Motion E

Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill - Commons Reasons – in the House of Lords at 5:01 pm on 21st October 2020.

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Baroness Williams of Trafford:

Moved by Baroness Williams of Trafford

That this House do not insist on its Amendment 5, to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason 5A.

5A: Because it would involve a charge on public funds, and the Commons do not offer any further Reason, trusting that this Reason may be deemed sufficient.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department

My Lords, Amendment 5 and Amendment 5B, tabled in lieu and proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Oates, require a physical document to be offered to any EEA citizen who applies for it and who has been granted leave under the EU settlement scheme. The other place has rejected the previous amendment submitted by the noble Lord, Lord Oates, as they considered it would incur significant costs. The amendment in lieu removes the provision prohibiting charging a fee for the physical document. However, this does not fully address our concerns about the cost of this proposal.

To allow the now nearly 4 million people who have been granted status under the EU settlement scheme to apply for physical documents, we would have to incur significant up-front costs. These costs would include setting up and designing the application process to issue a secure biometric document, some caseworking resource and significant communications costs; much of this cost would be incurred regardless of how many people applied for a physical document.

As we would not know how many people will apply, we would not be able to set an individual application fee that covered these costs without that being beyond the reach of most applicants. Much of the concern expressed in this House relates to the most vulnerable, and I really do not think we would want to pass on to them the costs of setting up this process. The cost of producing a biometric immigration document is about £75, but that fee does not cover the costs that would be incurred in setting up the process and communicating it. Therefore, being able to charge a fee does not in and of itself fully address the reasons given in the other place for rejecting the previous amendment.

We cannot accept the amendment, but that does not mean that the Government do not understand the concerns raised. We are committed to working with this House and with stakeholders to ensure that measures are in place to support those who may find the transition to digital services difficult. We will run a campaign to ensure that third parties understand how to check a person’s immigration status and the need not to discriminate when doing so. In some cases, the check will be directly with the Home Office, and we are confident that this system will reduce the scope for error and better ensure that people have access to the services they are entitled to.

The Government have clearly set out their ambition to move to a system which is digital by default. That will produce a better system for migrants and will make it easier for them to prove their status where all migrants, not just EEA citizens, will have online access to their immigration status. Other countries, such as Australia, have had a system like this in place for some time, so we know that it works.

This amendment is well intentioned, but it will have an adverse impact on our plans for modernisation and digitisation of our immigration system. These plans include the support services we need to provide to migrants for the future. It will also adversely impact employers and landlords, who would still need to conduct manual checks to authenticate a document and go through the process of photocopying it, signing and dating it and then filing it away in a cabinet.

The Government recognise that digital processes represent a major change for some people. However, as I have outlined in this House, we will provide a physical document in the form of a written notification of their permission to stay in the UK, which they can print off and store as a record. We will require EEA citizens to use the online system to prove their immigration status to employers and landlords only after 30 June 2021, to give them time to adjust, and we will continue to provide information and support to enable them to do so. Many thousands are already successfully using the service now to evidence their status in the UK, as I pointed out during the passage of this Bill.

I am aware that many noble Lords are worried about the impact of digital by default on the elderly and the vulnerable, but I reassure them that we are taking steps to ensure that those individuals are not disadvantaged by the move to digital services, particularly in accessing public services. System-to-system checks with other government departments and the NHS will mean service providers, such as healthcare and benefits, will check status directly with the Home Office at the point at which the person seeks to access them. This will reduce the number of occasions where individuals need to prove their rights, where such information can be made available directly to the service provider on their behalf.

In moving to a digital system, we recognise that there are people who cannot access online services and will need additional support. We are committed to delivering a service that reflects the diverse needs of all users. Help on how to use the online service and share status information is already available through our telephone contact centre, and we provide a free-to-use assisted digital service where those applying to the EU settlement scheme, or others making online applications in the UK, are able to get support. We continue to improve the support services to ensure that they are inclusive and available to all who need them, and we would welcome continued discussions on what additional support we would need to provide to address the concerns that many noble Lords have raised.

We want a robust and secure system that is efficient as well as convenient. Migrants will be able to access details of their immigration status online at any time and from anywhere, with a variety of devices, such as a smartphone or laptop. The Government want a better immigration system, and we believe that the move to a digital service is an important part of that. The amendment would prevent our moving in that direction and would require significant expenditure, which would be better used in supporting those using the services. I hope noble Lords will not insist on this amendment. I beg to move.