system, ensuring information reaches hard-to-reach groups, putting in place rapid systems to reverse errors and ensuring that there is transparency and accountability, so that parliament can assess whether the scheme remains on track over the next two years.

But this is not simply a technocratic challenge of making the systems work. We should focus more, too, on the relationship we want this country to have with more than three million Europeans settling here. There is no route to citizenship attached to the Scheme launched today. Settled status does not include the right to vote – and the current rules mean that those who acquire Settled Status must wait another 12 months before being eligible to apply for citizenship through a different process, at a further cost of over £1,300, for something that costs the Home Office an average of £272 to administer. There is a good case for a broader review of the principles, aims and costs for citizenship generally.

So British Future proposes a new citizenship offer to EU nationals. Those Europeans in Britain who wish to take up citizenship as well as settled status should be able to do so – at a reduced cost of £300 – and the Government should actively promote this option to the millions going through the settlement process.

Not all Europeans will want to become British citizens. Some may be unable to, in the few cases where national laws do not allow dual citizenship. But including a special citizenship offer in these unique circumstances would reduce the bureaucratic hurdles, encourage integration and send out an important message of welcome to Europeans in Britain.

As Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, a keen advocate of a Leave vote, says in support of the report today, the Government should now go “beyond warm words” to show that it values EU citizens who have chosen to live in Britain. “Encouraging EU citizens to remain here with settled status is a bare minimum but we should make it as easy as possible, logistically, for EU nationals who want to make a deeper commitment to this country to take British citizenship.”

Finding consensus on everything else about Brexit is going to be a difficult challenge in the weeks ahead. It would be a shame if the need to get it right, for the 3 million EU citizens who have made their lives here, was not something on which all parties and referendum tribes could agree.

Sunder Katwala is the director of British Future.