EU Settlement Scheme: physical documented proof

Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 16th June 2020.

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‘(1) The Secretary of State must make provision to ensure that EEA and Swiss nationals and their families who are granted settled status and pre-settled status receive proof of that status.

(2) The Secretary of State must issue a paper certificate confirming pre-settled status or settled status.

(3) No fee may be charged for issuing a paper certificate under this section.”—

This new clause seeks to provide physical proof of settled and pre-settled status to those who make a successful application through the scheme, providing physical evidence of their migration status.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause stands in my name and those of the shadow Home Secretary and my Committee colleagues. The new clause offers a sensible method to help to safeguard the rights of all EEA and Swiss nationals who are registered through the European Union settlement scheme by providing them with physical proof of that registration. We have already discussed some of these issues under new clause 25.

In the largest survey of EU citizens’ experiences of the EUSS, which was carried out by the3million, 89% expressed unhappiness about the lack of physical proof of their status. Simple physical proof would provide citizens with the type of reassurance that is offered only by something that can be held in the hand. Although in principle we largely support the aspiration to move toward a much more digital immigration system, we have already pointed out to the Committee time and again that, as the hostile environment persists, in the shameful shadow of the Windrush scandal, confidence in the system is at an all-time low.

The Home Office works through banks and landlords, and across Departments, actively to query a citizen’s immigration status. To have physical paperwork to hand, in order to put to bed any doubts about a person’s status quickly and confidently, would be a welcome addition to an e-visa.

There are also inherent IT risks when relying on purely digital proof for immigration status. The truth is that the Government cannot completely rule out the possibility of an irretrievable data loss or, even worse, the hacking of a data system. It is less than two years since the so-called WannaCry cyber-attack caused havoc for the IT systems of the NHS, locking users out of personal computers and resulting in 19,000 cancelled appointments. It transpired that the systems that the NHS used included Windows XP, which at the time was already a 17 year-old operating system and so was vulnerable to such interference. It does not bear thinking about, but in a nightmare scenario where such hacking or corruption affected the Home Office, a potential loss of data, or even the inability to access the data for a period of time, could have devastating consequences for those at the mercy of the hostile environment.

As stated by Luke Piper on behalf of the3million in last week’s evidence session, to trial a new digital-only scheme on over 3 million people is quite a gamble, and currently no other group in the UK is managed in this way. We share the concerns of the House of Lords European Union Committee, which were mentioned by Luke Piper in his evidence to this Committee. He said:

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.”––[Official Report, Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination Public Bill Committee, 9 June 2020; c. 61.]

There are day-to-day practical complications that will be inflicted upon those in the EUSS who do not have physical proof of their status. For example, the Residential Landlords Association has repeatedly called for some form of physical proof to assist its members in both adhering to the law and avoiding discriminatory practices.

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants carried out research on the right-to-rent scheme in 2017. Out of 150 emails from migrants requesting that landlords check their identity online, 85% received no response. Only 12% of inquiries received a response that might invite a follow-up, such as a phone call or a viewing. Only three responses explicitly stated that the landlord was willing to conduct an online check. A migrant with documentation received a response rate of roughly 50%. Although there are still indications that renting migrants face unacceptable barriers, that is at least a marked improvement on the previous situation.

The fear is that the lack of physical proof will also act as an impediment for EU citizens applying for jobs. Millions of people work in the gig economy, which is characterised by short-term contracts and freelance work. We have already referred to the work of the Institute for Public Policy Research, which recently used data from the labour force survey in a report that found migrants are more likely to be working in industries or sectors, such as accommodation and food services, that have around 9% of EU workers. Facing competition from British citizens, who can prove their right to work by showing a passport, should that be required, and from non-EEA citizens, who can prove their right to work by showing their physical residence card, EU citizens have to go through the complicated hassle of a nine-step online process and then ask their potential employer to go through a 10-step process. It is inevitable that many employers will not have the desire or the time to complete such an arduous process, and as a result the employment prospects of those registered in the EUSS could potentially suffer.

Those are just a few examples of how a lack of physical proof could affect those who have pre-settled or settled status through the EUSS but exclusively digital confirmation of that status. The inconveniences and delay that could result threaten to permeate through daily life for millions of people, yet that could so easily be remedied by the Government with a degree of physical proof.

I want to take the Minister back to something he said during last week’s evidence session, when he put a question to the Children’s Society on the issue of granting automatic status to children in care and care leavers, which we will come to later. He said to Lucy Leon, the immigration policy and practice adviser for the Children’s Society:

“You talked about automatic status—granting something under a piece of legislation to someone. Under your suggested system, how, in decades to come, would an adult evidence the status that they were granted as a child?”

As it took several attempts for the question to be heard, due to the terrible sound quality, the Minister, in his second attempt, repeated:

“If they had to evidence their status many years later, how would they do it? How would they be able to define their status…?”––[Official Report, Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Public Bill Committee, 9 June 2020; cs. 64-65.]

The Minister put a very good question. In the scenario that he described, he said that if status was granted by the Home Office, how would it then be evidence? We must acknowledge that the granting of a status only solves half the problem. The ability to prove that status is the other half of the problem.

On this issue, I am inclined to agree entirely with the Minister. I politely remind him that he proposes a problem, but he is the architect of the solution to this issue. He can overcome our own reservations by granting the physical proof to his own satisfaction, however he sees fit to do so. The Government should ensure that their systems automatically issue physical proof on granting status to someone, and they should allow the millions of people on the EUSS the certainty and convenience of physical proof of status.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

It is a pleasure to talk about the new clause and to hear that my shadow agrees with me on some issues, but we slightly disagree on how best to evidence things. I accept that the new clause is well intentioned, but it may help if I explain first that we email everyone granted status under the scheme a PDF document, which they can print and retain for their own records as confirmation of their status and for future reference, as they may wish.

Like many other countries, we are moving away from issuing physical documents to be used as evidence of a person’s immigration status and their entitlement to work and access benefits and services, and towards a system that enables direct checks through online sharing of status by the individual or via system-to-system checks. Our border and immigration system will become digital by default for all migrants, and we intend over time to replace physical and paper-based products with secure online access to immigration status information, which the migrant can share with prospective employers, landlords and service providers.

New clause 19 is unnecessary, as we are already legally required to issue everyone granted status under the EU settlement scheme with a formal written notification of their immigration status in the United Kingdom. The notification also includes information about how they can access and share their immigration status information online, and about where they can find help to do so if needed. However, it is important that we do not return to relying on insecure paper documents, which can be lost, damaged or stolen, to evidence immigration status and entitlements.

The use of digital technology is now a well-established mechanism that people use when banking and shopping. Employers, landlords and service providers are likely to be concerned by any decision to issue what is specified as an insecure physical document, such as a paper certificate. They would also see it as an undesirable retrograde step that places additional administrative burdens on them to ensure that their staff are aware of the characteristics of a certificate, which might be some years old, and what it means. It would also be very susceptible to forgery and being tampered with, which could actually make it more difficult for EEA citizens, employers and others to determine genuine entitlement. We cannot allow that to happen.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Does the Minister agree that some of the identity documents issued in places such as Greece and Italy are very insecure because they do not contain biometric data? That is an example of why a paper document would not be secure.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

My right hon. Friend hits the nail on the head, and that is particularly true in an era of modern computing, scanning and high-quality printers available at home. We used to rely on paper documents as standard across society—for example, driving licences. To be fair, the previous Labour Administration moved away from having a paper driving licence that nowadays could probably be easily printed on most printers at home, and towards a plastic version. As we now move on, most people do checks digitally—for example, how many of us have a physical MOT certificate? It is done via an online system, which allows people to check easily. It is even possible to check online whether a car has an MOT before buying it, rather than having to look for a paper certificate.

We all know about the issues there used to be with paper MOT certificates, with blank books being quite valuable. That is why we have started to move towards digital status, which is more secure. It is, of course, retained by the Home Office for many years and allows that access. Again, we touch on some of the lessons learned from the Windrush review. Part of this is about having up-to-date and easier ways to access information, rather than relying on people to recognise documents that could have been issued some decades before. It is better that we have secure digital status that can be easily shared as technology advances and people move forward. That is right, but we are still already obliged to send a PDF confirmation so that if someone wants to print something out and keep it for their records, they can.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office) 4:00 pm, 16th June 2020

I just stress the point that we are not talking about an either/or approach to digital confirmation and physical proof. I am open to the taking of physical proof, and whatever format the Minister is most comfortable with. However, we are not talking about a system where someone relies exclusively on physical proof. Something will be issued in addition to digital status. Does the Minister accept that that would address the anxieties felt by the 3 million and more?

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Again, I appreciate the points that are being made, but a secure, easy-to-share digital status does what it says on the tin. More and more countries are heading towards that, and we have seen it in other areas of life. To be clear, the new clause specifies a paper certificate as the preferred means. I do not think that something like that adds to something that is easily shareable—and easy to update, in relation to changing passport, or in other areas. That is why we have taken this approach and why we are clear that it is what we want migration status to move towards more generally. I do not think that printing out paper certificates, and having that as an either/or, is the best place to be headed, in trying to prove status. It is better that there should be a clear process and that landlords and employers should know the process that they need to engage with when employing EEA citizens beyond the end of the transition period.

As a transition measure, employers, landlords and public service providers will continue to be able to accept the passports and national identity cards of EEA citizens until 30 June 2021—the same day as the deadline for applying to the EU settlement scheme. After that date, EEA citizens with status under the EU settlement scheme will need to share their immigration status online to prove their rights and entitlements in the UK. Alongside that, in future, when an individual accesses public services such as benefits or healthcare, the Home Office will be able to confirm their status to the service provider automatically through system-to-system checks, at the point at which the person seeks to access the service. Their non-EEA family members will also continue to be able to use their biometric residence card until we have completed the roll-out of digital services online.

Eventually, all migrants to the UK—not just from the EEA but from the rest of the world—will have an immigration status that can be accessed and shared online. Having to rely on a document to prove immigration status will be seen as old-fashioned and vulnerable to abuse. By contrast, new clause 19 would impede our ability to encourage migrants to access and share their immigration status securely online, creating confidence that it is the appropriate process, and giving confidence to those who engage with it. I hope that, with the assurances that I have given, the hon. Lady will feel able to withdraw the new clause.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation of why he rejects the new clause. I stress again the vulnerability that people feel in the shadow of Windrush, when they do not have something they can physically hold in their hand, to give an assurance of their immigration status. There is great support for the physical proof approach in the House of Lords and I suspect that we have not necessarily seen the end of the issue, but I do not want to divide the Committee at this time and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.