Q As you appreciate, Mr Piper, the Bill ends the provisions for freedom of movement in UK law, but we have the European settlement scheme set up to protect the rights of those covered by the withdrawal agreement. Given that we have had 3.5 million applications and 3.2 million decisions, how do you think the process is going?
First, thank you for allowing me to attend by telephone. In general, it is true that the EU settlement scheme is there to provide people with their status and their rights to live in the UK under the terms of the withdrawal agreement. It is a great achievement of the Government’s to set the scheme up. Our concern is about those that do not apply in time and fail to acquire the status by the deadline of June next year. The worry is that those that miss the deadline will face the problems that some of the previous witnesses have spoken about—the risks to jobs and homes, and access to healthcare, welfare and so forth. Although there have been over 3 million applications to the scheme, it is not a reflection of the numbers of people that have applied or have succeeded, or of the types of status that are under it. This is more about an issue of recognising that there is a potential problem here. Yes, freedom of movement will end and there is a new status that people can acquire, but it is about creating safety mechanisms and ensuring that there is a safe passage for people to move from their old status to their new one. That is what we would like to see amended in the Bill to ensure that that security is there.
Q Just to be clear, I used the figure of 3.2 million in terms of decisions as well as the figure for applications. Coming on to the social security co-ordination parts of the Bill, do you have any thoughts on those? Are you concerned about the Government perhaps not being able to promptly implement any agreement that we might be able to reach with the European Union on those areas?
I will defer to the points that Mr Berry made in his presentation previously on the issues of social security co-ordination. Our central concern is that at this stage much of the rights-based provisions of the withdrawal agreement, both under title II and title III, have been delegated away by the Bill and the previous European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act to various Ministers, and there is a lot of legislation and regulations that we have still to see to fully understand how those rights and obligations will be implemented.
Luke, your organisation and a number of your members have been clear that you would like some sort of physical proof of pre-settled or settled status. Can you explain to the Committee why that isQ ?
Yes. There are clear points as to why we feel physical documents will help people in their day-to-day lives. First, it is the No. 1 ask of our members and people that we speak to who are EU citizens in this country. They would like physical proof of their status to live here. It is something that unfortunately has not been followed through.
Indeed, the House of Lords European Union Committee made the point that there are real worries that those without physical proof will face similar problems to those faced by the Windrush generation; there is a risk that they will face discrimination because they do not have physical proof of their status. We also had concerns about the availability of an online status; there may be instances when the status is not available for IT reasons. Also, online systems can be hacked. There are real security risks.
Finally, we also have concerns about the newness of the digital-only scheme. It is essentially being tested on over 3 million people. A digital-only identity system like this has never existed before in the UK, and it is being rolled out for a massive cohort of people. We had rather hoped that there would be an opportunity to trial the scheme substantively before people were pushed into a digital-only set-up. Those are the key reasons why we desire a physical document.
Q Thank you. Your organisation asks for clarity about what people’s status and rights will be between the end of the transition period and the closing of the settlement scheme at the end of June. What are your members’ anxieties about that period?
The Bill brings freedom of movement to an end at the end of this year, but it is not clear what legal status people will have between the end of the transition period, which is at the end of the year, and the end of June—the end of the grace period. There has been no clarity about, or understanding of, what legal rights people will have. We have simply been told that certain checks, such as on the right to work, will not be undertaken, but it is not clear to us or our members how people will be distinguished, both in practice and in law.
Q Mr Piper, we have heard from the Home Office on the number of applications. We, like you, congratulate the Home Office on achieving significant reach. The problem, of course, is the number of people who will not apply in time. Are you able to give the Committee any indication of the scale of that problem, and who can we expect to be in that number?
Much as with the number of people due to apply for the scheme, we do not know. We have no idea of the exact number of EU citizens who need to apply under the EU settlement scheme, so we will not have an understanding of the number of people who miss the deadline. An illustration is the way we look at Bulgarian citizens in the UK. Their population has been estimated at 109,000; however, as of the end of March, over 171,000 Bulgarian nationals had submitted applications. It looked as though Bulgarian residents had already applied, yet more applications keep coming. We do not have a clear indication of the exact number of people who will not apply on time.
As for the type of people, we know that those most at risk and who are marginalised and disenfranchised are very likely to not apply, purely for the reasons that Mr Berry set out—various issues to do with connection to society, disability and so forth. Our concern is that the most marginalised and vulnerable in our society will be at risk, and that has been corroborated by a lot of organisations. You will hear from a representative of The Children’s Society after me, who will set out the particular risks for children and young persons. Conversely, we have significant concerns about older people, particularly those with issues such as mental ill health and dementia.
Q Coming back to the scale of the problem, looking at international, or even UK, examples of where Governments have tried to encourage citizens to sign up for a scheme, how close to 100% do they tend to get? Do you have any idea?
That is a very important point. The most successful UK scheme that involved people signing up to certain policies was the digital-only scheme—the switch by everyone to digital TV. That was successful, as 97% of people had signed up by the time analogue TV was switched off. If you place that projection over the estimated population of EU citizens, and say that a remaining 3% will not switch, you are looking at more than 100,000 people who will lose their legal right to live in this country and will face all the problems that we talked about of not having a home, losing their job, and potentially facing detention and removal from the UK.
Q That is a huge problem, in terms of scale and the nature of the rights that those people would lose. One proposal that has been rejected in previous debates is a declaratory system. Are there other options to try to protect as many of these people as possible?
The declaratory model is what we have advocated for. If we follow through with a constitutive system, which is what is being proposed, simply improving awareness of the scheme will not be sufficient, as is demonstrated by even the most successful campaigns, which do not achieve 100%. There have to be legal mechanisms in place to ensure that people have the safety that they need to transition to their new rights.
In particular, we suggest that amendments be adopted, including amendments setting out clear definitions of who cannot apply after June 2021, as opposed to who can. We feel that it will assist both Parliament and the Home Office if we can clearly pin down exactly who we do not want applying after the deadline. Furthermore, we could introduce mechanisms through which we could extend the grace period if necessary. We should understand what extending the grace period may look like, and what factors will be taken into consideration. We need to recognise that those who apply after June 2021, who will have no legal basis to be here, will need some form of retrospective mechanism, so that when they do secure their status, their previous periods of unlawful residence are secured.
Q So your first choice to resolve these issues is a declaratory system. In response to that, the Government tend to argue—if I understand them correctly—that making the system declaratory will mean that people will not apply for proof of status, and that will leave them exposed to the hostile environment and so on. What do you make of that argument?
I think that unfortunately misrepresents our proposal. The declaratory system is a safety net. We are not advocating for a system where people should not have a deadline by which they must register. Indeed, we believe that there should be incentives and encouragement for people to register. The problem is the consequences for those who do not register in time. Under the current model, if you do not apply, you essentially become illegal in the UK, and you face immense amounts of problems, whereas under a declaratory model, the consequence is that you face inconvenience.
Q Finally, do you have any concerns about the number of people who appear to be getting pre-settled status, as opposed to settled status, and the implications that that has for them?
On the ratio of those acquiring pre-settled status to those with settled status, the trend is not looking great. The estimates that we have been working to suggest that the number of people acquiring settled status is a lot lower than it should be, and indeed the number of people getting pre-settled status is too high. That will, in effect, mean that rather than there being one deadline—June 2021—there will be lots of deadlines for lots of different people, at the various periods when their pre-settled status expires.
Q Does that have implications for people’s rights—for example, to social security—in the meantime?
It does, yes. It has quite significant implications for a person’s rights. Those with settled status have complete access to welfare benefits and housing support, which is vital at a time when a lot of people are struggling to retain their employment and their home. Those with pre-settled status do not have an automatic right to access those services and that support; they have to go through further tests and bear further burdens to access that help. This is causing significant problems for people whom we represent; we have seen a significant increase in the number of people experiencing problems in getting help and support because they have pre-settled status as opposed to settled status.
You mentioned that you are worried about people missing the deadline. The scheme opened on
We would like a deadline, but want the consequences of missing the deadline minimised, hence our preference for a declaratory system. Of course there needs to be some kind of deadline by which people need to have put in an application; the issue is more what the consequences are for people who miss it.
Let me paint a picture for you of the inevitable problems with missing deadlines. Some people are under the misapprehension that they are fine—that everything is sorted. In my practice, and in speaking to many organisations and colleagues, I regularly come across people who believe that they are “safe”—that there is nothing else that they need to do. After the deadline, when the hostile environment bites, it is they who will feel the problem the most. It is a mis-characterisation to say that we are talking about permanently extending the deadline; we are looking at this in a holistic way to identify clearly, through good evidence and with the Home Office, what the groups are, what the issues are, and what can be done to the law to make it as safe as possible for people to get their new status.