Moved by Lord Oates
18: After Clause 4, insert the following new Clause—“EU Settlement Scheme: physical documented proof(1) The Secretary of State must issue physical proof confirming pre-settled status or settled status to all EEA and Swiss nationals and their families who have been granted such status under the EU Settlement Scheme and who request such proof.(2) No fee may be charged for issuing physical proof under this section.”Member’s explanatory statementThis new Clause seeks to provide physical proof of settled and pre-settled status to those who make a successful application through the scheme, providing physical evidence of their migration status.
My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 18 in my name and that of the noble Lords, Lord Polak, Lord Kerslake and Lord McNicol of West Kilbride. In doing so, I give notice of my intention to test the opinion of the House unless the Government are willing to move on this issue. I also thank all noble Lords who are speaking in the debate and all those who have spoken in previous debates over the years; they have shown consistent support on this issue.
It seems that we have been over this ground on numerous occasions over the past few years. In that time, the Government have failed to put forward any convincing arguments to deny EEA nationals, alone among all of the people residing in the United Kingdom, physical proof of their right to do so. This amendment would right that wrong and in doing so it would alleviate anxiety for millions of people, in particular the elderly and the most vulnerable.
The amendment has no partisan or ideological flavour and it is backed by Peers from all sides of the House, from all parties and from none. It is simply a practical measure to make life easier for a large number of people and to deliver a consistent system of proof of residents’ rights which does not discriminate between nationalities. It is deliberately modest in its ambitions. It does not require that physical proof is issued to every EEA national who is granted settled status, only that EEA nationals must be provided with physical proof of their status if they request it.
The Government’s arguments against this very modest proposal seem to be as follows. The first is that offering both digital and physical proof of status would be confusing. That argument is hard to understand because this is exactly the system that operates for all other permanent residents in our country. Far from avoiding confusion, a digital-only system will sow it in abundance. Landlords, employers and others required to check immigration status will now be confronted by two systems, one for EEA nationals and one for non-EEA nationals. They may wonder at this discrimination between nationalities and, given that they face crippling fines and the possibility of imprisonment if they get things wrong, they may decide that in the absence of physical proof, it is safer to replicate the Government’s discrimination and not to employ, rent a property to or provide a service to an EEA national.
Secondly, the Government claim that a digital proof is better than a physical proof because a digital proof cannot be lost. The answer to this is simple. We are not suggesting the removal of digital proof or digital records; we are simply arguing that physical proof should complement digital status. None the less, it is worth questioning the Government’s repeated claims in Committee about the resilience and robustness of the digital system. These arguments come to us in a month in which the Tokyo stock exchange lost a full day of trading due to a technological failure not only of its main system but also of its back-up, the Conservative Party virtual conference was rendered inaccessible to many of its delegates, denying them what is doubtless, for Conservatives at least, the unrivalled pleasure of a speech by Michael Gove, and of course the failure of our own House of Lords voting system when we were discussing this very Bill on Wednesday last and the failure of our hybrid proceedings this afternoon.
Let us be clear: systems failures are not a matter for the history books but happen every day. Technical faults occurred on the EU settled status scheme website in August this year, a nationwide failure of the US Customs and Border Protection system happened in August last year, and we all know of the scandalous injustice visited on sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses as a result of the supposedly infallible Horizon IT system. In each case, those responsible made extravagant and categorical claims about the robustness and resilience of their system.
Even temporary failures may give rise to permanent effects. If an employer or a landlord is unable to access the system at the point they have to decide between potential employees or tenants, the likelihood is they will give the job or rent the home to someone who can provide physical proof of their right to work or rent accommodation.
Thirdly, the Government argue that they intend to move to a wholly digital system in future and that it therefore makes sense for this new settled status scheme to adopt a digital-only model from the outset. It makes no sense at all. If a digital-only system is to be adopted, it should be extensively trialled in advance with widespread pilot schemes conducted with citizens who are confident in their status and who have the security of physical documentation as well. Australia, one of the few countries to have moved to a digital-only system, trialled it over a period of more than a decade.
As I said in Committee, we should not conduct an experiment with the lives of millions of people who are in receipt of an entirely new status, whose rights are not even underpinned in primary legislation and who are understandably nervous about their status, given the Government’s declared intention to violate the very treaty on which that status is based. We should especially not conduct an experiment with the lives of millions of people when the one trial the Government have undertaken, which involved non-EU citizens who had the back-up of a physical residence card, found the following:
“There is a clearly identified user need for the physical card at present, and without strong evidence that this need can be mitigated for vulnerable, low-digital skill users, it should be retained.”
I asked the Minister in Committee to explain to the House what has changed since the Government made that assessment in 2018. She either could not or would not answer that question. Neither could she tell us when the policy equality statement related to this policy, which the Government have confirmed exists, will be published. It is unacceptable that we are being asked to decide on legislation that will affect millions of lives when the Government are withholding from us such vital information, so I ask the Minister to address these issues in her response.
On every occasion we have discussed this matter, I have asked the Minister and other members of the Government, just as my noble friend Lady Hamwee did on an earlier amendment this afternoon, to try to walk in the shoes of others and to understand the huge anxiety which the Government’s refusal to listen and make this minor change is causing to EEA nationals, particularly to the elderly, vulnerable and those who lack IT literacy. At the end of the day, this argument is not about technology, documents or computer systems—it is about people’s lives, whether EEA nationals can feel secure in the status on which their whole lives are based, and whether the elderly and vulnerable can operate the system without dependency on others. It is about whether victims of domestic abuse will face further misery as an abusive partner exercises control over their lives through control of the email address on which their status is based, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, raised in Committee. It is about whether those seeking employment, accommodation or access to services will be discriminated against by employers, landlords or service providers who are confused that EEA nationals alone cannot produce physical documentation.
The case for this modest amendment is overwhelming. The practical arguments demand it, the principle of non-discrimination requires it, and the most basic level of consideration for the EEA nationals who have made their home with us compels it. I beg to move.
I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Oates, for his tenacity. We sat together on the Justice Committee some years ago, discussing these exact issues. As I stated at Second Reading, I am pleased to add my name to the amendment. I also thank my noble friends Lord Parkinson and the Minister for the time they gave me last week.
Like other noble Lords, I have received many messages from individuals supporting the amendment, from people whom I have never met to a number of colleagues from all sides of the Chamber—and I am grateful for that. As I have stated, the amendment is not political in nature but practical and sensible, and it should not prove onerous, as it mandates the Government to provide physical proof only if requested by an individual. Rather than giving my own opinion, I quote from a letter that I received from Maria:
“I am an EU national who has been based in the UK for over 26 years. As of
As the noble Lord, Lord Oates, said, look what happened last Wednesday in our own House—a technology issue affected our voting and the House was adjourned. You could not make it up: this amendment was delayed by a technology failure. Yes, it can and does happen. I imagined the scene of Maria trying to board the plane and explaining that she has the right to come back to the UK while the website was down.
I also cannot quite compute—if I can use that word—the illogical and perhaps patronising position that on the one hand the Home Office is providing people who are granted settled or pre-settled status with a formal written notification of their leave, either by letter or PDF, yet on the other hand suggesting that it is merely confirmation but no proof at all. I ask my noble friend the Minister whether she agrees with me that there is a simple solution. The current system of physical proof for non-EU immigrants could be temporarily expanded to include EU citizens and provide a biometric residence permit for those EU citizens who request such proof. I further ask her if she could estimate the cost of implementing this solution.
I am all for progress, and I support the Minister’s comments, when she said in Committee that
“we will replace physical and paper-based evidence of status with digital products for all migrants, starting with EEA citizens, in the next few years. These changes are being introduced gradually in a way that builds confidence for users”.
“These changes are being introduced gradually” and
“in the next few years.”—[
EU citizens living in this country deserve to be treated in exactly the same way. Surely EU citizens are equally entitled, in the words of the Minister, to benefit from the gradual introduction of changes that builds confidence for users just like everybody else. For this reason, I am pleased to support this amendment.
My Lords, I am pleased to add my name to this amendment, and again thank the noble Lord, Lord Oates, for his diligent pursuit of this issue. Unfortunately, I was not able to join the debate in Committee on
The question I have reflected on is why on earth the Government would not be willing to agree to this. It does not cut across a manifesto commitment, set an unwelcome precedent, or involve major cost or administrative difficulty. As other noble Lords have pointed out, we already have such physical proof available for non-EEA citizens. Having read through the records, I think that the only arguments put forward by the Government are that they are committed to the path of digital, and that it is not necessary.
On the first of these arguments, nothing in this amendment implies that the Government should divert from the path of increasing the use of digital technology —this is really important. It simply says that in the particular circumstances we are dealing with here, the opportunity to also have physical proof is a very important, indeed vital, reassurance. On the second argument, the3million group and the individual representations have provided very good evidence that it is seen as necessary by those affected. However, if it is not necessary, we can expect the take-up to be very small, and there would be an opportunity in the future for the Government to revisit the issue. This is a straightforward and deliverable change to the Bill that would be widely welcomed by a group of people caught up in this process through no fault of their own. It is a small bit of humanity and common sense.
If the Minister is so sure of her ground—of the certainty that the systems will work exactly as intended, without error—she may hold on to her position and I hope that it goes to a vote. But I ask her to think again, because none of us can give that level of certainty to something that is so vital to people’s lives.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Oates, has, in his opening contribution, clearly outlined many of the arguments why this simple, short amendment on physical documentation should be accepted by Her Majesty’s Government. It is only five lines long, but within those five lines, so much future heartache and pain could be averted—averted for the most vulnerable in society.
As we have heard, this amendment is tempered and moderate. The words
“and who request such proof” in subsection (1) show how measured this cross-party amendment, proposed by a grouping of the noble Lords, Lord Oates, Lord Polak, Lord Kerslake and me, is an attempt to be. I hope that the Minister can be as accommodating as we have been.
There have been calls under previous amendments for physical documentation to be automatically provided for all. I have sympathy with that call but, in the hope that we can get to a position where our amendment could be accepted by the Minister and Her Majesty’s Government, the words
“and who request such proof” have been added. It would be a very sad day if the Minister cannot accept this short and sensible amendment.
In rereading the Commons Committee debate and previous debates on this amendment in your Lordships’ House, like others, I am still at a loss to understand why the Minister feels she cannot accept or support it. The arguments against have been, at best, vague. When responding on
“I must say, it is not proof; it is confirmation. This should reassure individuals about their status when dealing with the Home Office in the future”—[Official Report, 14/9/20; col. 1094.]
Well, no. It is the issuing of the physical proof that is vital and will give those individuals the reassurance they need. We all heard the noble Lord, Lord Russell, in his contribution on Amendment 16 talking about the issues surrounding the Home Office. It is vital for so many reasons—for work, for housing, for the feeling of belonging.
Like many others who spoke earlier, I fully support the digitisation and the move to online processing and ordering, but there are issues and concerns with the only form of access to proof being digital and online. We have heard some of those. What happens if the online systems fail—like our voting system last Wednesday, when it was critically and crucially needed? Only this weekend, we have seen the failures in relation to Covid testing and the errors that have occurred with the digitisation there. But it is not just the errors: there are also those who are not digitally literate. What support will the Government offer to them, if they will not accept the amendment?
I hope that, with the cross-party support of this simple, short amendment, it can be accepted and introduced.
My Lords, I fully support all the points so eloquently argued, once again, by the noble Lord, Lord Oates. I will speak briefly only to reiterate the points I raised in Committee, which were not fully addressed by the Minister in her response.
My first point relates to people in abusive and coercive relationships. I pointed out then, and remind the House now, that a common strategy in coercive control cases is to deprive the victim of access to phone and internet use. This raises the question of how someone who escapes a relationship with a coercive partner will be able to prove their status in future if, as is likely, it was the abusive partner who managed the process of claiming settled status in the first place. In seeking to rent a safe place to live, or to get a job in order to pay the rent, they would be obliged to contact the partner they are likely to have struggled so hard to leave. This is not a sidebar issue. Coercive control is now, quite rightly, a criminal offence in the UK. In the year to March last year, there were 17,616 offences recorded by the police in England and Wales. Can the Minister explain what protection there will be for victims of coercive control or abuse, so that they are not forced back into contact with their abuser in order to prove their immigration status?
My second concern is for people with impaired mental capacity, who are unlikely to have been able to navigate the application system alone, or to have been able to enter into mobile and internet accounts in their own names. Given the fluidity of the social care workforce, there is no guarantee that, at a later point in life when they are applying for a job or to rent a home, they will still be connected with the carer or caseworker who provided assistance. Mental capacity changes over time. Someone who has mental capacity when they apply may lack it at a later date, without the moment at which this change takes place being immediately clear. Can the Minister explain how people who lack mental capacity, now or in the future, are to be protected?
In response to these concerns, which I articulated in Committee, the Minister reiterated the Government’s commitment to
“delivering a service that reflects the diverse needs of all users.”—[
Given everything that noble Lords have argued on this question, this evening and previously, does she not agree that delivering a service that reflects the diverse needs of all users will include, first, an assessment of which members of society would be disadvantaged by the lack of a physical document; and, secondly, an assessment of the impact of accessibility issues on all potential service users?
I know that the Minister will agree that equality of access should be at the heart of every government policy. This tiny amendment—a simple slip of paper and only if requested—does nothing more than ensure that this is the case. For this reason, it has my support.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Oates, on his rather brilliant introduction of this amendment, which I strongly support. The case for it would be made very succinctly were John Stuart Mill or Jeremy Bentham with us. The task of government is to engender the greatest happiness for the greatest number. People want physical proof and, as the noble Lord, Lord Polak, said, our inboxes demonstrate how unhappy so many are at the prospect of being denied it. I can understand why.
We are talking about people—some are vulnerable, some short of digital skills—who are now all already facing a period of unexpected but inevitable uncertainty. Every time they want to apply for a job, rent a place to live, seek medical help, or board a plane home, they, and the potential employer, landlord, healthcare provider or foreign airport employee, will have to go through a multistep process involving passport, date of birth, a unique, one-off, code sent to a phone, and the email address and business details of the employer, landlord, doctor or airport employee. They will both, separately, have to access the Government’s website, relying on having all the relevant information to hand, the wi-fi signal being good and the website not going down. It is hardly surprising that some of these people worry that the employer or the landlord would prefer to skip the hassle and instead take on someone who has physical proof of their status.
As the noble Lord, Lord Oates, has pointed out, it is discriminatory. Non-EU/EEA immigrants will have physical proof. Why should we discriminate? Why can we not let EU/EEA citizens, if they ask for it, have physical proof too? It is what they want. As the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, has said, the costs would be negligible. It is a very modest measure. As the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, pointed out, we are asking only for physical proof to be available on demand. Some people may not ask for it, but supposing they do. Why must we make so many people so unhappy? Let us go with Mill and with liberty. Let us carry this amendment.
My Lords, I warmly congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Oates, and the noble Lord, Lord Polak, on the manner in which they introduced this important Amendment 18. The noble Lord, Lord Polak, grew up in what was my Liverpool constituency; on a day when Liverpool has been licking its wounds, it is especially good to hear a Liverpool voice speaking such common sense, particularly from the Government Benches.
I spoke in Committee in support of the principles outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Oates, which underpin Amendment 18. This evening, he has again eloquently reminded us of some of those who will be disadvantaged and worse—as my noble friend Lady Bull has reminded us—should they not be able to access physical documentation. The noble Lords, Lord Oates and Lord Polak, also reminded us that digital systems are far from being infallible. What of those who simply do not have access to the technology, or have never been given access to the skills required to be able to use it? The noble Lord, Lord McNicol, made some telling points, especially about the reasonableness of this very moderate amendment.
In Committee, I specifically referred to the difficulties being faced by Roma travelling people with the digital requirements to which they will be subjected. I was disappointed at earlier stages that more was not said in response. I once again urge the Minister to address the Equality Act requirements to counter the discriminatory disadvantage that Roma will inevitably experience if this option of physical documentation is not made available. However, it is not only Roma. As other noble Lords have said, all of us have received correspondence from people anxious to retain physical documentation.
That brings to my mind a personal experience. My late mother was from a Gaeltacht area, or Irish-speaking area, in the west of Ireland, where, until their early deaths, her parents had worked a small hill farm. When they died, their children were scattered, and my mother emigrated. Her first language was Irish, she had little schooling and no documentation, and she was doing domestic jobs to make a living. Years later, my late father, a Desert Rat, wanted to take her on her first foreign holiday. Obtaining physical documentation was a challenge, although not insuperable. In the course of it, I was surprised by a revealing comment she made: that despite the specific freedoms enjoyed by the English and the Irish in those days to travel freely between both jurisdictions, she had always been worried about having no physical documentation. Happily, that was resolved, and her documents provided me, my children, and now my grandchildren, with the right to Irish as well as British passports—both of which I am proud to have.
I tell this story to illustrate the importance of physical documents to establish who you are and affirm your identity. The noble Lords, Lord Oates and Lord Polak, as well as other noble Lords, are right to have persisted with their amendment. I hope that, if we have to divide, we will support this amendment. However, I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us that the Government will give it further thought and perhaps come back with their own amendment at Third Reading.
I would like to tell the story of somebody who would not be affected by this measure, because she is not an EEA citizen. However, she was a victim of modern slavery and got indefinite leave to remain. She applied for British nationality and sent off her passport. That was two years ago, and the Home Office is still trying to make a decision about her case. I am not sure what the problem is, but she was not told about the need for a biometric card, so she does not have one. She cannot get one at the moment because her passport and all her other details are with the Home Office. Despite her status, she is finding it impossible to get a job because employers want to see that biometric card.
As others have said, we have talked about systems being down and about people not having the technology. The technology could be just an iPhone, but not everybody has a mobile phone—I know that pretty much all of us do but not everybody does. If a number is sent by text to a telephone, there are still far too many places in this country where the signal is not strong enough for the message to come through. As a Member of this House, from time to time when I log in, a number is sent to my phone with which I can verify that I am exactly who I say I am, and I can then get on to the Outlook system. Quite recently, I have been in situations in this country where I cannot do that because the telephone signal is not strong enough. Those are all things that we have to bear in mind.
Of course, the human angle is very important. One thing that has not been mentioned, but which I read about, is that one reason the Government do not want to accede to this modest requirement is that it is not secure. I can understand that there is always concern about counterfeiting and so forth, but there are so many things that we issue with physical proof that it should not be beyond the wit of a Government to produce something that is pretty difficult to counterfeit.
If there are concerns about the cost, although this amendment precludes charging, I suggest that a modest charge of £10 or £20 might go towards that. I think that the people who have contacted us would be happy to pay that sort of amount and maybe even a bit more. However, I cannot for the life of me understand why the Government are being so resolute—I could say “obstinate”—on this point, and I am afraid that I have to say to my noble friends on the Front Bench that if, as I hope, the amendment is taken to a Division, I will support it, and I think that it will pass with a very large majority.
My Lords, I too wish to speak in favour of the amendment, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Oates, together with the noble Lords, Lord Polak, Lord Kerslake and Lord McNicol of West Kilbride, to whom I express gratitude for their skilful drafting.
I am still asked to provide evidence of my identity by means of a driving licence or a passport, or, upon entering the parliamentary estate, a parliamentary pass. The stated aim of the Government to confer settled and pre-settled status solely by digital means as a prelude to all immigration status being signified in this way is as curious as it is alarming. I say “curious” because it demonstrates a capacity for technological solutions from a department whose record in achieving them is mixed at best, and because it is being delivered to a House unable until today to vote by electronic means on its last slew of amendments. I hope that the Minister will take note of how heavily the Government have been defeated on each and every vote today. They are likely to be defeated again if the amendment comes to a vote, as it is another amendment that is not at all political and commends itself to common sense and human decency.
The Home Office was due to implement an electronic border system by 2011 for monitoring passenger data. This was put back to 2019, and I understand that the contract was terminated at one point. The Minister might advise us on how the system is going.
Last year, the Public Accounts Committee, reporting on matters to do with the Windrush scandal, picked up on its own prior concerns about the handling of electronic data at the department. It further mentioned that the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration found that the department had wrongly identified some people as disqualified from having a driving licence or a bank account, but the department rejected the recommendation to cleanse its disqualified persons list of people who should not be on it, which is again curious.
I cannot be the only Member of your Lordships’ House whose email inbox has been inundated with the pleas of EU citizens and their spouses on this amendment—in fact, I know from this debate that I am not. We have to ask why this is the case. Why this particular amendment? As has been noted, Australia took 19 years to migrate one category to a digital status only. What of the inevitable inaccuracies of such a screen? What of when the system goes down, as it most assuredly will? What of those who do not remember the email address with which they registered? What of those, especially the elderly and perhaps more vulnerable, who might have relied on a neighbour or a charity who used an email address unknown to them? Such a person is trusted with a library card but not with something tangible—something that fits into a wallet or purse and identifies them more easily than the frailty of any app is yet able to do. Indeed, it is curious—my favourite word this evening—that we should go out of our way to make the lives of others so difficult. There is simply no need to do this and we should not do it.
In designing a system for administrative convenience rather than accommodating the realities of daily human life, we risk visiting unnecessary and avoidable difficulties on many of our fellow citizens. That is why I support the amendment and hope that the Minister will accept it.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark. I fully commend and support the amendment for EU settled status, in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Oates, Lord Polak, Lord Kerslake and Lord McNicol of West Kilbride. This is a very moderate amendment, as the noble Lords who spoke before me clearly stated, and it makes a very simple request to which I hope the Minister will be able to accede.
By way of explanation, I will quote from a letter I have received. As noble Lords have stated, we have all received letters and emails from people throughout the UK who are EEA citizens and deeply concerned about this. It states:
“For some reason the Home Office is only giving EU nationals a digital status, which is a source of great anxiety to EU citizens that I know. Given how important it will become to prove your right to reside in the UK after Brexit, it is puzzling why the Home Office is only giving EU nationals a digital status rather than being able to present a plastic residence card with their photo and biometrics in it. They have to request employers and landlords to access a Home Office database by providing a code.”
As we have seen in your Lordships’ House, digitisation can work very well the majority of times, but there are times when it does not work at a satisfactory level. If that happens in this case, with people applying for settled status, it could cause anxiety if they cannot gain access. It will cause them considerable levels of worry. I therefore urge the Minister to give careful consideration to this well thought-out amendment and to remember that such a biometric card should be made available if it is so required.
I have a certain sympathy with the case made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who referred to his late mother coming from the west of Ireland. In my case, my late aunt came from the Republic of Ireland to work in Plymouth. She had no particular qualifications, but she felt more at ease whenever she had her identity card and that necessary permit. It may be a difference of some 70 or 80 years, but I think the principle remains that people feel happier when they have access to proof of identity, by which I mean a biometric card or a document. For that reason, I urge support, and I am glad to see that the noble Lord, Lord Oates, will be moving this to a vote, which I will be very happy to support, because of the level of support in the wider community in the UK and because it is eminently sensible to underpin the settled status of our EU friends.
My Lords, I support my noble friend’s amendment and the powerful, eloquent arguments he put forward, honed by the noble Lord, Lord Polak, and the compelling arguments of the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, and supported by every other speaker so far in this debate.
I hate to bore the House by repeating what I have said before about those entering the United Kingdom to visit, without a visa, who want to rent a property for the six months they will be here. The Government say that these people—and from
It has been confirmed to me by the Minister that there are no plans to have any digital proof of the status of those EEA and Swiss nationals visiting for six months that a landlord would be able to access to confirm that they can rent the property. So, we have a situation where, if an EEA or Swiss national, after
My Lords, over the years, I have often received pleas for help to support various campaigns. But over the last few days, like other noble Lords, I have been inundated with a multitude of emails—over 80—asking for support with changing a digital-only immigration status to one that has hard copies as well. I support Amendment 18. A digital-only immigration status will create new barriers for EU citizens, especially the elderly and the most vulnerable, who may not have the necessary skills and equipment. They need alternative ways of accessing services. This is not a fair way to treat our friends and neighbours.
EU citizens can prove their new immigration status only through the Home Office website. What happens when the website fails? Websites do fail. There should always be a back-up. Does the Minister agree? What happened on Wednesday and today are an example. Is that not a sign that this amendment should be accepted? In addition, if any one part of the digital checking process fails, people without a physical form of back-up will be vulnerable.
There should not be a two-tier system for proving the right to stay in the UK. There should be an acceptable system for all citizens in the UK and in the EU. I have a god-daughter living in France who is married to a Frenchman. This Bill is inhuman. Many EU citizens living in the UK own property, having paid their taxes. They have acquired settled status, but without physical proof of their identity they are really concerned. The letter they received states clearly that it is not proof of their identity. If they do not have hard proof, they feel very vulnerable. They need physical proof of who they are and of what rights they have earned. I congratulate and thank the noble Lords who have tabled Amendment 18, which I support.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Oates, who spoke so eloquently to this amendment and will show a little solidarity with him as we approach our fifth anniversary: we were introduced to this place on the same day. I congratulate all those who have had the courage to sign this amendment. I declare my interest as chairman of the national Proof of Age Standards Scheme board and as a previous chair of the ad hoc committee of this place on the Licensing Act 2003. I should also declare that my mother became a naturalised Brit in 1948 when she met and married my father and moved to Britain in that year.
I welcome the digital age but, as the recently concluded consultation on developing UK standards for the physical presentation of digital proof of age that the PASS board undertook showed, while there is a future role for digital, physical checks provide important safeguards, as witnessed by the many emails that I, like other noble Lords, have received in preparation for this debate.
The noble Lord, Lord Oates, referred to the two recent technical failures in this Chamber which highlighted the current limitations of digital technology. I also refer to my experience, which was shared by the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, when in 2014 or 2015 Defra decided it would go to digital-only applications for farm payments. In the teeth of fierce opposition from the EFRA Committee, which I had the honour to chair at that time, and from across the House in the other place, we persuaded the Government to move from digital-only applications to paper applications as well for many of the reasons that my noble friend Lord Randall gave. In North Yorkshire, there are many pockets, particularly in the Vale of Pickering and the Vale of York, where the mobile signal is woeful and broadband is very poor. You have farmers trying to log on to apply for their farm payments while their school-age children are trying to do their homework, and there is simply not the bandwidth for that.
For these reasons, I urge my noble friend, who is held in respect and affection in this place, to set aside digital only when she sums up the debate this evening. I can find no reason in my heart or my conscience to vote against this amendment, and if it is pressed to a vote I shall certainly support it.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, was absolutely right to remind us of what has just happened in the Lords last week and this week. Modern technology is not perfect, and the trouble is that it has so much authority—in the sense that it has become so indispensable—now in the handling of affairs that, when it fails, there are very serious consequences. There is nothing more serious to think about than someone who is not altogether secure, who is in a situation where identity and status proof are being demanded, finding that the system fails. It is extraordinary that, in the light of what we have just been through, there should be any continued resistance whatever to the proposition in this House.
With all his front-line experience, the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, spoke very convincingly about the real situations in which people find themselves, where the inability to produce physical evidence plays into the hands of ruthless landlords or whatever. It seems to me that we must also recognise that the elderly and frail are not comfortable with modern technology—if they have it. They really want and need something in their hand that establishes their authority and status.
In the EU Justice Sub-Committee, on which I was glad to serve for my allotted time, we wrestled—as the noble Lord, Lord Polak, will remember because he was a fellow member—with this very issue on quite a number of occasions. We could not get a rational or reasonable explanation for why it was impossible to contemplate producing this document. I try not to be a cynic or sceptic, but I cannot have been alone in beginning to wonder about what it is that is behind all this. What is the real reason that there is so much determination to resist?
This is because, as the situation stands, all the power is in the hands of the Government and the Home Office; the individual has no equal standing available in a physical document to produce, for whatever reason or need, the evidence of how the situation really is. One thing that—over many years in this House and quite a number of years as a Minister—I have always worried about is that we may have reasonable Ministers in the present age, but what happens when they move? What happens if we get a ruthless Home Secretary who seems to see the opportunities here for being able to undermine the status, stability and well-being of people in this predicament?
I keep saying—it may be a little irritating, but it is true—that I have enormous personal respect for the Minister handling this debate. She is a decent person. Of that, I am totally convinced. I ask her to try to produce this evening some determination to take the seriousness of this point on board and produce the necessary document. I am glad to support the amendment.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Judd, who invariably speaks with eloquence and passion. I was also delighted to hear the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Polak and Lord Alton, especially in view of the misery they are feeling about the Liverpool result over the weekend. I speak as a Manchester United supporter and I share their misery.
This debate reminds me of the time, some years ago, when the Government of the day asked pensioners to sacrifice their pension books, which they took to the post office, for payment directly into their bank accounts. At the time I was the MP for Orpington, trying to defend a majority of 269. A Labour Government perpetrated this change and it was manna from heaven, frankly. I remember waxing on about the heartlessness of a Government who took away from old-age pensioners the comfort of the book that they took to the post office every week. It was hard-hearted but, in retrospect, the direction of travel was entirely right. The issue is always how it is handled and the time you allow people to make the adjustment necessary in the circumstances. This is happening here.
It has been pointed out that the Australian Government now have an entirely digital system. As my noble friend on the Front Bench knows, I have been a supporter of the Australian system that they have partly converted to, but not wholly—not enough. The truth, as pointed out in the excellent speech of the noble Lord, Lord Oates, is that although the Australian Government have gone to an entirely digital system, for eight years they allowed people to have a paper system for no cost, and for a further three years they could pay to have a paper system alongside the digital system. For a total of 11 years, they allowed this change to take place. The Government are expecting this to happen by next July. The reality is that it will not. Can anyone imagine this sort of digital change taking place by next July, with all the uncertainty we have heard about with digital behaviour of this kind? I think not.
I wish the Minister not only to think about the greatest happiness for the greatest number—as said by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr—and to look at things from the point of view of ordinary people, as all Governments should, but to avoid a U-turn, which they will probably have to later if they do not listen to what we are saying tonight.
I take some comfort from that, because this Government have shown themselves to be fairly good at U-turns. I hope we see one this evening. In 50 years in Parliament, I have never been more perplexed by any debate and the obduracy of a Government without a cause that is defensible.
What we are doing here is willingly inflicting pain and worry on people who have often served our country, who love our country, who wish to continue to make their life in our country and who make enormous contributions to our country. We are saying to them—I speak as a digital agnostic—“You do this, or else.” It is an indefensible position. I joke about my own position because, until we went into lockdown, I had never possessed a computer, never used a computer and never had any desire to use a computer. I do it now and, with the aid of the wonderful digital support service we have in the House, I have been able to make many speeches on the screen and have attended numerous meetings through Zoom and Microsoft Teams—and I have hated every one of them.
We should be a tolerant House. Tolerance is one of the defining characteristics of the British people, yet we have seen it crack in several places over the past few years. Many of the letters that your Lordships have received, as I have, from truly worried people speak about the creeping xenophobia in our country following Brexit. As everyone in your Lordships’ House knows, I deeply regret that decision, but I have always accepted it. I argued passionately for Mrs May’s deal—Lady May, as she is now. Many of those people feel less wanted. That is extremely sad.
There are one or two things that we should all bear in mind. In his splendid introduction to this debate, the noble Lord, Lord Oates, to whom we are all grateful, referred to the Horizon scandal. It is reaching the end almost as we speak, but not the end for those who suffered—not the end for those who were told that here was a perfect digital system that could not conceivably be wrong; no, that was wrong. We should also remember Windrush—people put into a position of terrible distress because their bona fides were not accepted. Surely we can learn from these things. Surely we can learn from the experiences to which many of your Lordships have referred last Wednesday and this very day. We are not dealing with perfection; we are dealing with clever systems that can frequently let people down. My noble colleague talked about the farm payments scheme. I had many in my former constituency who lived in parts of Staffordshire where there was not good reception. Some of them were driven almost demented by it and the Government saw sense.
Many of your Lordships have paid deserved tribute to my noble friend on the Front Bench. She has shown herself to be a colleague who understands this House and who tries to give time to people who have worries about various aspects of government policy—she will have been very busy recently. I want to say to her directly: please do not let yourself down. Go and see the Home Secretary tomorrow and tell her that you tore up your brief, because it is not worth having. There is no logical, sensible answer to this extremely modest proposal. My noble friend would earn more than an accolade—she would deserve a halo—if she said, “You have been talking sense; I have been talking rubbish, and we are now going to put it right.”
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Cormack. I certainly support this amendment, moved so ably by the noble Lord, Lord Oates, and its proposed new clause requiring the Secretary of State to issue physical evidence of migration status.
To start with, as has been said, we might well be disposed to approve of a system which is entirely digital, dispenses with cards or paper, and is quick, slick and nicely up to date. In this case, however, although well-meaning, such a system is flawed. That is even so in general, thus for numerous purposes and types of daily use, regardless of the particular and sensitive context of migration status at all. Consider driving licences, student ID cards, pensioners’ bus passes, national insurance cards, and so on. Suppose we could not use these and had to go online instead; at best, this would be frustrating and, most of the time, extremely annoying. It is so much easier to have a card or piece of paper immediately there in your pocket or in the file which you keep at home.
All the more so would it therefore be unsatisfactory—something which this amendment corrects—if evidence of settled status could be provided only digitally. As so many of your Lordships have already emphasised, digital-only immigration status will create new barriers for EU citizens, especially the elderly and most vulnerable, who may not have the necessary digital skills. That apart, if and when some aspect of the digital process fails—which is quite a frequent occurrence—people without a physical form of back-up will obviously be disadvantaged.
Conversely, even when the process may go as smoothly as it can, many still fear lengthy, contorted, multistep sequences involving presentations of passports, birth dates and unique one-off codes sent to mobiles, followed by both parties having to access the Government’s website separately. Worse still, a recent study has shown that the majority of landlords do not want to accept a digital-only proof, stating that they do not trust it.
For these reasons, I am sure that my noble friend would accept the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Oates, or produce a government one corresponding to it.
My Lords, only today we have seen another example of centralised government technology failing: namely, the PHE Excel spreadsheet not counting all the coronavirus statistics. We know what happened to some Windrush immigrants whose proof was destroyed.
I am happy to admit that when I began to enter the House of Lords, I had to establish my British nationality. That involved finding proof of my father’s naturalisation as a British citizen in the late 1940s. To my amazement and pleasure, there was the document in the small pile he had left me when he died. We should not forget future generations who may need a piece of paper. I shall never forget the comfort of having that piece of paper.
Employers and landlords will look for it. I surmise that, if they are told to check online, this could be an obstacle to the offer of housing or employment when time is of the essence. Older people may not be familiar with the technology—another demographic that the Government sometimes forget: for example, in relation to the NHS track and trace app, where the considerable numbers of older people who do not have smartphones are simply ignored. Moreover, hard copy of proof may be a requirement when an entitled person travels abroad or when there is an emergency and no access to a phone or the internet is possible.
Failure or hacking of the digital system will be catastrophic and are by no means unforeseeable. Of course there could be both digital and paper evidence as a back-up. For those reasons, I support this amendment and urge the Government to do the sensible thing and provide a paper proof of settled status.
My Lords, I always enjoy the company of the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and her own story is compelling. Those who tabled this amendment have put their case very well. I sit on the European Union Committee with the noble Lord, Lord Oates, and we quite often make similar-sounding points. My noble friend Lord Polak has done much for the Conservative Friends of Israel.
We are debating a legislative requirement to provide physical documentary proof as well as digital proof under the EU settlement scheme. It is a very important debate and I wish to highlight three further issues which need to be given some weight. First, if there are two sources of the truth, the digital database and a physical document, what happens when they differ? This can cause difficulties for the individual, as I know from a family member settled in France but with a misspelled name on his French papers. A discrepancy between the two may also be grounds for appeal. We really do not want to create yet another pretext for expensive appeals, creating cost and delay, encouraging people to abuse the system and making it harder for those in genuine difficulty.
We have heard from the Minister that those in the settlement scheme will get a letter, or a PDF sent by email, setting out their status. This can be kept if it is physical, run off if it is an email, and/or stored electronically. Most of us here probably visit the US in a private capacity, and so will be familiar with ESTAs, where the permission to travel is online. We need one simple, single, consistent and reliable system of identity. We also need one that is not prey to fraud. As time passes, the permission to settle will become a valuable right. Physical documents, even when backed up by high tech, are too easy to fake.
Secondly, I would like to know the cost of this proposal. Is it a minor change, as has been argued, or a major one? I appreciate that the physical document will be provided only on request—a clever detail from the movers of the amendment—but in practice almost everyone will ask for a physical document. You would be mad not to, given that it is free under the terms of this amendment —so I fear that this will be costly. We know that some 3.9 million EU and EEA citizens have already applied to the settlement scheme. What is the cost of providing, delivering and policing over 3 million fraud-resistant documents? This question of cost and price is important; an estimate was also asked for by my noble friend Lord Polak. Perhaps the Minister could kindly give us an estimate before this is voted on—but, in my view, providing such documents for free is, in principle, wrong.
Finally, as noble Lords know, the future of ID is digital. As many have said, the direction of travel is right. I pressed the Minister on digital rather than physical ID when debating the legislation on coronavirus and the need for secure ID, for example for the enforcement of licensing laws and other age-restricted activities. Attitudes to digital have much improved during the crisis and we should take advantage of that in this Bill, but clearly the Minister needs to answer concerns about the failure of any new system. The US system is normally very robust indeed, and quite simple once you have answered their questions. Many businesses and financial institutions have digital systems that are extremely reliable, as I know from personal experience.
Any problems with vulnerable groups and internet blackspots can and should be dealt with as part of the forthcoming implementation plan for this huge change. The communication campaign, which we heard about earlier on Report, on the new immigration arrangements, provides a huge opportunity to chart the way ahead. I mention in passing that a good model in the pre-digital age was the 1992 campaign by the DTI, ironically on the creation of the single market. Careful planning and considerable investment in advertising, and in assistance for individuals and businesses, all led to a favourable outcome. The Home Office, under great pressure today I fear, may be interested to know that this also had a favourable effect on people’s perception of the department and indeed on its ability to recruit top talent.
Returning to the main issue, for all these reasons I am uneasy about this superficially compelling, simple amendment. I look forward to the Minister’s reply, endorse all the kind words that have been said about her talent and hope that she can find a way through this evening, and that colleagues will listen to her, think again and support the Government.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Oates, for tabling this amendment and give him my support. It is with a heavy heart that I do so, against my Government—my party.
I sat on the European Union Justice Sub-Committee with the noble Lord when we took hard evidence. We invited the ambassadors for all the EEC countries to come and talk to us and share their concerns, which were twofold. The first was that the applicants were made to feel unwelcome when they were asked to apply. They had to go through the Herculean task of proving something in circumstances where many of them had been super-contributors to our country—where we should have welcomed them with open arms. It looked as if we were doing them a favour in accepting them if they wanted to stay with us, not treating them as our equals. This was simply inhumane and there was no explanation for that.
Secondly, when they got to the very bottom of the task and were eventually accepted, they asked whether they could have some physical proof. They were denied it without any rational explanation whatever. I happened to chair the meeting to which we invited every single ambassador—it was in a large room, as we could convene in large rooms in those days. I asked them to share with us the single most upsetting feature of applying. To a man or woman, they responded that the lack of physical proof was the highest, the most frequent and the most troubling.
I not going to repeat the many speeches that have been made tonight because the night is getting long, but I want to add one other feature: cybersecurity. The reason I stand here tonight and am not being hooked up from home is because I am, as I have advised Black Rod, a victim of being hacked through my telephone. My parliamentary email, my own email, my WhatsApp messages, my pictures and my texts are all visible to somebody else. The future of crime is not only the nuclear problem; it is the cyber problem. With one swipe of a button, it affects the system. We have talked a lot about general accidents, not being able to connect and the mistakes that prevent us voting. We have law courts which sit virtually but crash in the middle of a hearing. But if we are under attack and somebody wants to cause serious grief to us as a country, this is what could be done in the absence of any back-up.
If this happens to the people who we are so lucky to have—I share the right reverend prelate the Bishop of Southwark’s view on this—we are simply not acting in a humane way. We are not treating our fellow citizens in the same way as we would like to be treated. The reciprocal arrangements in embassies across Europe are that British people are entitled to get proof there—they give it out free. We should take notice of that and reciprocate with similar willingness.
Finally, I want to close by saying this: it is never too late to right a wrong. I have enormous respect for my noble friend the Minister. I hope that she will listen to and take to heart the compliments paid to her personally. I hope that she will look into the abyss and feel that, tonight, we have done something useful to help the very many people who have written to ask for our support in what, for them, are extremely troubling circumstances.
My Lords, this debate would not be complete without thanking the very many individuals who have been in touch with noble Lords to express their strong views and very real concerns, nor would it be complete without thanking the 3million—although perhaps that organisation should be called “the almost 4 million”, as we now know. We have to thank every voluntary organisation, the many people affected and those making their views heard, as well as the few who work so hard on their behalf and have been so effective in passing those views on to us.
The Minister in Committee made a long, careful speech which, on rereading, did not seem to address the amendments but rather was a speech responding to what she expected to hear, not to the individual points that were made. The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, has again spoken about people in abusive and coercive relationships, as she did then, and about people with impaired capacity, but there was no answer about the latter. With regard to the former, the Minister said:
“We are committed to delivering a service that reflects the diverse needs of all users.”—[Official Report, 14/9/2020; col. 1094.]
How does that answer the point? Coercive control could cause—I was going to say “just”; it is not “just”, but noble Lords will understand what I mean—not just a difficulty in renting or a lack of getting the job that one wants; it could actually mean trapping the individual in that relationship.
I mentioned Australia at the last stage, as some noble Lords have done today, and the length of time it had taken to make everyone comfortable with purely digital arrangements. The Minister commented that, in Australia, the physical documents are issued in the form of biometric cards. Again, how did that answer the point? This amendment is not opposing the digital system; it is about having additional physical proof for those who ask for it.
From time to time, a proposition in this House takes off because there is something about it that feels very real; noble Lords support it intuitively—and sometimes rationalise that intuition after they have come to the view. The intuition tells them that they have got their fingers on the pulse of opinion. It also, in this case, resonates with our appreciation of citizens who have been a part of our community and who we want to see remaining as part of our community.
I congratulate the speakers who I know do not want to go against their own Front Bench but who are prepared to speak out—I do not suppose that they enjoy doing so. The debate has been impassioned and almost unanimous. I cannot offer the Minister a halo, but she will have an opportunity after the vote, which I expect to be overwhelming, to pass on noble Lords’ arguments and the strength of feeling. She can do that behind the scenes. She is so respected in this House, and I hope that knowing that will buoy her in the task in front of her, because we must achieve this change.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Oates, has given us an authoritative, commanding, clear, direct and confident explanation. The noble Lord can do that because of the power of the case he presented: it is simple, clear, and it is just the right thing to do. We on the Labour Benches will support the noble Lord when he divides the House.
As the noble Lord, Lord Polak, said, EU citizens need to be treated fairly, properly and with respect. The Government have provided nothing to justify what they are proposing to do. I also note that there has been only one speaker tonight in support of the Government, and that is out of not only the Members of the Opposition but the eight speakers from the Government Benches tonight.
The noble Lord, Lord Oates, reminded the House of the problems you can get yourself into if you are a landlord. There are serious penalties if you have not checked documents to ensure the person you are renting your property to is somebody who is entitled to rent the property. If you are an employer, you have to check documents to ensure that the person you are employing has the right to be employed. If you get those wrong, you face serious penalties.
I know that if I was in the position of these individuals, I would want a physical document, physical evidence or physical proof that I could put away and, if there was a problem, some years later get out and then justify that I actually had the right to live and work in the United Kingdom. I think we should not underestimate the stress and the worry—we have all seen from the emails we have received how concerned people are about the position of the Government. I think the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, gave a very powerful case on the question of domestic abusers and how abuse is often about control. Here we are, potentially putting people at risk again, having to go back to their abuser to give them that control over their lives again. We need to be very careful here.
Noble Lords who were at the debate in Committee will recall me explaining that I live in Lewisham, and I have done very many citizenship ceremonies where somebody becomes a British citizen. They get a letter from the Home Office and they are told to contact their local authority, and they ring up Lewisham Council—where I live—and they book a place at the next available ceremony. They come along, they bring their letter from the Home Office and they have it checked. I am there as one of the people who officiates at the ceremony, and the registrar—the person who normally does births, marriages and deaths—explains to people how important what they have done is and how proud they should be to be a British citizen. We sing the national anthem, the members swear an oath of allegiance to Her Majesty, and in the final part of the ceremony the individuals come up one by one and I hand them a paper certificate. These are signed by the Home Secretary; I have handed them out from Theresa May, Sajid Javid and Amber Rudd. I am absolutely confident that today in the Home Office there are people running off certificates signed by Priti Patel. That is the ludicrous situation we are in.
The Minister did not answer this point when she replied in Committee, but I hope she can address this point tonight. Can she please explain, for me and the House, the logic of and justification for the Home Office refusing individuals who have been granted EU settled status a physical document but, exactly at the same time, requiring those individuals to be granted British citizenship, to attend a ceremony, and at that ceremony be handed a certificate and be told by the official at the ceremony how important this document is? They are told, “You must check it before you leave, it is a really valuable document and you need this”, and how important it is. I cannot see the logic of that argument—it is nonsensical and ludicrous—and I do hope the Minister can address that point. At exactly the same time, not only the same Government but the same government department—talk about facing two different ways at once—are creating this ridiculous position.
I hope that the noble Baroness can step back and look at this farcical situation that the Government are seeking to justify here tonight. As many other noble Lords have said, she is highly respected. I like her very much. As a Minister, she has always been willing to engage with me outside the House and I have been able to raise things with her. I have appreciated that very much. However, I hope that she can go back to the Home Office, speak to the Home Secretary and explain how ridiculous this situation is. These certificates have been handed out with the present Home Secretary’s name on them.
In conclusion, I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark. We risk appearing to go out of our way to make the lives of our fellow citizens as difficult as possible. As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, we should be a tolerant House and not seek to do that. There is no justification for behaving or acting like this. The Government are not being reasonable. I hope that they can accept the amendment but, if they do not, I have no doubt that it will be carried overwhelmingly tonight in a Division.
My Lords, I think that there is one thing on which we can all agree this evening—that it is not a great week to be promoting the benefits of technology, and the difficulties have arisen on the immigration Bill as well, which is very irritating.
It is also true to say that, when speaking, the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, for example, absolutely relied on her iPad, and rightly so. It has been great to see noble Lords trusting the technology. In fact, it is probably fair to say that the past six months have seen us very reliant on technology, and for the most part it has not let us down. In addition, it has staved off loneliness for many people. I congratulate the the3million group on engendering concern on this matter but I hope—in fact, I know—that in the same way as noble Lords have thoughtfully addressed that concern, they will also listen to the points that I will be making this evening.
I think that it was my noble friend Lord Horam who talked about when the post office book was abolished. In fact, I remember when the children’s allowance book was abolished. I really did not trust that the money would be put into my bank account. More recently, the tax disc has been abolished. There is no paper record of you having paid the tax, but somehow the police know that you have because of the technology.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Oates, for so thoroughly outlining his case and for providing the House with the chance to discuss the issue of physical documents for EEA citizens who apply under the EU settlement scheme. He knows that I will not agree with him and will try to argue that it is a hindrance to modernising our immigration system. He asked me about the policy equality statement. I understand that it will be published shortly.
Some noble Lords—in fact, I would say almost all, other than my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe—expressed concern about the move to providing access to immigration status online to EEA citizens granted leave under the EU settlement scheme. Like many other government departments, we are moving our services online and there are noble Lords who support digital systems, albeit maybe not in the context of this evening.
The noble Lord, Lord Oates, attested that those protected by the withdrawal agreement do not have their rights underpinned by legislation, but of course they do, through the withdrawal agreement Act. Moving to online services is part of our declared aim of moving to a system which is digital by default, whereby all migrants, not just EEA citizens, will have online access to their immigration status, rather than having physical proof. They will be able to access their immigration status online at any time and from anywhere via the view-and-prove service on GOV.UK, which is available through a variety of devices ranging from smartphones to desktop computers. I am very impressed to hear that my noble friend Lord Cormack has availed of the last few months to use computer software. I never thought I would hear him say that.
All this represents a major change. We have recently seen a real shift in how people behave; in the culture and habits of how the Home Office issues proof of immigration status, and the way in which migrants and others will be able to use this. Of course, we want a robust and secure system that is both efficient and convenient. My noble friend Lady Shackleton pointed out the horrors of having anything hacked. We are at the beginning of this important journey and we recognise that some people may not see it this way, but I urge noble Lords to persevere and let us see this journey unfold properly in a systematic and focused way. We have to commence change somewhere, and the EU settlement scheme has provided the right opportunity.
Noble Lords may remember that, not too long ago, we introduced a new application process for the settlement scheme based on a smartphone app. There was an absolute outcry against it, with press stories and complaints about people not being able to use it or adjust to this new way of making an application. However, this process has proved to be a success and over 3.9 million—almost 4 million—people have used it since its launch in August 2018. I challenge any noble Lord who has not seen the process work to take the time to do so. I will arrange for them to have a look; it is very simple. Change obviously brings complexity and resistance, but we have to embrace it and ensure the right mitigation and support for those who need it most. We have done that through the measures I have outlined previously.
As I said earlier, recent events with Covid have highlighted how vital it is that government systems and services are accessed digitally. As a result of the restrictions placed on the public by the pandemic, we have seen a sharp uptake in providers of services moving online and people have shown their ability to adapt. Digital services have enabled this country to cope during the pandemic, enabling many people—not us, obviously—to work from home, shop and obtain government services remotely.
Our online service has enabled many employers to conduct remote right-to-work checks on foreign national employees since January last year—nearly two years. This has removed the need for physical documents to be handed over, enabling social distancing rules to be followed and reducing contagion risks. This service is available to non-EEA holders of biometric residence cards, or biometric residence permits, and to those granted status under the EU settlement scheme. It represented the first step in our journey to make evidence of immigration status accessible online.
Making this status information available via secure online services has also meant that we can simplify and standardise the system of checks for employers, by providing information about an individual’s status in a format that is easy to understand and accessible to all users, removing the need for employers, and others, to authenticate the myriad different physical documents and interpret complex legal terminology or confusing abbreviations. This service provides employers with a secure, auditable record that they have conducted a check on the employee, which they can store electronically. There is no need for them to check whether a document is genuine, or to go through the process of photocopying it, signing and dating it and then filing it away in a folder or cabinet, all of which they have to do when relying on a physical document.
For those individuals, including employers, landlords and other third-party checkers, who have not already made use of the online service, we are developing an extensive package of communications to ensure that everyone is fully aware of the move to digital and how online immigration status can be accessed and used. The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, again brought up the issue of the physical document to enable renting. It does enable people to rent, but it is not a proof of status.
However, I reassure noble Lords that EEA citizens who are granted settled or pre-settled status will continue to receive a document which is a formal written notification of their leave. This is in the form of a letter sent by post, or a PDF document sent by email, which sets out their immigration status in the UK. They can retain the letter sent by post or print or electronically store the PDF document and keep it as confirmation of their status for their own personal records and for use when contacting the Home Office about their status. That should reassure individuals that they can prove their status when dealing with the Home Office in the future. If necessary, EEA citizens can show third parties their written confirmation of status, and it includes details of the “view and prove” service so the person checking their status can see that there is an online service where they can check the individual’s status. I must stress that the written notification is not in and of itself sufficient proof of status for right to work or right to rent, because it is not a biometric document. Nevertheless, it is a physical missive.
In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, pointed out that we still issued paper certificates on granting British citizenship. He is absolutely correct, and I have written to him on this point. We have been issuing naturalisation certificates since long before we were able to digitise immigration status documents. The primary purpose of the naturalisation certificate is to act as a record of an event and, as he said, it is normally handed out at citizenship ceremonies to commemorate the occasion, and new citizens keep it secure and often frame it with pride. Most newly naturalised British citizens go on to apply for a UK passport to use as evidence of their status and would not need a digital status.
I know that noble Lords are worried about the impact of digital by default on the elderly and the vulnerable, but I assure them that we are taking steps to ensure that those individuals are not disadvantaged by the move to digital services. We are also developing services to make the relevant immigration status information available automatically through system-to-system checks, with other departments and the NHS. This will mean that at the point at which the person seeks to access public services such as healthcare and benefits, that service provider will check status directly with the Home Office, thereby reducing the number of occasions where individuals need to prove their status or need a document to do so.
In moving to a digital system, we also recognise there are people who cannot access online services and who need additional support. We are committed to delivering a service that reflects the diverse needs of all users. Either the noble Lord, Lord Oates, or the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned the Roma. Help on how to use the online service and share status information is available through our telephone contact centre, and we provide a free-to-use assisted digital service where applicants to the EU settlement scheme, or others making online applications in the UK, are able to get support. This assistance is tailored to an individual’s circumstances. We also provide a telephone helpline for landlords and employers to provide guidance on conducting right-to-work and right-to-rent checks, and we are exploring additional support options for those using our online services to ensure that they are fully able to demonstrate their rights in the UK.
We will require EEA citizens to use the online service to prove their immigration status only after
To answer the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, it is worth pointing out that migrants and providers are already getting used to checking and sharing status digitally. In the last reporting period, from April to June this year, there have been over 400,000 views of the “view and prove” service by migrants. In the same period, there have been over 100,000 checks of EU settlement scheme status by organisations. The average user satisfaction score across the migrant and checker sides of the online service, for the same period, was a positive 88%. We have designed the service to be easy to use, but guidance will be available if required. This will include guidance for those who care for vulnerable users and for use by a range of stakeholders working with local groups, including vulnerable groups.
Both the noble Lord, Lord Oates, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, raised concerns about those who may be in coercive or abusive relationships, or victims of modern slavery, being denied access to their immigration status information. That problem already exists with physical documents, which may be controlled by a third party who holds on to those physical documents. I assure noble Lords—I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, is comforted by this—that there are processes in place to help those people regain access to their online information, in those rare circumstances in which a third party refuses to hand over access.
To answer the noble Baroness more fully, users are advised on the service log-in screen to contact the customer contact centre if they no longer have access to the mobile number or email address needed to access the service. Our trained call handlers will complete the necessary security authentication steps over the phone to be certain that they are speaking to the applicant. Once authentication is complete, the call handler will arrange for the log-in details to be manually reset with the new credentials provided by the applicant. This service is already being used by applicants who, for some reason, no longer have access to their online information.
As I have already said, we will replace biometric cards with access to online services for evidence of immigration status for all migrants, not just EEA citizens, over the next few years. These changes are being introduced gradually, in a way that builds confidence for users and provides opportunities for adaptations and improvements informed by user feedback.
The reason we rolled out our online immigration status service to EEA citizens granted leave under the EU settlement scheme first is because they will be able to use their passport or identity card until the end of June next year and, therefore, will have time to get used to transitioning from using physical documents to accessing and sharing their immigration status information online. Moreover, they have already enjoyed the advantage of being able to travel to and from the UK using just their passports or ID cards, unlike many of their non-EEA family members, who are required to produce a physical document demonstrating their immigration status to board for carriage to the UK. The online system is operating in parallel to existing document checks of passports or identity documents. The approach is helping employers, landlords and EEA citizens to transition from using physical documents to online services.
The concern about data security and continued access to status is essential. We have built our systems to ensure that digital status is accessible 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Our digital services are designed to be highly resilient, with rigorous testing to build assurance before the services are seen by a user. To answer the point of my noble friend Lady Shackleton, multiple security controls are in place to protect against cyberattacks. We have employed third-party organisations to conduct vulnerability and penetration testing to provide additional assurance that our online services cannot be compromised. Services and components are engineered to be highly available and are deployed across multiple data centres, meaning that, if one fails, another will take over. By backing up our data and services—I think she even used those words—in this way, we can maintain services without any disruption to users.
Services and their constituent parts are also monitored for failures, which will highlight any potential problems to allow support teams to triage and resolve as quickly as possible. Individuals are able to contact the Home Office in the event of any issues being encountered. We have secure authentication procedures in place to verify an applicant’s identity and status, using internal databases. Applicants and users can also refer to their written notification when engaging with the Home Office.
This amendment, if accepted, would, in practice, require the Government to issue a secure biometric document. If it is to serve as proof of status to third parties such as employers and landlords, and as we need to reduce the risk of document fraud, this would mean issuing biometrics cards, which would incur a significant and unfunded cost, not a small, insignificant cost. Any offer of a physical card, whether or not anyone chose to avail themselves of it, would result in non-recoverable fixed costs being incurred. However, the real cost of administering such a scheme would lie in the volumes of people choosing to obtain a card. That is the real unknown here. The amendment is based on those who want a card, rather than those who need one.
In respect of the questions raised by my noble friends Lord Polak and Lady Neville-Rolfe, if the report by the 3million group is correct, and 89% of all EEA citizens who have already been granted status under the scheme are discontent with the lack of a physical document and would choose to apply for a card, that cost would be over £100 million. If only 2% of people, the over-65s, were to ask for a physical document, the cost would be several millions—we estimate about £5 million but I am relying on the 3million group which thinks that 89% of all EEA citizens will want this physical document.
Equally, those under 65 may be vulnerable, less able to access digital services or may just want a card for additional reassurance, as has been suggested in this House. So, this just provides a starting benchmark when, in reality, we expect the volume of demand to be higher, particularly given that the amendment specifies that the card must be free of charge. Of course, any of these figures will grow if the overall numbers applying under the scheme continue to rise. These are just the costs of producing and processing the initial application for a card.
On top of this, we would need to incur ongoing maintenance costs to replace lost and stolen cards or reissue cards following changes to personal details such as names and following marriage. As it is a physical document, you cannot just go online and update your details. We would also need to factor in new cards for those who transition from pre-settled status to settled status. The cost of communicating the process is additional. This will divert investment away from developing the digital services and support for migrants using those services that we need for the future. Third parties would have to continue dealing with physical documents, checking they are genuine, retaining copies to show that they have done so and generally requiring a more complex and bureaucratic process.
I thank noble Lords for listening so carefully during what has been quite a long debate, and one not without a high degree of concern. I hope that the costs I have outlined—and the fact that 500,000 people are using various aspects of the digital system—will help some noble Lords to pause for thought before voting for this amendment.
My Lords, I have received one request so far to ask a short question after the Minister; that is from the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle.
My Lords, I am aware of the time so I will be very brief. For the record, the Green group is offering our support for this amendment. I have identified three questions from the debate which I do not think the Minister has answered. First, the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, asked about people who lack or lose mental capacity. To answer ID-confirming questions from a call centre—
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness, but the Standing Orders make clear that she may ask one question on a point of elucidation, so perhaps she would choose her favourite of the three.
That is really difficult. I will go to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, about being in an airport or train station and the fact that you have to have two pieces of technology working. The Minister said that the Government’s systems will be wonderful but, of course, this relies on other people’s systems. As the Minister said, our systems are great, but the noble Baroness, Lady Shackleton, said that she has had a problem; all of us have encountered those problems. Imagine that situation at the airport or train station: the clock is ticking, the queue is moving and the plane is about to go—and the systems are not working. What are people going to do and what situations will they be stuck in as a result?
I will say just two things to the noble Baroness. The first is that I hope I have explained in quite a lot of detail the level of security back-up inherent in this system. I also hope that she will acknowledge something that I have had experience of before: walking through an airport, I suddenly could not find my passport.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, in particular, my fellow signatories to the amendment, my noble friends and—above all—those Members on the government Benches who have supported this. I know it is hard to do that when your party takes a different view, so I am very grateful to everybody for that. In view of the hour, I will not go through everybody’s contributions; I hope noble Lords will understand that. I give my commiserations to my colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Polak, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, over the trials and tribulations of Liverpool, and I am sure I will not endear myself to the noble Lord, Lord Horam, by telling him that I am a Spurs fan.
We heard compelling testimony from the noble Lord, Lord Polak, and a number of noble Lords across the House from people actually affected by this system. The noble Lord, Lord McNicol of West Kilbride, spoke about the future heartache and pain that will be caused if the Government will not move, and noble Lords across the House raised a whole series of points that I will not repeat.
In her reply, the Minister made a number of statements. She said that the system was very robust. We said at the beginning—as did other Peers, such as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack—that this is what is said about every system that goes wrong. She said that our data is all backed up. The Tokyo stock exchange had a back-up system; it failed as well. The noble Baroness spoke about systems such as the tax disc system, which is entirely electronic, and she is right to say that. However, we are not talking about the tax disc on your car; we are talking about your absolute status of having the right to stay in the country in which you have made your home. From the Windrush examples et cetera, we know how that can be threatened; we have very recent examples of this.
The Minister seemed to try to make out that some of us were against a digital system. I think everybody who spoke said that they understood and agreed with the need to move to a digital system. The noble Baroness said that we were on a journey, but do not start it with the more than 3 million people who feel most vulnerable about their status in this country. Start it with people who do not feel that way; trial it properly, as other systems have been trialled. The Minister talked about the letter that people are sent, but it sets out specifically that it is not proof of status, and the Minister acknowledged that.
I shall finish by raising two questions that have not been answered. There was a trial in 2018. It said that we should not bring forward a system without biometric residence permits unless there was strong evidence to show that they were no longer needed. The Minister did not share that with us.
The Minister told us that the Home Office had a comprehensive plan to address the cultural failings that led to Windrush, which included the finding that the Home Office was often thoughtless about the consequences for people affected by its policies. If the department really wants to demonstrate that, it would act in a way that shows that it cares about the consequences for people. In view of the Minister’s unwillingness to move on this issue, I wish to test the opinion of the House.
Ayes 298, Noes 192.