Memorandum of understanding between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Home Office on the automated residency check for the EU Settlement Scheme

Part of Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 5th March 2019.

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Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes The Minister for Immigration 3:15 pm, 5th March 2019

I am grateful to the hon. Members for their new clauses 24 to 29 and 31. Given the similar effects of some of these new clauses, I will consider new clauses 24 to 28 and 31 together before speaking to new clause 29 separately.

These clauses cover a broad range of issues, including the gathering and using of data and matters relating to the automated residency checks under the EU settlement scheme. As I have said previously, securing the rights of citizens has always been our priority and we have delivered on this commitment. The draft withdrawal agreement published on 14 November 2018 guarantees the rights of EU citizens and their family members living in the UK, and those of UK nationals living in the EU.

The basis of the withdrawal agreement aligns closely to that of existing free movement rules with respect to when a person becomes a permanent resident and, in the case of the EU settlement scheme, acquires settled status. Significantly, the withdrawal agreement states that this assessment should be based not only on length of residence but on the fact that a person is exercising EU treaty rights for the whole qualifying period. We have, however, gone further than this and are being more generous to all EU citizens in the UK and to those who arrived during the implementation period. We do not test whether a person is exercising treaty rights—for example whether they are in work, studying or have comprehensive sickness insurance. Eligibility is based on residence alone, subject to criminality and security checks.

As part of the application process we will, where an applicant provides a national insurance number, conduct an automated check of residence based on tax and certain benefit records from HMRC and the DWP. We know that most EU citizens will have had some interaction with these departments and that this could demonstrate an applicant’s residence, either for the whole five-year period to qualify for settlement, or in part. While it is optional for an applicant to use the automated checks to prove their period of residency, in the test phases most have done so.

To date, 80% of the decisions made have been on the basis of this data alone. Where data exists, the automated checks replace the need for the applicant to submit any other form of evidence. The automated checks happen in real time as the application is completed, and the applicant is informed whether there is enough data to qualify for either settled or pre-settled status. Feedback from the three trial phases to date shows that people overwhelmingly like the simplicity of having their residence proved for them by these checks. The applicant is immediately informed if they need to provide additional documents and prompted to provide such documentation before completing their application.

In such instances, we will accept a range of documents as evidence, and they can be submitted digitally as part of the online application process. Where the applicant accepts the result of the automated check, no further evidence is required, and they will, subject to identity, security and criminality checks, be granted either settled or pre-settled status. The rules for assessing continuous residence are already set out in the immigration rules. The automated checks simply apply those principles to the data provided by HMRC and the DWP. New clauses 26 and 28, although well intentioned, are therefore unnecessary.

I understand the sentiment behind new clauses 24, 25 and 27, on publishing details of the automated residency checks in the scheme, as well as our memorandum of understanding with HMRC and the DWP. We will of course be completely transparent on how those checks work, as it is to everyone’s benefit for us to do so. I confirm that we will publish the MOU before the scheme is fully launched. We will also publish further materials, including more guidance on why automated checks may not return the expected data. The EU settlement scheme is still in the test phase, and it is important that we continue to amend our processes and design as we progress through the phased roll-out. I hope that offers reassurance to hon. Members.

On new clause 31, it may be helpful if I explain the different stages of the application process. When an applicant receives a wholly or partially unsuccessful result from the automated residency check, they are still in the middle of the application process and they have completed only some of the online form. They have therefore not yet submitted an application. Informing an applicant of why data has not matched is likely to increase the risk of fraud and identity abuse. The new clause would change the focus of the scheme from granting status to investigating the data quality of employers or of the DWP and HMRC. We consider that a distraction that would cause unnecessary delays for applicants.

I am sure all hon. Members on this Committee share my desire to keep the application process simple and quick in providing results. For the reasons I have given, the new clause is not consistent with those aims. In most cases, it would be far simpler and more straightforward for applicants to submit other evidence to prove residence, rather than seeking to resolve why data has not matched. Of course, the applicant can take up that issue with HMRC or the DWP if they wish. It is already the case that applicants, like anyone else, can ask Government Departments what data is held about them and get incorrect information rectified, as per article 16 of the general data protection regulation.

Our guidance includes a suggested list of documents that could be provided as additional evidence. Examples include bank statements, a letter from a general practitioner, and certificates from school, college, university or an accredited educational or training organisation. I assure hon. Members that we will continue to work to improve the match rates of the automated checks. The test phase gives us the opportunity to test the EU settlement scheme and to make improvements to the process.

New clause 29 seeks to prevent information from those who apply to the EU settlement scheme from being passed to immigration enforcement. Let me confirm that we fully comply with all statutory responsibilities when processing data. The ways in which this information may be processed are set out in the Home Office’s “Borders, immigration and citizenship: privacy information notice”, which is available on gov.uk. Decisions on whether information should be shared with immigration enforcement are made on a case-by-case basis. It is important that the Home Office uses data in ways that are compatible with the purpose for which it is collected—for example, to assist future citizenship and passport applications and, if needs be, to combat immigration offences.

To conclude, I thank hon. Members for raising these important issues, but I hope the assurances I have provided will lead them not to press their new clauses.