We're just a few weeks into the Home Office pilot of its EU citizen settled status app, but there are already reasons for concern. After extensive consultation with users and the groups representing them, it's clear that the system has some potentially serious problems. Too many people are being given the wrong status, too many are facing demands for extra evidence, and too many are unable to use the app in the first place.
This piece pulls together testimonies of EU citizens from various sources to paint an early picture of how things are going. It's not scientific. The information comes from three sources. First, I put out a call for people's experiences on Twitter. Second, I was sent testimonies and did interviews with groups representing EU citizens, like In Limbo and the3million. And finally I spoke with bodies representing specific types of vulnerable EU migrants who're considered most at risk.
So even though it's not a rigorous academic study, it should provide a fairly decent picture of how things are going at this early stage. The type of people contacting me on Twitter are disproportionately likely to be highly politically and technologically literate. General representation groups have access to huge numbers of EU citizens. And those helped by bodies offering specialised support are often the most cut off from the debate. Putting all these experiences together gives some indication of the general state of the project.
The first thing that''s going wrong is the most obvious: Not enough people can use the app. It's only available on new versions of Android phones and not at all on Apple phones, because they put security limitations on third parties using their platform. Some people, of course, don't have smart phones at all.
"My mother needs to apply and I am the only one in the family with a compatible phone. I live in Germany."
If you don't own an Android phone, there are other ways of proceeding with the application. You can post in your passport - which many people are reluctant to do, given their experiences of the Home Office - or you can go to one of the 50 scanning centres across the country which will eventually be set up. But this is inconvenient.
"My French wife of 37 years doesn't own an Android device and we don't know anyone with one. There is a scanning service available by appointment. Our nearest centre is 15 miles away. It will cost us £20 to get there."
Some EU groups are holding little get togethers - basically like Android tupperware parties - in which they pass round a suitable smartphone and use it to make the application. They're making the best out of a bad situation. But it's clear that the reliance on Android is a major headache for a lot of people.
Our lovely advocate @ellywrightart applied for #SettledStatus with the support of several Dutch friends.— In Limbo (@InLimboBrexit) January 28, 2019
Doing it together meant those who had Apple phones or older devices could borrow phones from the others.
She feels exhausted.
They're now waiting for the verdict. #InLimbo pic.twitter.com/RAMobOFi49
Even if you do have a suitable Android phone, the app isn't always working how it's supposed to. The whole point of the smartphone element is to scan the chip in a user's biometric passport. This means the Home Office can verify their identity remotely. But there are countless reports of the scanning function being fiddly and unreliable. It's one of the most common observations.
"I tried to use the android app, correct tech settings and all, but my passport doesn't get recognised on microchip stage. So right now it looks like my options are: get a new passport (mine is only 2 years old), go to get my passport checked at a special point (and pay for the privilege), send my passport in (which I refuse to do). So not that simple after all, and I am fairly tech savvy. I imagine that anyone who is not familiar with phones/ tech will be discouraged pretty instantly faced with same issues."
"I tried around 20 times, but decided it wasn't worth the hassle nor the frustration. Therefore, I decided to skip that step and just send my passport via mail."
"I tried to scan my passport chip over and over again to no avail… All in all, pretty stressful, and considering that I'm fortunate enough to be computer literate, and have access to the internet and a smartphone, and for this to still happen, I can only imagine what the most vulnerable of EU citizens will face."
The Home Office insists that 95% of applicants have been able to successfully verified their identity using the app.
But it's when we dig down into the core function of the settled status process that things start to get really troubling. The application process asks users for a national insurance number and then it checks the records held by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to see if their work and benefit history can prove they've been resident in the UK. If it shows that they've been around for five years, it gives them settled status. If it shows less than that, it gives them pre-settled status. After five years of residence, they can go from pre-settled status to settled status.
This works very well for some people and less well for others. If you're an employee who's been in the same job for the last six years, it'll pass you straight off - no questions asked. The whole system is basically made for people like you to pass. But what if you're self-employed and don't claim benefits? In this case there's only one data point per year - your tax return. The Home Office says this is enough to count for a full year, but many applicants report problems. The system often says there's insufficient evidence and demands new documents proving residency for the rest of the period.
"This does not work for self-employed people."
In theory, this shouldn't be a problem. Users can submit up to ten pieces of evidence - energy bills, bank statements, council tax etc - to show they've been around.
But the numbers here are concerning, in terms of sheer logistics. Between 14% and 25% of the 3.7 million EU citizens in the UK are self employed. This means that something like 740,000 people are going to be sending the Home Office evidence of residency over a two year period, all of which needs to be carefully assessed. It's a lot of work. It'd be easier if the pace of applications was steady, but chances are it'll be subject to sudden spikes near deadlines.
The Home Office says it has put in place 1,500 caseworkers to work on settlement status applications. That's a decent investment. It remains to be seen whether it'll be enough.
The problem is not just limited to the self-employed. It also includes people with a gap in their employment history, even if it's just a year. It also affects people who are retired, because the HMRC dataset only goes back six years, although the Home Office says that live state pension claims should provide a positive result.
Benefits payments don't seem to be of much use either. Tax credits and child benefits are not considered a strong enough link to UK residency, so they are not automatically checked. Anyone hoping to rely on these will have to send in additional evidence. Income support data from the DWP is only used where it was provided for over a full year.
"Upon completion I was presented with the result that I only qualify for pre-settled status, even though I've lived here for a little over 18 years (got married here, have a mortgage, and a registered company). I now need to submit additional proof of residence for an odd selection of years showing I've been in the UK for at least six months for each of those. Including 2019 (yes, I know)."
The government says that just 16% of cases have needed to provide additional evidence. This is actually a pretty high number. It also conceals the fact that these problems disproportionately weigh on the least fortunate. Groups representing vulnerable people - those with low literacy levels, for instance, or who do informal seasonal work - saw much higher evidence requirement rates when they took part in Home Office testing. One found that 83% of their clients needed to provide additional evidence.
People who were asked to bring in more evidence went into the standard panic mode which almost everyone experiences when dealing with the Home Office. "Many were unable to identify which piece of paper was the most relevant one," a Roma support group reported. "As a result, people came with piles of papers including council tax bills, GPs appointments, bank account statements… with no idea about which one to choose. The overall process was therefore extremely time consuming, with two hours on average spent per application while some taking up to four hours and over several sessions."
The same was true of more tech-literate people contacting me on Twitter. The desire to send the Home Office everything to make absolutely sure the application was safe was very common.
"I spent about two weeks gathering up all the documents I needed that proved five continuous years of residence - I was advised by a coworker who had done five successful work visa applications to gather and submit everything I had. I even downloaded six years of bank statements, got together every single proof of entry into the country dating back to 2012, and tracked down every tenancy agreement I had over the years."
This is the problem with the evidence workload. The Home Office is trying to limit the items people send to ten, but applicants will be nervous and keen to make absolutely sure their status is secure, so they'll send in as much as they can, increasing the demands on caseworkers. Once this turns from an automated system into an evidence-testing one, the time requirements will dramatically increase.
If the automatic check of your HMRC and DWP records can't find data points for all the required periods, the system will offer you pre-settled status, rather than settled status. If you want, you can then appeal against that decision and send in more evidence.
This is a dangerous moment. Many applicants will think they're pretty much the same and just accept the result, even if it's wrong. Campaigners are particularly worried that under-educated applicants will be tempted to select this option. That's a problem, because pre-settled status is much worse than settled status.
Settled status gives you indefinite leave to remain. You have a firm legal status which lasts forever and no-one can challenge. Pre-settled status gives you five years limited right to remain. It means you can't leave the country for more than six months at a time. Crucially, it does not automatically upgrade to settled status when you've been here five years. It just cancels out. It's likely that sometime during 2021 and 2026 many people will forget to apply, or fail to understand the system, and suddenly find themselves without legal status.
"Just applied for settled status on my husband's phone because mine is not a 6.0 version. I have been refused! I have lived and worked here for over 16 years, married a Brit. Was told insufficient employment info for 2012-2015 BUT same employer since 2005! Pre-settled status only. This is my home FFS."
It seems as if the Home Office is being a bit shifty about this problem. So far it has done two private beta testing phases. The first one, which involved public sector staff, saw 100% of people get the status they were expecting. But in the second phase, which included vulnerable people, this metric was no longer reported. We just do not know how many people who were expecting settled status were given pre-settled status.
Last month, the home secretary was interviewed by the House of Lords EU justice sub-committee. He said that over 90% of decisions were "as expected". He seems to have come up with this figure by treating every acceptance of pre-settled status as a confirmation that it was the expected status. But that is plainly not a reliable indicator. Many people will have accepted that status out of confusion, or because they thought it wasn't worth the hassle appealing, or out of nervousness at dealing with immigration authorities.
The trial of the Settled Status system for EU citizens opens up a big question.— the3million (@the3million) January 23, 2019
Does the @ukhomeoffice prioritise quantity over quality of status in order to hit ‘registration’ targets?
Home Secretary @sajidjavid claimed that 90% of applicants received the status they expected. pic.twitter.com/T5ktEWd1pi
And even if it is just 10% of people getting the wrong status, that still raises the possibility of hundreds of thousands of cases in which people are being denied their rightful legal status - and a lot more detailed evidential work by Home Office caseworkers. The types of people in this scenario are disproportionately from more vulnerable groups.
There is, to their credit, evidence the Home Office is aware of this. They've worked with various groups representing vulnerable people to include them in the testing phase. Some of the guidance is going to be translated into other languages. Support is being provided to applicants through 'settlement resolution centres', which have won universally good reviews from those who've come into contact with them. An assisted digital service is being rolled out to provide help on the phone and eventually offer one-to-one meetings.
But nevertheless, the warning signs are there. The system looks designed to work extremely well for people in full time employment. It will work much less well for others. Some people are without work, or self-employed, or took time out of work to volunteer, or did not keep their records because there was no reason to, or escaped from abusive marriages and do not have access to evidence of their residency, or do not speak English, or struggle with technology, or are afraid of the authorities, or do seasonal work, or have mental health problems, or recieve benefits which aren't checked by the system. Many are of them will be frightened by the Home Office's demand for evidence, or unable to understand it.
The more vulnerable you are, the worse this system will work for you. Many people are likely to accept pre-settled status and then forget about it, leaving them suddenly as an undocumented migrant in 2026. And then they'll fall into the Home Office's Hostile Environment policy. People will have moved on. The press will have stopped paying attention. And they'll be at the mercy of the authorities.
If the Home Office had a different track record, that would be less concerning. But they don't.
A Home Office spokesperson said:
"The EU Settlement Scheme is making it simple and straightforward for EU citizens to get the status they need. This is an entirely voluntary test phase, and we are continuing to improve the system before it fully launches on 30 March.
"In 84% of cases from the second phase of testing, applicants did not need to provide any additional evidence of UK residence.
"We will always look for ways to grant status. A wide range of documentation may be submitted, reflecting the variety of people’s individual circumstances, and we will work with applicants without official documentation to establish their eligibility under the scheme from the material they have."
Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?
The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.