Moved by Lord Oates
At end insert “but do propose Amendment 5B in lieu—
5B: Insert the following new Clause—“EU Settlement Scheme: physical documented proofThe 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.””
My Lords, in moving Motion E1, which includes Amendment 5B, I give notice of my intention to test the opinion of the House, unless the Government are willing to change their position on this issue. I express my thanks to all noble Lords on all sides of the House who have so steadfastly and consistently supported this cause, in particular the original signatories to the amendment: the noble Lords, Lord Polak, Lord Kerslake and Lord McNicol of West Kilbride.
We have discussed this issue frequently over a number of years, but it appears that the Government have not been listening. Either that or perhaps I have not been listening properly, because I am still at a loss to understand the arguments that they have put forward to justify their decision to deny EEA nationals alone, among all the people residing in the United Kingdom, physical proof of their right to do so.
This issue, as we have said before, has no partisan flavour. It has been supported by Peers across the House of all parties and of none, commanding one of the largest majorities in your Lordships’ House of any amendment on this Bill. It involves no Brexit arguments; it may be happily supported by any Member, whatever their position on those past arguments. It is, quite simply, the right thing to do to alleviate the anxieties and hardship that will otherwise be visited on millions of people who have made their home with us in the United Kingdom.
In Committee, the Government appeared to advance three principal arguments against our amendment: that a system with both digital proof and physical proof would be confusing; that a digital proof is better than a physical proof because a digital proof cannot be lost; and, lastly, that the Government intend to move to a digital-by-default system in future and therefore that it makes sense for the new settled status scheme to adopt a digital-only model from the outset.
On Report, a new argument was raised—or at least advanced more vigorously—and that was of cost. As noble Lords will be aware, the Government, in rejecting our amendment, have claimed financial privilege, advancing no other argument against it. Therefore, to address the issue of financial privilege and to tackle the Government’s concerns over cost, we have removed the requirement that physical proof must be provided free of charge, which was in the original amendment. It should be noted, therefore, that this amendment in lieu requires only that the Government offer physical proof of status to those who request it; that it allows the Exchequer to charge for such a document; and that the charge is permitted under the terms of the withdrawal agreement.
The Minister told us on Report that if 89% of those with settled status sought a physical document, it would cost £100 million—I think that was at col. 472 —which, by my calculation, would mean, in order to cover costs, a charge of £28.09. I therefore question the Minister’s statement just now that the cost would be £75, and I wonder how she marries that up with the figure she gave us before. Perhaps she will say, “We would have to take into account the setting up of a whole new process”—but I do not understand that. There is a process for issuing biometric residence permits, so there is no need to set up a new process. Indeed, non-EEA citizens who are granted settled status via their spousal relationship are given biometric residence permits—so I do not understand that at all.
I would much prefer that there was no charge for a physical document—not least because our citizens abroad are being issued physical proof of status without charge, as I understand it. Nevertheless, if this is the only way that EEA citizens who have made their homes here can be given the surety and confidence that they seek, I suspect that they would probably regard the fee of £28.09 as money well spent. I hope, therefore, that this addresses the issue of costs and privilege.
As to the response to the Government’s other arguments, I shall try to be brief, both because they have already been well rehearsed in this House and because even the Government do not seem to have the heart to argue them convincingly. First, on the argument that it would be confusing to people to operate a digital system as well as physical proof of status, it remains unclear to me why the Government make this claim. It is exactly the system that exists for non-EEA citizens with indefinite leave to remain, who can access a digital proof of status and can apply for a physical document. Landlords, employers and others who are expected to check for immigration status already operate under such a system, so I fail to understand who the Government think will be confused. What is likely to be confusing, therefore, is not the presence of a physical document but its absence.
Secondly, the Government claim that digital proof is better than physical proof because digital proof cannot be lost. The answer to this is the same one we have given every time the matter has been debated. 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, on Report I questioned the Government’s repeated claims about the resilience of the digital system. I will not list all the examples that I and many other noble Lords gave of allegedly infallible systems failing, but I will simply say that almost every occasion of a failure of a major system has been preceded by claims about its robustness and the impossibility of what subsequently happened happening. Even temporary failures, however short lived, are very likely to give rise to permanent effects, because employers or landlords unable to access the system at the point when they have to decide between potential employees or tenants are very likely to give the job or rent the home to someone who can provide physical proof.
The last of the Government’s arguments was that they intend to move to a wholly digital system in future, and therefore that it makes sense for this new settled status scheme to adopt a digital-only model—except that it does not. If a digital system is to be adopted—and I have no objection to that—it should be extensively trialled in advance with widespread pilot schemes. Australia seems to be a popular country for the Government to compare itself with at the moment. Australia is, as the Minister said, just about the only country in the world to go entirely digital. It did so over a number of years. Indeed, it trialled the system over nearly two decades. So I repeat, as I have every time we have discussed this matter, that we should not conduct an experiment with the lives of millions of people who are in receipt of an entirely new status and who are understandably nervous, given the Government’s declared intention to violate the very treaty on which their status is based.
The one trial that the Government have undertaken which involved non-EU citizens who had the back-up of a physical residence card found:
“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 skilled users, it should be retained.”
The trial also made clear that “digital by default” does not mean “digital only”.
I asked the Minister in Committee and on Report to explain to the House what had changed since the Government made that assessment in 2018. She either could not or would not—but certainly she did not. Nor could she tell us on either occasion when the policy equality statement, which the Government have confirmed exists, will be published, beyond the entirely unsatisfactory “shortly”. I highlight again how unacceptable it is that we are being asked to decide on legislation that will affect millions of lives when the Government withhold such vital evidence.
As I said on the previous amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady Hamwee, yesterday we agreed two amendments in lieu on the issue of agri-food standards, and I was pleased to support them—but this amendment, like that of my noble friend before, deals with people’s lives. As I said on Report, ultimately the argument is not about technology, documents or computer systems but about people’s lives and whether they can feel secure in their status. This amendment would alleviate the huge anxiety which the Government’s refusal to listen and make this minor change is causing to EEA nationals, particularly the elderly, the vulnerable and those who lack technology.
In conclusion, the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, stated that the Labour Front Bench could not support my noble friend Lady Hamwee’s earlier amendment on the grounds that the matter had not been divided on in the Commons. I will draw the attention of noble Lords to the fact, which they will be aware of, that this issue was divided on in the House of Commons, and in this House received, if not the largest then one of the largest majorities of any amendment on the Bill. So I hope that my friends in the Labour Party and, indeed, my friends across all the parties in this House, and no party, will continue to support EU citizens in the virtual Lobbies tonight.
The Windrush Lessons Learned Review made it clear that a huge part of the problem was the Home Office’s refusal to listen to outside voices. Those outside voices are speaking loud and clear. I hope that this time the Government will learn the lesson and open their ears. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have no intention of delaying the House as I have made my views on this pretty clear. The noble Lord, Lord Oates, has been very clear and precise. I believe that the Government are sticking their heels in for no good reason.
I should make it known that this morning there was a power outage at the police national computer centre in Hendon—run, of course, by the Home Office. As a result, police forces across the country were not able to access the police national computer. I do not need to explain to noble Lords that power outages of this sort have a serious effect on police operations. Following the technical issue that affected our voting on
The noble Lord, Lord Oates, tabled the amendment in lieu to deal with the cost element that the Minister brought up on Report. I agree with him, because non-EEA citizens now receive physical proof, so I really fail to understand what the up-front costs that the Minister referred to are. It is an existing scheme. EU citizens deserve to be treated equally and the amendment deserves to be accepted. This is a matter not of policy, but of process. Non-EU citizens can obtain physical proof of settled status, so EU citizens will be the only group without that physical proof. I fail to understand why the Government are unable to accept the compromise amendment that now deals with the financial question.
My Lords, I am pleased to follow my noble friend Lord Oates’s excellent speech, and that of the noble Lord, Lord Polak, with whom I worked on the EU Justice Sub-Committee. The Minister referred to people being able to use their smartphones for this purpose. A friend of mine could not open the link in the email she received confirming her settled status. She had to go to an internet café to do so. I am not quite sure what went wrong there.
I will refer to a report published yesterday by the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union in the other place called Implementing the Withdrawal Agreement: Citizens’ Rights. I do not know whether the Minister has had a chance to look at it, but it backs the amendment so that EU citizens should have
“the option of … a physical document to evidence their residency status … in addition to their digital status.”
I am very pleased indeed that it has given that support. It refers to a number of reasons why this should be accepted. It talks about
“examples of people getting assistance from unregulated immigration advisers to make their application, then the third party retain the log-in details necessary to access the platform” and make a
“charge to send on details to employers.”
I hope that is something the Home Office might look into.
The committee also talks about how, because the online product
“remains linked to the physical document, such as a passport, used by the individual in their application … If the passport is changed, then the applicant has to update the online system.”
That is an issue that will recur. The committee also says that
“accessing the online profile is not straightforward for people not fluent in IT”— something we have discussed a lot on this subject—so they
“end up relying on the pdf document they receive informing them that a status has been granted”.
The Minister referred to that being put in the desk drawer. It is, of course,
“not a substitute for actual evidence of status”, but unfortunately it might be used by some people who are confused by the online environment, which is a recipe for some difficulty.
Then, of course, the person asking the EU citizen to demonstrate their status has to understand it. The Minister referred to support for the holders of settled status. I am not sure whether she plans to give lots of tuition to prospective landlords, employers and so on. She talked about the NHS. It was not quite clear what that system will be. The Public Law Project has listed nine steps that a third party such as an employer would have to take to check the status of an EU citizen. It is worth quickly mentioning them:
“Request the code from the applicant … Wait for an email with a link to arrive … Open and read the email … Search, identify, and open the correct website”, because apparently there is no link in the email,
“Start the checking process … Enter the share code from the email … Enter the applicant’s date of birth … Enter their company name”—
I am not sure what happens for an individual landlord—and, lastly,
“Check that the photo on their screen looks like the person applying for the job and keep a secure copy of the online check, either electronically or in hard copy.”
All this requires reliable access to the internet. If you do not have access to wi-fi, which you might not in an empty flat that you are showing it to a prospective tenant, a person would have to rely on mobile signal, which is honestly not great, even in London.
Also, the committee’s report says that apparently
“the lack of a physical document has contributed to the confusion over eligibility for benefits, because claimants have been unable to show a photo ID card showing their status … it was unclear how some decisions have been made by the DWP in terms of using settled status as a proof of eligibility.”
It is quite a serious point that even the DWP does not seem to have got this right.
The report says that
“the option of a physical card would give an additional layer of safety against criminal attempts to ‘hijack’ someone’s status.”
We are being warned all the time about cybersecurity, and the dangers of malware, hacking and so on. The report says that, in a recent survey of 3,000 EU citizens, apparently more than 10% had been asked
“to provide proof of settled status, and that the digital only status was deterring some from applying.”
It was actually putting them off. The report continues,
“physical proof came right at the top of concerns of EU citizens: 89% said that they would like an option, not compulsory, of physical proof.”
Having gone through all that evidence, it is hardly any wonder that the committee in the other place backed this sincere, reasoned request for EU citizens to have the option of a physical document. I know the noble Baroness cares about people and people’s lives, but it really seems the Government ought to find a way to accede to this request.
My Lords, here we go again on this one. I have not been persuaded any more by my noble friend—whom I hold in very high regard—this evening. She regurgitated the brief from last time, with a few little gildings, and did not convince me at all.
We are dealing with EU citizens. As my noble friend Lord Polak said very forcefully, they are being discriminated against in comparison with other foreign citizens resident in this country. This amendment asks for an option. If there was a weak point in the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Oates, in the previous debate and a strong one from my noble friend on the Front Bench, it was over the issue of cost. The noble Lord has dropped that, and he is wise to do so. Frankly, people who want this physical proof will, I am sure, be glad to pay for it, whether it is £28 or, to take my noble friend’s figure, £75. There are ways and means of ensuring that those who cannot afford £75 are able to do it.
We must not stumble on this particularly weak, faulty argument of the Government. I say “of the Government” because I like to think that my noble friend the Minister, who is held in genuine high regard in this House, is, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, said a few moments ago, a woman who has demonstrated that she does care. She has not been given a kind brief. She is acting as a mouthpiece for a government department that does not have a history of great humanity.
Windrush was mentioned. If many of those people who suffered as a result of maladministration—and that is what it was—had had this sort of physical proof, we would not have gone through those agonising moments, and months, and years. This is common sense.
As far as the fallibility of the technology is concerned, my noble friend Lord Polak gave an up-to-the-minute example. We have heard many examples in your Lordships’ House since our last debate. One day last week, we had to adjourn for albeit not a long period, because the system had malfunctioned in some way.
We also must bear in mind that many of those about whom we are talking are of the generation that many of us in this House belong to. We are behaving in a rather arrogant way towards people who are not used to these systems. It is not a crime to be not particularly technological; if it were, I should be locked up for life. One sees the same sort of arrogance creeping in with those who say that we should have no more cash or cheques with which to pay our bills. We need to recognise that the whole of our society should be treated in a fair and equal way. What is being suggested this evening by the Government is that they should not be treated in a fair and equal way.
I appeal to my noble friend, who cannot—and does not, I know—believe in discrimination and who believes in fairness and equity, to do as I urged her to do last time: for goodness’ sake, tear up the brief and accept the argument. I know that these things are formulaic—I sat in the other place for 40 years—but the only reason the Government can dredge up is cost. Well, we have dealt with that one through the revised amendment.
Let us move forward. I will certainly vote for the revised amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Oates, as I voted for his last one. I hope that I will not need to; I hope that none of us will need to. I hope that, if we do need to and it goes back to the other place, the other place will have the guts and the gumption to realise that we are not driving a coach and horses through any party-political policy and that we are not doing anything against the Government because they are a Conservative Government—a slightly odd one, but that is another matter. We are making a plea for people who, in many cases, are extremely vulnerable; who have made a real contribution to our society; who have lived in our country and made it their own in many ways; who love the place and who have served it, many of them with great distinction.
Please, let us be sensible. Let the Government be sensible. If it is necessary, let us give the noble Lord, Lord Oates, another thumping majority tonight.
The first is the cost, which, as we heard on Report, might be more than £100 million. I know that £100 million seems like tuppence ha’penny after discussions about Covid but it is a very large sum. The movers have brought the cost down by proposing a charge, which the Minister says will be £75 on that basis. We must accept the Government’s figure; I know that the noble Lord, Lord Oates, argued that the cost is less but I am sad to say that, in my experience, government estimates are usually under-estimates rather than the reverse.
The second argument—this is the one that I feel most strongly about—is that there is always a risk of error and enhanced fraud with two versions of the truth, with one online version and one paper version. I do not think that that issue has been addressed properly in our debates.
The third argument, which this House may not like, is that digital is the way of the future; in my experience, everyone emphasises that unless they are pleading for a special case. In the words of my noble friend the Minister, digital by default is what we need because it gives access from anywhere from lots of different digital devices. It is precedented: as we have heard, digital ID has been used in Australia. Moreover, none of us worry about US ESTAs, which have the merit of providing one version of the truth. My noble friend also committed the Government to giving extra support to those who need help coping with the system; I am sure that DWP will also help.
I am afraid that I must disagree with the other noble Lords who have spoken. We should look forward, not back, and reject this proposal.
My Lords, I am tempted to support this amendment, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Oates, as we both approach the anniversary of our entry into this House, five years ago. I urge my noble friend the Minister to keep an open mind on this amendment and to agree to it.
As I reminded my noble friend, in 2014-15, the Government—at that time, it was the Defra department —tried to introduce a digital-only farm payments scheme. It was scrapped because it simply could not be delivered and the department reverted to paper-only applications. I remind the House that many of the applicants will live in rural areas—they will not all live in inner-city areas and major towns—where broadband is woeful. Many existing not-spots do not have the capability to carry this scheme. The Government acknowledged this recently and are backing down from their commitment to universal coverage by 2025, so they recognise the limitations of their digital by default-only policy.
I remind the House that on
The other difficulty I have with this policy is a very real one. I remind the House that my mother became a naturalised Brit, having come over to Britain from Denmark via Germany in 1948. What grieves me most about the policy that we will end up with without the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Oates, is that most of the applicants do not have English as their first language; it is not their mother tongue. In the words of my noble friend Lord Cormack, why are we seeking to discriminate against people in this way? I therefore urge my noble friend to show the big heart and affection that she has for these people and make sure either that we adopt the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Oates, in lieu of his earlier amendment for the reasons he has given, or that the Government should come forward with an amendment of their own. Digital by default in these circumstances is not going to work.
I know that almost everyone in the Chamber has spoken to the Motion, but I have to ask whether anyone else wishes to contribute at this point. Silence being the case, I shall move on to the next speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher.
My Lords, I shall speak in support of the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Oates. He has removed the only apparent government objection to his original amendment —that no fee could be charged—and, in her opening remarks, the Minister produced a few rather more minor costs. However, he undermined that argument, so perhaps she can clarify that point in her summing up.
As I understand it, this amendment will do no more than bring EEA nationals into line with all other immigrants residing in the UK. The Government have argued in relation to many amendments to this Bill that they are determined to treat EEA nationals in exactly the same way as other people who are resident in this country. Surely the Minister cannot then argue in relation to this amendment that EEA nationals should be treated differently when compared with immigrants from other countries. If she does not accept this amendment, can she explain this apparent inconsistency of approach?
The noble Lord, Lord Oates, has cogently set out the case for this amendment and his arguments need no repetition. For me, the two most powerful are first, that, as others have mentioned, IT system failures and technical faults are all too frequent, while the second is that large numbers of people have limited IT skills. The Minister responded to that point by saying, “That will not be a problem because there will be department-to-department communication.” Let us suppose that someone goes to a doctor needing medical help, but the Home Office system has gone down or some other technical problem has arisen; the doctor cannot treat them. I do not think that it is good enough to say, “Oh, do not worry, it will all be fine on the night.”
Just imagine, as an example, that we no longer had physical passports, merely an entry online to prove our UK citizenship. We could arrive at an airport and not be entirely confident that our details would be found to enable us to board an aircraft. How many of us would be comfortable with that? I certainly would not be. I wonder, when the Government talk about these things, whether they are actually planning to abandon physical passports, because that would be the logic of this situation. I will support this amendment if it is put to the vote.
My Lords, it is rare for a campaign to take off in the way that the call for physical proof has done. The Government have made their arguments over a number of stages and those who have been calling for this have not been satisfied—they certainly have been following what is going on. I regret that the Minister in the Commons did not address the issue but, apart from the standard financial privilege response, said that the issue had been debated many times. Yes, it has, but no one seems to have changed their position.
The Government again seem more concerned about not appearing to draw back from their policy of digital by default. Accepting the amendment tabled by my noble friend would not be a failure on the part of the Government because it would not be a failure to acknowledge that changes like this to the system take time, as the Australians have found. It would actually be a success to respond to public feeling and not to treat our EU friends in the UK as a convenient test phase for all-out digital. I hope that the House will support my noble friend.
My Lords, we may all have different views of this Government. While some might think that they are useless and incompetent, others might take a different view. However, I think that we would all agree that they certainly make many strange decisions—often ludicrous, inconsistent, contradictory and largely disappointing. This is one example. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, a consistent argument has been made about this issue, but the Government are just not listening. That is much to be regretted on the part of the Government because they should have given way on this point, but it is quite clear that they are not going to do so. I do not know if that is down to unelected advisers, the Home Secretary, or the general attitude of the Government as a whole. However, it is clear that they are not going to give way and that is most disappointing. For that reason, we are not going to support sending this issue back to the other place again because I do not think that the Government will change their position.
However, I have a few other comments to make. A few days ago, we had a debate about the costs to enable British children in care to get their British citizenship. The Government were happy to charge over £1,000; there was no issue about that at all. That is many hundreds of pounds more than the cost, so apparently there is no issue there at all. Here, of course, the Government have raised the issue of cost, saying that they are not sure and that it could be too much for people. I have equally made the point by asking for years why we cannot stop council tax payers having to subsidise planning applications. But no, the Government say that we have to continue letting those taxpayers subsidise such applications. That is completely ludicrous, contradictory and inconsistent, but that is what we have before us again today.
In all of these debates, I have never had an answer to this question. The point is made about how we cannot have certificates because they are not needed, everything is now digital, and we should not be worried about it. Yet, at the same time, we are handing out certificates to people who become British citizens. This is done in ceremonies in town halls up and down the country. You have to hand them out, they are signed by the Home Secretary of the day, and you tell the person that the certificate is really important. You hand it to them, a photograph is taken, and off they go with a document that at the moment is signed by Priti Patel. I have handed out hundreds of these things over the years, but I do not believe that those certificates are biometric. I think that they are a piece of paper. I might be wrong about that; perhaps they are biometric now and I do not know. Again, this is from the same department, so it is inconsistent and completely ludicrous. It is a real shame that the Government have not listened and that they are not going to do so. I think that that is much to the regret and shame of the Government.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken on this amendment—in particular, the noble Lord, Lord Oates, who moved it.
One of the first areas of disagreement that he raised was on costs. We have used published costs for enrolling biometrics and issuing a BRP, which are £19.20 and £56 respectively. They cover only the casework in the applications and not the significant set-up costs. There are costs of issuing and replacement, and one-off costs of upgrading pre-settled status cards. There is a cost of communication of the change and, of course, of facial technology.
The noble Lord, Lord Oates, suggested that the system should be trialled. The fact is that people are using it now. It is not going live on
The noble Lord, Lord Oates, also stated his dismay that the PSED has not been published. I do not have any update on my previous statement that we intend to publish it.
On discrimination, the BNO route will be launched in January. Applicants will receive digital status using the technology based on the EU settlement scheme. People receiving that status will be required to use it from January, so the system relates not just to people from EU member states but to our BNO friends who we expect to come here from then. The system is therefore not discriminatory in the sense that our BNO friends will use it from January as well.
My noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe is absolutely right: although it might not be the way forward for older people, digital by default is the way forward. It is completely retrograde to talk about physical documents when in fact, to date, the system appears to be working well. The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, talked about physical documents being less open to abuse. They are more open to abuse and far easier to forge than a digital status that an employer or landlord can access.
Finally, regarding a power outage at the PNC, I should tell my noble friend Lord Polack that our back-up systems are very robust, as I have previously explained.
I do not think that I will convince some noble Lords—indeed, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Oates, intends to divide the House—but it is a retrograde step to talk about returning to physical documents. I remember my noble friend, joined by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, talking about the importance of physical identity, which we fully intend to take forward. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Oates, will withdraw his amendment but I do not think that he will.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her response. I do not understand the issue with set-up costs; a system exists. I also do not understand the point about casework costs for people who already have settled status.
All the arguments have been aired extensively. I very much regret that the Labour Front Bench is unable to come with us, not least because of the strong arguments made by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, for exactly my position. However, I hope that, despite the view of the Front Bench, my friends on the Labour Benches will support us, just as my friends on the Conservative Benches will do. I thank noble Lords on all sides of the House for their support and I appeal for their support again. I wish to test the opinion of the House.
Ayes 166, Noes 237.