Stuart C. McDonald
The point, as I have said, is that the Government could have made this process a hell of a lot easier. Government decisions have made this difficult, not anything else.
We know from research that discrimination is widespread when private actors have to undertake even basic checks, such as passport and visa checks, and it is blindingly obvious that the half a million people who are in the queue are going to face discrimination on stilts if they have to explain these processes. Other than telling employers and landlords to follow guidance, what more is being done to clamp down on and prevent this discrimination? What monitoring, even, is being done?
In theory, public bodies should find this easier, yet we hear of cases of universities not being prepared to confirm that students are eligible for home fee status, or the Student Loans Company not confirming eligibility for student finance until their status is decided. Just an hour ago, I learned of a universal credit case being turned down because, even though the national insurance number and date of birth all matched up, the Department for Work and Pensions could not verify the digital share code. What is the Home Office doing to identify and accelerate these cases to ensure that no one is denied the educational opportunities that they are entitled to? How will people be compensated when they have been wrongly refused entry to the UK, work or housing, or been charged for NHS treatment or incorrectly denied home fees or student finance because of a failure to apply the law correctly?
Another huge problem is that use of the checking service provides a landlord or employer with only a six-month guarantee of protection from prosecution, but why would an employer or landlord take on someone when they can have a guarantee of only six months’ rent or six months’ work? That is why it was wrong to end the transition while over 500,000 people were in this perilous position. A freedom of information request in May showed that 100,000 people had been waiting for over three months for a decision. That is a hell of a long time to be in this semi-legal limbo.
Finally on this particular topic, I understand that there are also significant numbers of cases where people have completed parts of the application process online but not the whole process—for example, even just the final “submit” stage. Is the Home Office taking steps to identify and reach out to those people as well?
Turning to people who apply late, or have applied late and are waiting for a decision, it is welcome that they can continue to access healthcare and that, if I understand it correctly, they can continue to exercise rights that they are currently exercising, such as keeping an existing job or social security benefit if they apply with 28 days’ notice. However, the huge gap here is that there is no right to take on a new job or new accommodation in England, or to claim a new social security benefit or use other services, so an important first question is why the Home Office thinks this is consistent with the withdrawal agreement, which states that pending a decision on any application, all rights will be deemed to apply to the applicant.
It is easy for the Government to say, “Well the process is quick and therefore these issues should not be widespread. Get the application in and then get on with your job hunt or social security application”, but, in practice, it is not that simple. We know that over 100,000 people had been waiting for more than three months in May, and remember, too, that, as we know from Windrush, it is precisely when people are making new job applications or applying for social security or a tenancy that they suddenly realise that they have not applied and should have done. Waiting for three months at these moments of crisis could destroy lives, with employment, accommodation and financial support all missed out on.
The Home Office has mentioned a process for accelerating certain cases, which is welcome, but how does that work? How can we ask on behalf of our constituents that their case is accelerated for these very good reasons? What will the criteria be for accelerating cases, what will the timescales be, and what does that mean for other cases and how long they will take?
Finally, on late applications, I previously asked the Minister what would happen if someone incurred health charges because they had failed to apply for the settlement scheme, but, having realised their error, they then went on to apply late and successfully showed that they had a reasonable excuse. If I recall correctly, the Minister suggested at the Home Affairs Committee that it would be ridiculous to then insist on those charges being paid. After all, they had had a reasonable excuse for a late application, but, as I understand it—I would love to be corrected—that is exactly what will now happen in England. How can that be justified? Why is it that someone who is considered to have reasonable grounds to apply late can still be held liable for healthcare charges incurred before submission of their justifiably late application? It seems an incredibly strange situation.
What about those who have not applied at all? I want everyone to apply, though late—I am sure we all do—so what is the Government’s strategy here? Is there not a danger that the reasonable excuse test is going to put people off, especially if, as suggested in the guidance, it has to be more strictly interpreted the more time goes on? Why is that advice there? Those who encounter border enforcement, whether the Home Office version or delegated private actors such as employers, are going to have 28 days’ notice to apply, but what has been done to make sure that some of the people most likely to have missed a deadline—vulnerable and marginalised groups, and maybe those with health issues or with poor English—understand what that notice means and what exactly is required of them? For example, is it going be available in different languages, will they be signposted for advice and what happens if that 28-day deadline is missed?
It is much more likely that people who have not applied will become aware of the problem only through an encounter not with Border Force, but with an employer, the DWP, a landlord or somebody else, so what work has been done to ensure that, rather than just saying no, they signpost and, in the case of Government Departments, assist them in ensuring that an application can be submitted. The Government are committed to funding grant-funded organisations supporting EU citizens with late applications until September. Why is it only to September? Can we have funding for beyond that as well?
Finally, I turn to the issue for those who actually get settled or pre-settled status. Even if somebody is successful, that is not the end of their problems, and others, as I have said, will speak about the lack of a physical proof of status. There are more than 2 million people with pre-settled status, and many of them will struggle to prove the five-year residence required for settled status. What support will be available to help them with equally vital applications, and what happens to those who fail to apply at the time when their pre-settled status expires?
The settlement scheme may have been designed to be straightforward, but its interplay with our complicated immigration system means that it just cannot be. I struggle to follow its implications, and I suspect many hon. Members will have struggled to follow them as well, yet guidance for employers and landlords was issued just a couple of weeks back. This has, I am afraid, at the end of the day, ended up being a rush job. Even if all our other ideas are rejected, at the very least we need a longer transition period, and for the umpteenth time, I do ask that the Minister meets the3million campaign group.
In closing, during the referendum the now Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster also promised that, after Brexit, Scotland would have immigration powers. That seems to have gone the same way as his promise to EU nationals. We have debated the devolution of immigration or at least some immigration powers before, and it is on these occasions that the normally very measured Minister tends to start engaging in tub-thumping rhetoric rather than the arguments in the discussion. I am not going to repeat all those arguments today, but report after report from the Scottish Government, academics, thinktanks and immigration lawyers offer myriad reasons why this should be done, and templates for how this could be done.