Settled status

Part of Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 pm on 5th March 2019.

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Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union) 2:15 pm, 5th March 2019

My hon. Friend makes a really important point. With the history of the Windrush experience being so close, one would imagine that we would not yet have forgotten its lessons and would seek to apply them in this situation. We tabled the new clauses precisely because of that concern.

It is well known that other problems with the process include its inaccessibility to iPhone users. The Government talked about how easy this process would be—people would be able to do it on their phones—but that is not the case for half of the UK’s adults, who happen to use an iPhone. The inability to develop an app for use on an iPhone does not create a great deal of confidence in the rest of the process or the Home Office’s ability to handle it. People who already have proof of permanent residence are being asked to provide evidence of it, even though they were promised a simple swap to settled status. We need to have local support centres where people can apply offline, but they are not available.

The new clauses would remove the category of pre-settled status. This distinction, whereby an individual must be resident for five years to qualify for settled status, seems to be the result of a copy-and-paste exercise from the rules for permanent residence. A number of the stakeholders from whom the Committee took evidence do not see the rationale for it and believe that it serves no clear purpose. In fact, it creates more bureaucracy for individuals and the Home Office—this morning we discussed how difficult the Home Office sometimes finds it to deal with complicated or even simple procedures.

The Government have already admitted that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish easily between EU citizens who arrive before and after 29 March, which adds another layer of uncertainty. We can easily foresee the confusion for employers and landlords, who will wonder what different rights apply to the different categories, with detrimental effects for the holders of pre-settled status. I would welcome clarification from the Minister. If it is not simply to mirror the rules on permanent residence, can she explain the rationale for pre-settled status?

New clause 15 sets out other requirements, such as ensuring that applicants are issued with physical documentation of their proof of status. I acknowledge that this replicates new clause 35, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East. It is another area where the Home Office will inevitably have to move. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and Professor Smismans vividly illustrated not only the administrative hassle of a digital system, but the potential implications for the treatment by what they describe as “private actors” and for

“equal access to work and housing.”

No other immigration status in this country operates exclusively digitally. The Government have said that they want this system to be more user-friendly than the current application process, but members of the3million group have made it absolutely clear that physical proof of their status would improve their experience of the system and provide some much-needed reassurance. I really do not understand why the Government are so resistant to that, and I urge the Minister to take the opportunity on this issue to work with, rather than against, EEA nationals and the people who speak for them. I imagine that this is an area that the Government will have to move on, as they did on the fee—many of us argued for it for a long time before the change was made.

New clause 15 would put on the face of the Bill the Government’s commitment not to levy a fee. For a long time, the Government were insistent on the need to charge £65 for an application. I am sure the Minister will embarrassingly recall that—in a written answer to me—she was not prepared to rule out the £65 fee for victims of modern slavery and trafficking at that stage. I am delighted that the Government moved on the issue. It might have been because of the embarrassment that, at one stage, the European Parliament was even considering covering the cost of the fees on behalf of EU nationals in this country. After campaigning by Opposition Members and other parties, along with the3million and trade unions, it was a good step that the Prime Minister conceded that the application should be free; therefore, the Government should have no issue putting that into the legislation.

New clause 16 details the rights of family members of EEA nationals who are eligible for settled status. New clause 18 would make it explicit that article 8 of schedule 1 of the Human Rights Act 1998—the right to respect for private and family life—applied to holders of settled status and of the work visa for EEA and Swiss nationals dealt with in new clause 21.

On new clause 17, the Government have repeatedly stated that there would be only three criteria for settled status: nationality of a relevant country or a family member, residence in the UK and a criminality check. The rules in the appendix of the Immigration Rules go beyond that; they leave a loophole where someone who is not a serious criminal and otherwise eligible could be denied settled status on the basis of non-exercise of treaty rights. New clause 17 seeks to address this issue. Following legal action from the JCWI, from whom we took evidence, the Government narrowed the rules, but the power still remains. In written answers to me, the Minister has stated:

“the UK has decided, as a matter of domestic policy, to be more generous than the draft Withdrawal Agreement in certain respects. In particular, those applying under the scheme will not be required to show that they meet all the requirements of current free movement rules, such as any requirement to have held comprehensive sickness insurance or generally to detail the exercise of specific rights under EU law, such as the right to work.”

The new clause would enshrine that policy in law.

If the Government do not accept new clause 17, could the Minister explain why they are so intent on wishing to retain a power that they never intend to use?