We are now seamlessly moving on to the next debate, the second Opposition day motion on the EU settlement scheme. I inform the House that Mr Speaker has not selected amendment (a) in the name of Wendy Chamberlain. I call Stuart C. McDonald to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House regrets the end of Freedom of Movement following the UK’s exit from the European Union; notes the enormous contribution EU nationals make to the UK economy and society, including in response to the ongoing covid-19 pandemic; regrets that the Government did not grant automatic right to remain to EU nationals despite assurances made during the EU referendum campaign; welcomes the fact there have been over six million successful applications to the EU Settlement Scheme; but further notes with concern that inevitably, many thousands of EU nationals have not applied; regrets that provision in relation to late applications will not prevent injustices and the loss of rights of many thousands of EU citizens; calls on the Government to recognise that the ongoing health emergency has also impacted on outreach work and the ability of EU nationals to apply, and to respond to this either by automatically granting Settled Status or by scrapping or extending the 30 June deadline; and further calls on the Government to introduce physical proof of Settled and Pre-Settled Status and to work with the Scottish Government on agreeing a transfer of immigration powers to allow the Scottish Government to create a Scottish visa or Scottish migration system.
I am grateful for opportunity to introduce this debate on the EU settlement scheme and I am very grateful to hon. Members across the House for taking part, especially as some minds may be starting to drift towards Euros of a different sort just a few miles away in north-west London.
The starting point, and I hope a matter of unanimity across the House, is what our motion says in relation to the enormous contribution that our EU nationals have made to every part of the UK: to our economy, our public services and culturally. I hope we also all agree that we want these EU citizens to stay. That is why we selected this topic for debate: to allow us to press the Government on whether their settlement scheme really reflects those goals as well as it could, and what we feel are the obstacles making it harder for some to stay than it should be. It gives us the opportunity to ask what happens now that the EU settlement scheme deadline has passed and what can be done to protect those who, as things stand, have lost their rights.
In a moment, I will get into the nuts and bolts of the rather messy situation we find ourselves in, but it is important to start by making clear what happened last week and why. Last Thursday morning, at the stroke of midnight, thanks to policy choices made by successive Conservative Governments, tens and almost certainly hundreds of thousands of people to all intents and purposes lost their rights to live, work, study and enjoy family life here in this country. It does not matter how long they have been here or whether they really have any home elsewhere, the clock struck midnight and these people became subject to the full force of the hostile environment. The first question for the Minister is whether he will tell the House what estimate the Home Office has made of the number of those who have failed to apply prior to the deadline. If we are to have a proper discussion about the scheme, surely that is the least of the information the Government must provide?
The difficulty for the SNP in this sort of debate is that while they are quite right to talk about some teething problems relating to our leaving the EU, will those problems not be compounded a thousand times more if the United Kingdom was broken up? For centuries Scots have settled here. Would it not be absurd if, Scotland having left the United Kingdom and joined the EU, Scots had to apply for settled status here or we had to apply for settled status in Scotland? What is the answer?
The answer, quite simply, is that there is a country that the right hon. Gentleman may be aware of called Ireland, which is part of the common travel area and enjoys full blown free movement of people from the rest of the EU. There is absolutely no question of people having to apply for visas to get across borders and so on. It is perfectly possible and there would be absolutely no need for any such thing.
I thought the hon. Gentleman would make that answer. That settlement was made in 1921. The difficulty for the SNP is that it would have to reapply as a new state to join the EU. It is very unlikely that the EU would bend all its rules, as happened in 1921 in Ireland, so it would be in grave difficulty. I am afraid the SNP has to answer that point. If breaking up the EU is so bad, breaking up the UK is even more difficult.
I am not going to go down the rabbit hole the right hon. Gentleman is trying to take me down. All the indications we have had from people involved in the European Union and from other member states is that they would be perfectly happy to welcome an independent Scotland into the EU and I very much look forward to the day that that happens, but I want to get back to the subject of this debate, which is the status of EU citizens who are here today.
I know the SNP wants to present this image of a hostile environment and how the settled status scheme is not working. However, the experience of actual people is completely the opposite. Only this morning I had an email from a constituent who missed the deadline for a technical reason, and my office helped get her application in. This morning she received an email from the Home Office confirming that all her rights are protected while her application is processed. The scheme is working well, and the picture the hon. Gentleman paints just is not true.
I will come back to that, and I acknowledge there has been significant success with more than 6 million people applying for the scheme, but yesterday I met the3million which, of all organisations, is the one that knows exactly what is happening on the ground and its implications. I will come to all sorts of problems that still exist in the scheme, and the whole purpose of this debate is to try to iron out those problems and to see what we can do to fix them.
The point I was making is that tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people are in a pretty difficult situation because of the fundamental design of this system. Whether it is tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands, it is an extraordinary, painful and awful moment.
On Thursday morning, in contrast to the hon. Gentleman, I received my first email on this subject from somebody who applied late: “My mother is quite distressed, as she needed to apply for settled status by 30 June but did not think it applied to her, maybe in denial. She needed someone to help fill out the online forms and upload the documents. The OTP”—one-time PIN—“code did not arrive on her very old phone and, as well as tech issues, she has recently applied to renew her Italian passport. My dad thinks her Italian ID card will be sufficient. I just cannot believe that someone who has been here for 50 years and is married to a UK citizen has to go through this process. Also she is very worried that her cancer drug will be withdrawn.”
I am hopeful that the situation will be resolved, in exactly the way the hon. Gentleman was able to resolve it for his constituent, but what cannot be undone is the stress, anxiety and hurt that this whole process is causing people. That is just one of hundreds of such cases that we can all expect to see in the weeks, months and even years ahead. The vast majority of people will find it appalling, because it is unnecessary.
An Italian constituent has written to me and is very concerned about the lack of physical evidence, which they think will be problematic for future mortgage applications, banking, work and the rest of it. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government need to look at this and make sure that people have physical evidence of their settled status?
That is a good point, and it is not something I will speak too much about today, although I have spoken about it previously. I know other hon. Members will make that case, and they have my full support.
The scheme did not need to operate like this. There were different options available to the Government that would have prevented this disastrous cliff edge, or at least alleviated its worst impacts, and for which hon. Members on both sides of the House have advocated. My party passionately supported continued free movement. Alternatively, along with many Members on both sides of the House, we advocated a declaratory system in which an Act of Parliament would simply have declared that EU citizens resident at the required date retained the same rights as before, which would have provided far greater security and peace of mind. That, of course, is essentially what was promised during the EU referendum.
The now Prime Minister, Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster all signed a pledge:
“There will be no change for EU citizens already lawfully resident in the UK. These EU citizens will automatically be granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK and will be treated no less favourably than they are at present.”
Tell that to my constituent and the many others currently without their rights. That promise was simply reneged upon, despite its three authors occupying all the roles in Government required to deliver it. One of them should be at the Dispatch Box to explain exactly why the promise was not kept.
May I ask the hon. Gentleman to reflect on his point about causing stress to constituents across the United Kingdom, which he made rather than welcoming the 6 million people who have applied and the 5 million who have settled status, which is the proportionate response? Will he inform my constituents and his that they are very likely to get settled status, rather than scaremongering as he currently is?
I am absolutely not scaremongering. I spoke for about two hours yesterday to the3million, which I have repeatedly asked the Minister to meet, and I do not think he has yet. The organisation receives reports from EU nationals across the country who are encountering difficulties, some of which I will set out. I have already welcomed the fact that more than 6 million people have applied, and I will say a little more about that in a moment. I am not scaremongering; I am passing on what EU nationals are telling the3million and me.
On the other hand, the Government are saying that we should shout about and celebrate the success of the EU settlement scheme. As I have said, I praise the civil servants who have worked hard to ensure that more than 6 million applications have been processed and granted. The reason why tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people have fallen through the gap is not down to the civil servants, albeit that there have inevitably been rough edges and problems because of the fundamental flaws in the decisions made by the Home Secretary and her predecessors. In essence, they opened a horrible big trapdoor and they now want us to thank them for the fact that only tens or hundreds of thousands of people have fallen through it—potentially into the hostile environment.
I am particularly concerned about the status of children, many of whom have grown up in the UK: their status is unclear and it is even unclear whether they are British citizens. There is also a big loophole when it comes to pregnant EU citizens who have applied to the scheme. The status of their yet-to-be-born children is really unclear. The situation is full of loopholes and flaws.
Lots of questions and loopholes have been identified. The fact that the Home Office had to issue hundreds of pages of guidance, even in the two or three weeks prior to the end of the transition period, shows that the issue has been difficult for it to address.
I come to what this debate should be about, which is looking forward to what can be done. We absolutely maintain that even now a declaratory scheme would be far preferable—people would still apply to the settlement scheme to prove their status, but at the very least the huge uncertainty would be removed and security would be delivered for them. Short of that, surely to goodness the transition period should be extended. There are a million reasons why that would be sensible—not least covid. Outreach work has been curtailed and embassies and scanning centres have been closed. People are not ready.
It is important to remember that this is not just a question of EU nationals being ready, but of employers, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, Department for Work and Pensions staff, landlords, local authority staff and bank staff having to be ready and NHS staff having to understand. As I said, the Home Office itself was still pumping out hundreds of pages of guidance in June and making tweaks to the system. I do not think the Home Office was ready for the end of the transition, and I do not think it can expect all those other organisations to be ready either. As I will mention, there is also an enormous backlog of cases.
Alternatively, the Government could at least remove the requirement for a reasonable excuse and keep the scheme open for the duration. It has to be open anyway, both for late applications and for people with pre-settled status who then go on to try to secure settled status. Why not simply allow people to come forward as it becomes necessary to secure their rights?
To be absolutely fair, the guidance on the reasonable excuse provision is reasonably generous, and more generous than it could have been, so I thank the Minister for that. But the very existence of that test plants huge seeds of doubt in people’s minds—if I have any doubt about whether my excuse will be accepted, am I putting myself at risk of enforcement action? I say that we should continue to encourage people to come forward, not discourage them.
That last proposal would be better than nothing, but it would not protect people from the impacts of the hostile environment in the meantime. That hostile environment is supposed to be undergoing an end-to-end review in the light of Wendy Williams’s Windrush report. The fact that the review has not yet been completed should be another ground for extending the grace period. More fundamentally, the hostile environment should be entirely suspended until the review takes place and its findings are implemented. All these are real, sensible, constructive options, open to the Government, that would ease the pain of the process. I hope the Government listen.
I turn now to a tiny number of examples of how difficult, technical and confusing the process has become. I am highlighting what groups such as the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and the3million are telling me. I do that to press the Minister for a response and to underline the case that there has at least to be an extension to the transition period.
First, I turn to the question of those who applied before the deadline but are still waiting for a decision. How on earth is it that, as I understand it, the backlog has risen to 570,000 cases? Back in October 2019, the resolution centre was able to conclude just over 400,000 cases, but in each of the three months up to the deadline, as I understand it, fewer than half that number were concluded each month, despite additional staff having been drawn in from the Post Office and elsewhere. Is that backlog not enough in itself to justify an extension?
Can the Minister tell us how many applications received in June were dealt with in the five-day target? According to EU settlement scheme statistics, applications from children comprise 15% of the total, with decisions on 25% of applications still pending; they also comprise around a quarter of applications pending for over three months. Why is that?
In theory, the full rights of people with outstanding in-time applications are protected while they wait—and that, of course, is welcome. But what is the reality on the ground? Already, all sorts of reports are coming in to representative groups about employers and landlords—and also the Home Office’s own Border Force staff—getting the checks wrong. That does not surprise me, because the situation is messy.
Some people with outstanding in-time applications will provide their prospective employer or landlord with a certificate of application to show that they have made the application. Some will provide a physical certificate, printed off, that leads to the employer contacting the employer checking service or the landlord checking with the landlord checking service. Others still will not have a certificate of approval but just an acknowledgement email; that, too, should lead to the checking service being consulted.
But in the last few days, the Home Office has started sending digital certificates of application to avoid the need for anyone to use the checking services, which can take a couple of days. The applicant will provide a code to the prospective employer or landlord, and when that is input into the system it should confirm that an application is outstanding. I hope hon. Members followed that, because all of us in this House are employers, but given that the guidance was issued only a couple of weeks before the deadline, I suspect that there are huge swathes of employers and landlords out there who do not have the first clue what somebody means when they approach them for a new tenancy or a new job and say, “Here’s my digital code. This should tell you that I have an application outstanding.”
I am absolutely delighted to hear this speech, because the hon. Gentleman is explaining the complexities of leaving a Union that we were part of for about 40 years, yet somehow he seems to assume that leaving this Union is really hard but that leaving one that includes the military, finance, pensions, homes and everything else is going to be incredibly easy. I am not quite sure whether he will explain that disconnect.
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.
I have been lobbied quite strongly by businesses in my constituency, where there is a big shortage of HGV drivers, for instance. Analysis indicates that there are up to 76,000 vacancies in the sector, which hits logistics and construction. Would not one reform that would help with the economic problems we face in Wales and Scotland be for the British Government to allow the Welsh and Scottish Governments to put sectors of the economy where there are skills shortages on the shortage occupations list?
I think the hon. Gentleman makes an absolutely fair point, but as I say, there are many different ways we could do this, and all I ask is that people engage with these ideas, rather than just dismiss them out of hand. At the very least, the Government should think again about the remote areas pilot scheme recommended by the Migration Advisory Committee, which the Government just promptly ditched without any sort of explanation at all, otherwise it will be clear that there is no prospect of Scotland having any real influence over these vital powers while it is part of the UK.
In the meantime, I believe we all want to protect EU citizens. We have offered our proposals. We believe that the status quo is fraught with a million problems. There needs to be action and significant changes if protection of EU citizens is to be a reality.
As the first Home Office Minister to come to the Dispatch Box since this afternoon’s news, I would like to pay tribute to my colleague and right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), and say that we will miss him as a Minister in the Home Office. We obviously still look forward to continuing to work with him as a Member of this House, and wish him the very best for the future.
I am very grateful to the SNP for the opportunity to use the time allocated for today’s debate to highlight the great success of the EU settlement scheme, our approach to late applications, and how welcome it is that so many of our friends and neighbours who arrived during the time of free movement want to make our United Kingdom their home on a permanent basis. I appreciate the generally constructive tone of my debates with the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald): even though we disagree on some fundamental points, he has given some very constructive input, both during his time as my direct shadow and now in his slightly different role as the SNP’s lead spokesperson on home affairs.
As this House is aware, the deadline for applying to the scheme for those resident in the UK by the end of the transition period was last Wednesday, 30 June. As of that date, in excess of 6 million applications have been received by the scheme. More than 5.4 million of those have already concluded and more than 5.1 million grants of status have been issued, with literally thousands being decided every day.
I am delighted to hear my hon. Friend making these statements. Is he aware that if he had applied for settled status in France, he would probably be queuing up even now, and that if he had done the same in Belgium, he would even now be waiting for documents to be approved? The Home Office has secured a remarkable achievement: even when we were members of the European Union, the paperwork needed to be legally resident in France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and in many other countries around the EU was significantly more complicated than the procedure that my hon. Friend has set up.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments: obviously, he has a unique perspective on these issues, given his chairmanship of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. It is always worth reflecting that on the day the French system opened for applications for UK nationals living in France, the EUSS had already received over 4 million applications. That just shows the scale of the scheme, and most people had the ability to apply from home, using an app on their smartphone to verify their identity in conjunction with their national passport. We are very pleased, and we hope that others will learn lessons from our success at getting so many applications in and so many settled and concluded already when it comes to how they approach the position of UK citizens living in their own nations.
To be clear, any application posted on 30 June is also considered to be in time. In recognition of the time it can take for post from all parts of our Union, especially the highlands and islands, to be delivered, we will assume any application received in the post until midnight tonight was posted in time. This is to ensure there is no prospect of an in-time application being ruled out purely on the basis of when it was delivered to the Home Office. Overall, these numbers are significant just in themselves: despite all the warnings about our potential willingness and ability to deliver, literally millions of EU citizens in the UK and their family members now have their status protected and their rights secured under UK law.
Our determination has always been to get as many as possible to apply, first by the deadline and now that it has passed. I repeat the message I gave at the end of last week: if people have not met the dead- line, do get in touch. We will look to help and to resolve the situation, rather than taking a particularly hard view on what constitutes a reasonable ground.
Of course, there was never a scheme to register as a European economic area national—we have never had the concept of identity cards in this country, certainly not since the end of world war two—and some who remain eligible to apply for the EUSS, such as joining family members, inherently live abroad even though they are eligible. We do believe that given the sheer scale of applications, the vast and overwhelming majority of those who live here in the UK have applied. However, it would be impossible to put a final figure on it, not least because of those abroad who could still apply; because of the issue, which I will come on to in a few minutes, of children who are yet to be born who may also be able to get status; and also because some of those people are non-EEA nationals. Some people think that eligibility for the EUSS equates to the EU population here in the UK, but it does not. There are many non-EEA nationals, as the hon. Member will know, who qualified for status under the EUSS, through routes such as the Surinder Singh rights that existed under free movement.
A comment that I have been keen to make quite regularly is that the EUSS is the lesson learned from the Windrush era. What happened to members of the Windrush generation was an outrage, and we must apply every lesson that we have learned from the scandal to ensure that our immigration system functions fairly and effectively, and the EU settlement scheme is no exception. It provides clear status and secure evidence of that status, which people will need for years to come, and they can be confident that their rights will be protected under it. By contrast, a declaratory system with status granted automatically but, crucially, with no individual evidence of that would risk repeating the difficulties faced by the Windrush generation, and that is not something that we can allow to happen again.
The Minister knows full well that that is not what we are advocating. We are advocating a declaratory system with a system that provides proof, which would be the settlement scheme. The only difference is that we have the settlement scheme, but we also have the automaticity in law, which provides so much reassurance. It takes away so much of the stress and anxiety that this is causing to tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of EU nationals.
This is where we disagree. It will not give EU nationals great comfort if, in years to come, there is a status that they will have to try to prove backwards, having realised that there was something that they should have applied for. We believe that the approach of having a clear deadline, but with reasonable grounds for late applications, gives that certainty of when they need to make an application, and an ability to ensure that those who are not entitled to the benefits of EUSS—those who did not move here before 31 December 2020—are not able to take advantage of these generous provisions. The figures are a testament not only to the work that has gone into this scheme, which ensured that it was simple to use, but to the efforts of more than 1,500 dedicated staff working on the EUSS, and I was pleased to hear the comments of the hon. Member about them.
Let me turn now to the issue of the work in progress. As of 30 June, there were around 570,000 pending applications, which were classed as “in time”. As we have made clear, a person’s existing rights continue to be protected in law pending the outcome of an application made by 30 June. This is achieved by the Citizens’ Rights (Application Deadline and Temporary Protection) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020. It is not just a guarantee from me here at the Dispatch Box, but is written into law. In the meantime, they will be able to rely on their certificate of application, which they can use if they need to prove their immigration status for any reason, such as taking up a new job or renting a new property in England. We have also published updated guidance for employers and landlords that makes that clear.
This is a fundamental point. The legal guarantees are absolutely very welcome, but, given that the guidance was published only a couple of weeks before the deadline, realistically how many employers, landlords and even public servants does the Minister think are remotely aware of what they need to do to check somebody who presents them with a certificate of application and a bit of digital code? What are the Government doing to monitor that and to take action to make sure that there is greater awareness?
I thank the hon. Member for the overall tone of his question. First, we have made it very clear that landlords and employers do not need to make retrospective checks. We have been saying that for a long time. If they accepted a passport or an ID card from an EEA national for right to work or right to rent checks in England, they do not need, as of today, to start going back through the process to see who has EUSS status and who does not.
None the less, we have been looking at our systems and seeing how people use them. For example, the view and prove service allows users to view their immigration status online. These are not particularly new systems that we are bringing in. Between the fourth quarter of 2019 and the first quarter of 2021, the service had seen more than 3.9 million views by individuals and more than 330,000 views by organisations checking immigration status. We have also seen banks checking identities. It should not come as a huge surprise that, in the middle of the current situation, some people have found it quite helpful to be able to prove their status in a digital way online rather than presenting physical documents face to face. We will, of course, monitor this. We are certainly clear that there should not be discrimination on this ground. Many of those with status under the British National (Overseas) visa, which we created as a settlement route for those in Hong Kong, also rely on purely digital status. Again, we are keen to ensure that employers are well aware of what is there. We have published guidance that makes it clear what an employer should do if they discover that one of their staff does not have EU settled status—to be clear, the employer does not need to terminate the staff member’s employment immediately, but can give them 28 days and secure a statutory excuse in the way that has been set out—and what signposting can be done.
We have had quite a bit of conversation about applications that are outstanding. Given the millions of applications that had already been received a year ago, it is worth noting only about 6,000 have been left outstanding for more than 12 months. More than 5,000 of them are being held at what we refer to as the suitability stage. In virtually all cases, it is because the applicant either has pending prosecutions, which means that a decision cannot be made until that criminal justice matter is resolved, or has been referred for consideration of deportation action in relation to criminal justice matters and criminal records.
When it comes to communicating, we have so far invested nearly £8 million in public communications about the EUSS to encourage EU citizens who are eligible for the scheme, and their family members, to apply. Our communications and engagement work will continue with a focus on groups who may not yet have applied, and on the marginalised. It is probably worth my saying from the Dispatch Box that we appreciate the support we have had from the devolved Administrations in that area, particularly the Scottish Government’s “Stay in Scotland” campaign, to reach out and communicate with people.
Plenty of support is still available for applicants who need it. Seventy-two organisations across the UK have been provided with up to £22 million in Home Office funding to help vulnerable people apply to the scheme. Eleven of those organisations are in Scotland, including Airdrie citizens advice bureau, Edinburgh CAB, Inverness, Badenoch and Strathspey CAB, Perth CAB, Community Renewal, Feniks, Fife Migrants Forum, Perth and Kinross Association of Voluntary Service, Positive Action in Housing, the International Organisation for Migration and the Simon Community. We very much appreciate their work.
Those 72 organisations have among them helped more than 310,000 vulnerable people to apply to the scheme. That includes victims of human trafficking or domestic abuse, those with severe mental health conditions, those without a permanent address and those who are elderly or isolated. As I have touched on, the organisations are funded up to 30 September, and we will review the demand over the summer to see what the position should be beyond 30 September. I note the comments of the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East about that.
The EU settlement resolution centre is open seven days a week to provide applicants with assistance over the telephone and by email, and the assisted digital service provides help over the phone with completing the online application process. We continue to support local authorities to ensure that all eligible looked-after children secure their status under the scheme, and we are providing practical help in several ways in addition to the extra funding that has been made available for this work following a new burdens assessment. I confirm to the House that as of 23 April, which was two months before the deadline, applications for the EUSS had been received for 2,440—estimated to be 67% —of the 3,660 looked-after children and care leavers that our survey identified as eligible for the scheme. We have since been working with local authorities on the remaining cases across our Union. For example, we have had confirmation that all looked-after children identified as eligible in Northern Ireland have had applications made for them well before the deadline. We have also made it clear that we will take a pragmatic and flexible approach to applications made after the 30 June deadline.
All the work to encourage looked-after children to have applications made on their behalf is absolutely welcome, but an issue that I did not have time to touch on was that some of these kids might actually be entitled to register as British citizens. Can we make sure that people are not missing out on their entitlement to British citizenship and going for settled status instead?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. To be clear, if someone is a British citizen and entitled to go through that process, they cannot be granted status under the EUSS. Certainly, we would look to work with local authorities to see whether the person was eligible to be a British citizen or to be granted EU settled status. That is not something that local authorities are unused to working with, because there may well be non-EEA nationals in a similar position, but the point is well made.
As was touched on during the hon. Gentleman’s speech, we have published quite extensive but non-exhaustive guidance on what may constitute reasonable grounds for making a late application. For example, someone who is under 18 or does not have mental capacity to apply themselves—in essence, someone who relies on someone else to apply for them—is an obvious example of where we will see a late application as inherently based on reasonable grounds. I would also emphasise that there is no specific time period for reasonable grounds or a deadline for them. As I have often said in this House, we would consider it reasonable grounds for a child who is aged five today to apply in 13 years’ time on reaching 18 if, when going for their first job, they realised that an application had not been made for them. Each case will be considered according to its particular circumstances, so that we arrive at the appropriate and proportionate outcome in each case.
As has been touched on, a process is also in place to prioritise late applications where the person may be at risk of destitution or where other compelling grounds exist. We are building on our work with local authorities, grant-funded organisations and others to identify and expedite such cases. Also, Members should be familiar with the process through which they bring cases to me that they believe should be expedited in the wider visa system, and we will also ensure that when Members of Parliament make representations, that will be done on a similar basis.
I think we have come to the crux of the argument here, in that the guidance about late applications is pretty generous—it is much more generous than it could have been, and that is welcome—but if the Government will go that far, why not just remove the reasonable grounds from the application altogether? Who exactly do they want to be able to refuse on the ground of being unreasonably late? Why not just scrap that test altogether?
It is a part of the EUSS, and it would be odd if we said that we would accept unreasonable grounds. It would seem a bit weird to put that in the immigration status. As I have said, we did not want to take a tick-box approach. Neither did we want, for the sake of argument, to say that an application from someone who was aged 17 and 364 days was definitely late, and instantly to say no to someone who was 18. We have taken the view that such an approach would be proportionate.
Yes, the guidelines on reasonable grounds are generous, as is the approach we have taken to postal applications, in assuming that any that are received in the post up to today will be considered to be in time, rather than asking for posting certificates or looking at when the envelope was franked by the Post Office. We recognise that not every area or community has a postal collection beyond 9 am, and it would produce some quite harsh outcomes if we required people to take a selfie of themselves posting something at 5 o’clock in the evening.
Touching on the point around pregnancy, we have already changed nationality law to provide for a grant of British citizenship when a child is born to someone who subsequently secures settled status based on a late application. That is based on the notion that they had reasonable grounds for missing the 30 June deadline but met the requirements for status at that time and before their child’s birth here in the UK. This provision also applies to anyone whose child is born between 1 July and their in-time application being decided and resulting in a grant of settled status.
Our focus will remain on encouraging those eligible for the EU settlement scheme to apply for and obtain their status, and we will continue to look for reasons to grant people status rather than to refuse it. Those currently receiving benefits who have not yet applied will not see their payments stop immediately. The Home Office is working closely with the Department for Work and Pensions and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to reach out to people who may be eligible to apply. It is important that anyone who has not applied to the scheme does so, to ensure that their payments do not stop, but we would reassure them that help in applying remains available, including through our grant funded network.
Finally, in this area, if somebody who may be eligible for the scheme but has not made an application is encountered by immigration enforcement, they will be given another opportunity to apply. They will be issued with a notice giving them a further period, generally 28 days, in which to apply, and the notice will signpost them to the port available to do so. These safeguards have been built in to protect those who have not yet applied but who may still be eligible, and we believe that it will mean that everybody will be able to get the status they deserve.
As always in a debate on my brief inspired by the SNP, we see its ultimate desire tucked away at the end of the motion. While a debate on the EUSS, and this time for Members to reflect on the millions of applications it has received and statuses granted, is very welcome, the final line of the motion points to the ultimate goal of those who sit on the separatist Benches: a border for people between England and Scotland.
We always see that presented as just a chance to give Scotland’s employers an opportunity to recruit at the minimum wage on a European or perhaps even global basis, rather than offering the rewarding packages that many of Scotland’s key workers deserve—or perhaps as a way to avoid dealing with the underlying issues that drive people to abandon the world-famous natural beauty of the Scottish highlands and islands to find opportunities for work elsewhere. It does not take much to work out that, as the furlough scheme winds down, many of our fellow neighbours may face the need to find new employment, hence the support packages that the UK Government are putting in place to help those who may need to retrain. Should immigration policy really be the go-to option for roles where the work-based training requirements can be completed in a shorter time?
Similarly, it is a depressing vision for the future of Scotland—or some of its most beautiful parts—to suggest creating a system that makes the main attraction or selling point of a future Scotland not better prospects, higher skills and being at the cutting edge of scientific research, but the fact that it is a place where someone will need to spend a few years before qualifying for indefinite leave to remain, which will then allow them to move elsewhere.
As we know, for every problem, the SNP believes a border with England is the answer. Our approach is clear: to create a migration system that is not focused on the politics of division and separatism, or where someone’s passport is from, but judges people by their skills and what they have to offer, and has at its core a vision of a higher-wage, higher-skill, higher-prosperity Scotland, delivered by being part of our United Kingdom—a Union greater than the sum of its parts.
That means that our focus is to deliver an immigration system that works for Scotland’s workers, universities, businesses, events and future economic growth. It can never be a magic bullet for issues and problems that are the responsibility of Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government, much as we wish it could be, but Scotland’s interests have been at the heart of each stage of recent changes.
Those changes include setting the general salary threshold for our key economic migration route within £20 of the Scottish median salary; harmonising the rules for settlement with the requirements for the skilled worker visa to encourage those who have come to work here to stay here for good; reform of the permit-free festival system to move towards a more proportionate approach; allowing short-term study via the visitor route; simplifying processes and expanding opportunity; changes to the student route in support of the ambitions of Scotland’s universities; removing the need to apply for ATAS—academic technology approval scheme—permission for our closest allies when studying relevant courses; broadening the skills threshold to reflect not just academically focused careers; allowing permitted paid engagement leave via entry through Ireland, removing the need for a Dublin band to fly via Paris to do a gig in Glasgow; and, over the coming year, introducing biometric reuse on more routes to reduce the need to travel to a service centre when applying for further leave to remain.
All those things have been driven by direct engagement with Scotland and its businesses, universities and community groups. While the SNP attacks the points-based system, it is worth noting that its own plans for separation back in 2014 included such a system—one it presumably would have enforced, despite its regular comments about such things.
The people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in June 2016. We opened the EU settlement scheme in March 2019, on a basis rightly much more generous than the withdrawal agreement requires, to ensure that resident EU citizens—our friends and neighbours—were able to secure their rights under UK law. Our message to EU citizens in the UK, and something that I think none of us would disagree on, is that we want them to stay. The fact that so many of those eligible for the EU settlement scheme have chosen to apply and secure their rights is something to be proud of and something that will support our nation and our Union for years to come.
May I start by echoing the words of the Minister about his colleague the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire)? We wish him well and hope he has a speedy recovery back to his position in the Home Office. I also thank the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) for the way in which he presented the case for the motion.
Mr Deputy Speaker, you will be amazed, as I am, that for the first time since the election in 2019, the SNP are holding an Opposition day debate that is not about independence. When I heard that would be the case, I thought, “Great—we’re going to have a big debate on covid recovery in Scotland,” but that did not come forward either. I wonder why, given the events of the last week. The SNP has, however, still managed to make the debate about a border of some kind, so there is more to do yet; but maybe next time we have one it will have nothing to do with the constitution. This is nevertheless an incredibly important topic and I am delighted to be able to speak on behalf of the official Opposition.
May I first pay tribute to all the organisations who have been assisting in providing information to EU nationals on the settlement scheme, including the3million —mentioned by the Member who moved the motion, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East—and the Citizens’ Rights Project, which has helped so many of my constituents in Edinburgh? It is important to say at the outset that we should not conduct this debate on the narrative set by the Government’s hostile environment on immigration; that would be the wrong context for it, but it is worth putting in context why EU nationals are so anxious about this entire process.
We should be conducting these debates from the foundation that EU immigration has been good for this country and that the contribution that EU nationals make will continue to be of benefit to this country irrespective of their position with regard to Brexit. We do not have to look too far to see that. For example, just last week alone in the sporting world we have seen the incredible talents of Emma Raducanu, the new 18-year-old star of British tennis who reached the last 16 at Wimbledon. Born to a Romanian father and a Chinese mother, she was raised in the United Kingdom and has left every one of us in awe at her sporting talent, success and potential. Likewise, all the home nations football teams have been built with the benefits of immigration. An interesting graphic was circulated on social media by the Migration Museum, which showed that eight of the starting 11 in the England team that defeated Germany last week were the children or grandchildren of immigrants to this country; it was a very powerful graphic indeed.
Of course, tonight we will hear thousands of England fans singing “football’s coming home”—I would argue that the home of football is in Scotland, but nevertheless they will be singing that—but what is the definition of “home” for the Government? EU nationals, many of whom have been here for the majority of their lives, see Britain as their home, but the EU settlement scheme has made them feel, in their words, “unwelcome” and “unappreciated”. This is their home, and we cannot emphasise enough that they are welcome. [Interruption.] I hear some chuntering from the Conservative Benches, but those are their words—EU nationals have told us that they feel unwelcome and unappreciated.
Will the hon. Gentleman at least acknowledge that, while I take it that a few may feel that, the vast majority of EU citizens—certainly those I have spoken to in my constituency—actually feel at home and feel that the EU settled status scheme has made it incredibly easy and simple for them to gain their status? They love this country and I am glad that we have made it easy for them to stay.
I do not think it is in doubt at all that EU nationals love this country, or they would not choose to be here and contribute to being here. This debate is about making sure that the EU settlement scheme can work for everyone and that the deadline that has just passed does not leave anybody, including the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, in limbo legally or otherwise, and the point of holding debates in this House is to iron out some of those problems.
I was not just talking about sports stars, of course. It is a simple, inescapable fact that our society and our precious national health service could not function, and certainly would not have functioned when we needed it most over the past 18 months, without the hard work of the people who have migrated to this country. They make Britain great, and we will never apologise for standing up for the rights of those who choose to call this country their home.
The immigration system that this Government have created over the past 11 years is broken, and surely the Minister could see, when he reeled off the list of things that the Home Office has been doing with regard to immigration, that the fact that the SNP has tabled a motion to devolve immigration and create that border is the result of some of the things that the Home Office has done over the past 11 years. The Government should reflect on some of those problems and try to resolve them. Demonising people who have contributed, or want to contribute, so much to our country has provided a level of distrust in the system that has meant that EU nationals feel uncertain about their future.
It is also very counterproductive, as we have already seen in the impact of the Government’s immigration policies, especially in key sectors at the forefront of the fight against coronavirus. There are workforce shortages now in our public services, particularly in the NHS and social care. Construction companies say that projects will have to be delayed due to lack of EU workers. Traditional industries in agriculture and food are struggling for the numbers that they require to function as normal. Hospitality businesses are struggling to find enough staff; even the famous Tim Martin, founder of JD Wetherspoon, broke the irony meter last week when he called on the Government to introduce a new EU migrant visa for the hospitality sector.
And, of course, migration works both ways, with more than 1 million UK citizens choosing to make another European country their home. We cannot speak for other Governments in EU countries, of course, but I know that in France the Government have extended the deadline for UK citizens to register until September, to ensure that they catch everyone who wishes to stay in France post Brexit. The Home Office has failed to do that despite repeated calls for it. Last week, in the days leading up to the settlement scheme deadline, I raised that very issue with the EU deputy ambassador to the UK, who told me of the extreme lengths to which EU countries and embassies are going to ensure that their citizens register for the scheme and have their status preserved. She also talked of the massive volumes of correspondence that the mission was getting from EU nationals as the deadline approached.
The Home Office has a great many questions to answer on the EU settlement scheme. The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East was right to pay tribute to all the staff working through the applications. How many EU citizens living in the UK does the Home Office think had not managed to apply by the 30 June deadline? That is an incredibly difficult question to answer, I appreciate, because the Home Office talked about 3.2 million and may have had upwards of 6 million applications—many of which, of course, will be from people not currently living in the United Kingdom. What is the Department doing to reach out to those whom it knows about but who have not applied? Statistics released on 30 June showed that only 5.4 million of the nearly 6 million applications had been processed. How long can applicants expect to wait before finding out their status?
What efforts has the Department made to get to those hardest-to-reach individuals, such as those without internet access? We find that difficult as MPs. Has it taken additional measures, so that people in such circumstances will not fall foul of the law through no fault of their own?
The Minister has said repeatedly, including in the Chamber today, that the Government will not extend the deadline. Indeed, they have not extended the deadline. He said that was not the solution. What is the solution for the estimated 70,000 whom the Government know about who have not applied for settled status but are in receipt of some Government support? What is the solution for those left in legal limbo by missing the deadline? We have heard about some processes put in place, such as the reasonable excuse test, but I hope that we will not see convoys of immigration control vans heading down our streets to deport EU nationals. Will the Minister rule out that option for people who are legally allowed to be here but have not applied for settled status? The Home Office says it is looking to be flexible, but what does flexibility mean in all those cases? What will happen to someone who has not yet applied but will do so at some point in the future when they realise that they must?
Of course, many EU nationals have been in this country for decades and may not think that the scheme applies to them. I hope that maximum flexibility will be allowable for those cases. Surely the easiest way to try to catch all the people whom the Home Office thinks have not applied would have been to extend the deadline, contact them, make sure that they apply and make sure that they are in the scheme as quickly as possible. We all want the scheme to work, because it has to work.
As representatives in this House, we will all have had many constituency cases. We have heard of EU nationals who have been refused on spurious grounds, those who have found the process difficult to navigate and those who have not applied at all. Hopefully, most of them have now been caught. The scheme has caused a great deal of uncertainty, stress and anxiety for millions of our fellow citizens with whom we share our communities and lives. I hope that, at the end of the debate, the Minister will give assurances on the many questions that Members will pose to him.
It is with great regret that Labour cannot support this motion on such an important issue. It is disappointing that the SNP has decided to use the motion as a clarion call for a border at Berwick, rather than for a debate to stand up for and help our EU friends and family with regard to the settlement scheme. It is a real missed opportunity.
The motion makes reference to the SNP’s desire for a separate Scottish immigration system. I would observe that, given that it will take the Scottish Government up to nine years to build the infrastructure required for the devolution of some social security powers that came in the Scotland Act 2016—powers that my colleagues and I fought hard for—I am unsure how long it will take them to create a system to handle migration. What such a system will indisputably need is a border at Berwick. Any system of differing migration ultimately requires a border between the two countries with different systems, and we know that is the SNP’s desire. When we are debating the consequences for individuals of putting up a border between the UK and the EU, the SNP’s solution is to put up a border between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom—or, as some SNP MSPs famously called it, a border job creation scheme.
For goodness’ sake. We do not have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, and we see that system all across the planet—in Canada, Spain, Switzerland and various other countries. The Isle of Man has immigration powers. It is perfectly reasonable to ask for some immigration powers to be handed down and to take part in that discussion, rather than this nonsense about a hard border at Berwick.
Some years ago I did a little research into the differential of immigration policies. There is great stress in the Canadian system because, as the Minister said, many people land in Quebec, stay for the required period and then move to other parts of Canada. The other provinces in Canada find that incredibly difficult to cope with, and that is exactly what would happen in the context we are talking about—
Well, we do not know what the SNP envisages, because we do not know the proposals; it is just a list of words. Unfortunately, this debate will turn to this issue—the Minister spent some time on it and I am having to spend some time on it—because it was put into the motion. If it was not in the motion, we could have debated the EU settlement scheme and voted accordingly. That is what is so frustrating about these debates: they always boil down to the constitution. None of these things are answers to the question. I want the Minister to tell us how he will sort the scheme and resolve things for the EU nationals who are not in the system, rather than our having to debate whether the solution is another border at Berwick.
To tackle the shared challenges of our time, of which this is a massive one, we need greater co-operation, which is why we see the trade and co-operation agreement between the UK and the EU as the floor of our ambition for our future relationship, unlike this Government, who see it as the ceiling. These issues must be resolved and they can be clearly resolved. Ideas can come forward from the Scottish Government about how to resolve the immigration system, when the two Governments are willing to work together. For example, the former Scottish Labour First Minister Jack McConnell, who is now in the other place, introduced the Fresh Talent scheme in Scotland, which allowed overseas graduates to stay on after university. The scheme was then implemented throughout the United Kingdom.
No, it was not devolved; the UK Government implemented that policy at the insistence of the Scottish First Minister who brought it forward.
In 2019, the Prime Minister famously promised to get Brexit done, yet here we are, 18 months after his Government’s election with a majority, still debating the details of these schemes more than five years after the referendum, with many EU nationals still living in limbo. The Government have not got it done, and will never get it done as they promised the public they would. We need to be getting Brexit to work properly. The EU settlement scheme is another example of where many people are falling through the gaps, with the Government unable to contact them and get them into the scheme.
I say again, regretfully, that we will not be able to back the motion. I hope that the Government will listen to charities or to the shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), and even now extend the deadline for the thousands of EU citizens who have failed to submit their applications on time through no fault of their own. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us how many EU citizens living in the UK the Home Office believes have not managed to apply on time, and what the Department is doing about finding and contacting them and getting them to apply on time. It is particularly important for the Home Office to contact proactively those citizens who are either vulnerable or hard to reach as a result of issues such as a lack of internet access, or who do not think the scheme applies to them because they have been here for so long. I hope the Minister can reassure us that the applications of the nearly half a million people who submitted them before 30 June will be concluded as quickly as possible.
What is missing from these debates is the fact that those affected are our neighbours, our friends, our partners, our colleagues and our fellow citizens. They are human beings, not numbers on a Home Office screen. Those are the people who have chosen to make this country—our home—their home. Together, we make this country our home. As we chart the next phase of our country’s history, we would do well to remember that we are talking about human beings and we need to make sure that the scheme works for them all.
I shall take that guidance to heart, Madam Deputy Speaker. With your leave, before I wade in, I wish to pay tribute to my parliamentary team, because it is with great sadness that I report to the House that my constituency office was attacked this morning. I pay tribute to the police for dealing with it incredibly quickly. Luckily, those involved did not gain entry, but they did break 16 panes of glass and, of course, scared the parliamentary team. Across the House, our teams work day in, day out without, necessarily, the protection that this House affords us now. I put on the record my thanks to my team and the police for dealing with the situation so quickly. However, life goes on, and I will now contribute to this important debate.
Although I very much welcome the tone of the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) and many of the observations that he made in opening, we need to be incredibly careful about getting our language and tone right to remind all EU citizens who have been living, contributing, working and loving in this country that they are very welcome to stay. We need to reflect on the scale of the achievement of getting 6 million-plus applications. When the Minister sums up, I look forward to him giving us the stats to date, which he will have to hand easier than I. At my last check, 5.4 million had been settled. That is a huge achievement, and it is against the background of the last five years, with huge constitutional arguments and with political parties in this place telling people that they could stop Brexit and causing confusion on a huge scale about what the relationship would look like next.
As a result of what the Government have put in place, and what I ensure in my constituency, people in Wales and the whole of the United Kingdom feel welcome and understand the importance of applying. I very much welcome the tone from the Minister in responding to the debate, and the proportionality that he is now applying to anyone who gets their application in late. It seemed to me that what he outlined in opening was pretty much what the SNP is calling for: proportionality. Clearly, we needed a date to work to, and we needed to get the message out to apply, but I very much welcome the proportional response to those who may have got their application in late.
I want it to go on the record that in a previous life I worked very much on the detail of the withdrawal agreement and the generous package that the UK Government put in place. This is the most generous settlement scheme in the whole of the EU—hon. Members should look at the withdrawal agreement. I am happy to be intervened on by anyone on the Opposition Benches if they can tell me of a country in the European Union that has a more generous settlement scheme package for UK citizens than we have for EU citizens. We have gone above and beyond to ensure that people feel welcome, and we need to ensure that the language and tone are right in this Chamber to reinforce that message.
I am conscious of time, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I do not want to make you impose a limit, but I will comment on the proposed introduction of a border. It disappoints me. I join the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), in looking forward to the day when a motion from the SNP does not try to cause a border for our Celtic cousins. Never mind England and Scotland; you are trying to put a border between Wales and Scotland. We do not want that. We do not want you to leave the Union. You have made some fair points, but adding that last sentence with a demand for a border between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom shows your hand, I am afraid. It shows that this debate is more about political point scoring than creating the welcome that you are trying to.
This is a debate that I wish we did not need to have, not just because I find it abhorrent that people who made their home here are now faced with proving their right to stay, but because the UK Government have, true to form, made an absolute moger of the process—removing the safety barriers so that people now risk falling off the cliff edge into the shark-infested waters of the hostile environment.
I have had constituents getting in touch about the scheme for some time now, anxious about what it might mean for them. Delays in the scheme, which have been highlighted recently, are nothing new in the experience of my constituents in Glasgow Central. In October 2019, a constituent made his application to the EU settlement scheme and found out that he had been granted pre-settled status only in June 2020. Another applied in June 2019 and although his wife was granted status almost immediately, he was waiting until February 2021, having been moved into the “complicated” pile. A further constituent applied in December 2020 and was granted status only in June this year. All these delays cause considerable stress to individuals. I appreciate that there are checks, processes and wheels turning slowly in the background, but the UK Government knew this was coming. They were warned on multiple occasions by a wheen of organisations and experts that layering this on top of an already struggling immigration system would cause problems, yet it feels from the experience of my constituents that nothing was done.
There are also uncertainties and grey areas. People who have never had to question their right to live here are now having to do so. A constituent and friend of mine, Toni Guigliano, has lived most of his life in Scotland. He considers himself a dual national—an Italian Scot—but his ID for work purposes was an Italian passport, so he has had to apply for settled status to ensure he is able to continue to live his life here. He is certain there will be many others like him who do not believe they need to apply. To make matters worse, the EU settlement scheme helpline told him he did not absolutely need to apply, but that was contradicted by an email I received from UK Visas and Immigration today, which would suggest that he does, as his Italian passport is not proof of a right to work. What an absolute shambles!
The lack of a physical document has been raised by many constituents as a deficiency in the scheme. Relying on having a mobile phone with battery sufficiently charged to allow someone to get through the border as they come back from their holidays is far from ideal for most people. For the digitally excluded, this is also a real problem. For those required to prove eligibility to their employer or a whole host of Government agencies, the digital systems appear not yet to be in place or working properly, as constituents have already found and as my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) highlighted. In a response to me from the Minister for Future Borders and Immigration, it was evident that the “view and prove” service is not yet working on a cross-Government basis. In the letter, he stated that, for individuals accessing services provided by Departments and other public authorities,
“e.g. benefits and healthcare, the Home Office will increasingly make the relevant information about an individual’s status available automatically through system to system checks, at the point at which they seek to access the public services.”
Although I understand this may be working to an extent in the Department for Work and Pensions, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and NHS England, that is not by any matter or means the full spectrum of services that people interact with. A system should be in place right now, not at some vague time in the future. It is yet another reason to remove or extend the deadline if the UK Government have not even finished their own homework on this issue.
There are further consequences for EU nationals as a result of the Tories’ Brexit shambles. Another constituent who has lived in Scotland since May 2016 has been allocated pre-settled status and has applied for settled status. He has always worked, but he lost his job in hospitality in early 2020 and went to stay with family in Italy, unfortunately getting stuck there during the lockdown. His universal credit claim was refused as he was not in the UK, and he could not apply for jobs, not knowing when he would be able to return to his home in Glasgow. As a result, he is now struggling to get by, destitute until he gets an answer, because he has been unable to claim his benefits with pre-settled status. He told me:
“For me this situation is really distressing. I feel really discriminated and humiliated from this government. They are killing my hopes and my dreams.”
I have encountered other cases where the DWP has raised questions over EU nationals’ eligibility and unfairly denied benefits on the basis of the habitual residency test. This should not be the future EU nationals face; the vast majority work and contribute but, as we all know, anyone can require to access support because of the loss of a job or illness. They should not face barriers in their path, in the way that no recourse to public funds already causes destitution and serious harm to so many.
Another compelling reason to extend the deadline is the bureaucratic backlog caused by coronavirus. A constituent who came to the UK in July 2020 has been completely stuck due to agencies being closed—understandably—because of covid-19. She was not able to get a national insurance number, as the jobcentres were closed, or a job, because so many places were not hiring. She was also not able to register with a GP, set up a bank account or obtain a UK driving licence. Now she faces having her claim refused because she cannot absolutely prove she was in the UK before December 2020. So I ask how the Minister expects people to prove their rights when the very agencies we would all expect to assist have not been available to people.
Similarly, another constituent seeking to register his children under the EU settlement scheme found it more difficult, as their passports had expired and renewals were more difficult due to covid. Although I appreciate that passports were not always required to register, I am sure that many others would have found themselves in similar circumstances, panicking as the deadline approached. I hope that this will be taken into account as a “reasonable excuse”, but if there had not been a deadline, that would have removed a great deal of anxiety from the situation.
The future of work for EU nationals is undoubtedly now more complex. The situation has made it more difficult to travel and work, and many may now choose to move elsewhere as a result. We have all benefited from the talent and expertise of EU nationals and the all-round contribution they have made to our communities, but what the UK Government have sought to do through Brexit and through these rules is to make life harder for our friends and neighbours. As the MP with the highest immigration case load in Scotland, I can tell Members that life is already pretty hard for many people and that the UK Government’s utterly despicable Nationality and Borders Bill seeks to make the situation even worse.
Scotland did not vote for this. We voted to remain in the EU. We see the benefits of migration, as a nation who have sent our own out around the world, and we stand by those who have done us the honour of choosing Scotland as their home. I look forward to the day soon when we are able not only to show people our Scottish hospitality, but to have the legislation to back that up.
I will try to speed through my speech, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I am delighted to speak on the subject of the EU settlement scheme, as it provides us with a great opportunity to reflect on the invaluable contributions that our friends and neighbours from the EU bring to our country and to our local communities. We have colleagues on both sides of the House who were born in, or grew up in, an EU country. We in this House also rely on the support of our staff, many of whom came to this country from Europe. And who can forget the tireless work of those EU nationals who work for the various parliamentary services that keep us safe, ensuring that the work of our Parliament keeps going and making our days brighter in this place. I am sure the whole House will want to join me in thanking them for all their hard work and dedication.
In my own constituency, I see EU nationals on the frontline of our fight against covid-19 as doctors, nurses, paramedics and carers and in many other capacities. Many of the children in Guildford, Cranleigh and our villages are taught at school by teachers from the EU. Our communities are made stronger thanks to the contribution of EU nationals, who are our neighbours, our friends and our partners in building the fairer, greener and healthier country we want. Working together is the best way we can build back better after the pandemic. That is why I was happy whenever my office was able to assist constituents with their applications to the EU settlement scheme or by taking their feedback to Ministers. It is also why I am happy to help constituents outside the EU, too, and I have had many successes on immigration matters in the short 18 months since I was elected.
The Government settlement scheme, which was set up in 2019, sent out a very clear message: we want our friends to stay and enjoy all the rights they have been enjoying for years. I was therefore heartened to hear that the scheme has seen 6 million applications, of which 5.4 million have been met with a positive outcome. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams) for the recent update on those numbers. I am also pleased that those applicants who have not received their decision will have their rights protected and will receive a certificate of application that they can use if they need to prove their immigration status until a decision is made on their case.
I was pleased to hear that we will continue to take a pragmatic and flexible approach in considering late applicants and their rights, that we will as a priority continue to encourage those eligible to secure their status to apply, and that each case will be based on its unique circumstances. The comments made by my hon. Friend the Minister at the Dispatch Box today about reasonable grounds for late applicants are extremely welcome and will be very reassuring for my constituents. That, alongside the Government’s £8 million investment in advertising and £22 million investment in ensuring that vulnerable applicants are given all the support they require, clearly illustrates our commitment not to leave anyone behind when it comes to protecting their rights in this country.
The scheme was born out of the spirit of friendship and co-operation we share with our European allies, and it mirrors similar programmes put in place for British citizens living in EU countries, albeit running for a longer period of time. I hope that that spirit will extend our friendship beyond Europe as we introduce a fair, points-based immigration system not too dissimilar to the one that the SNP advocated in its 2014 independence White Paper, only now to call it unjustifiable and damaging to Scotland.
Having emigrated to this country from New Zealand, I know how important our ties with the rest of the world are. I commend the Government for taking their responsibilities towards immigrants so seriously, especially as we build global Britain—a place where fairness, the rule of law and respect for each other prevails.
I find it bizarre that the Scottish National party has chosen to use its valuable Opposition day slot to debate the EU settlement scheme, and I am in no doubt that the vast majority of Scots agree with me. There is little to address in the EU settlement scheme, as the SNP knows full well. For the SNP, it is all about sowing division, stirring up ill-founded resentment and stoking the same tired old debates on the 2016 Brexit vote. The truth is that the EU referendum was years ago, and we have since left the bloc for good. All Scots and all Britons want us to move forward and focus on improving this country.
The SNP may regret the end of freedom of movement, but the vast majority of British people wanted to end it. It is about our having the power and national sovereignty to decide who we should admit into our society, from anywhere in the world. The EU immigration system was ludicrous, as was recognised across Scotland. The fact the SNP is still in favour of it is baffling and quite irresponsible.
It is testimony to the settlement scheme’s popularity that we predicted 3.7 million EU citizens would go through the process but instead, as we have heard today, over 6 million have done so. That is a great success. The simplicity, generosity and, some would say, leniency of the scheme reflects this Government’s desire to make life easy for those settled Europeans who contribute to our country and make it what it is. It is therefore disingenuous of the SNP to level any accusations against the Government of making the process difficult or arcane—the numbers show that is simply not the case. It has worked incredibly well.
By trying to extend or scrap the deadline, the SNP is seeking an eternal transition that defies reality and defies logic. It is clear that the SNP is clinging on to any vestige of what it thinks relates to the EU, hankering after a broken union while destroying the precious one we have. The SNP hangs on to the coat tails of the EU because it has no confidence in Scotland. Any right-thinking Briton knows that the settlement status window must end, and they want it to end.
Tagging on to the end of the motion the transfer of immigration powers from Westminster to create a Scottish migration system and Scottish visa is pure madness. It is part of the SNP’s fantasy to further isolate Scotland for the sake of division. This move would harm Scottish people, not to mention being completely impracticable, with a hard border being inevitable. How can the SNP seriously favour immigration rights for EU citizens into Scotland over Scots’ rights to access the rest of the UK? It is bizarre. How can the SNP favour EU immigration over what is best for Scotland’s young and vulnerable?
It is not possible for one country to have two different, opposing immigration systems, and it is not compatible with the devolution settlement or desirable for the people of Scotland. It is yet another example of the SNP causing trouble and sowing the seeds of division, without any concrete policies to improve Scots’ lives.
Our UK immigration policy keeps us safe and attracts the best and brightest to our shores, whether they settle in London, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast. It is bizarre that the SNP advocated a points-based immigration system in 2014, yet changes its tune when it smells political opportunity. It is rank hypocrisy.
It seems to have passed the SNP by that we have actually left the EU, and the SNP is wilfully ignoring all the opportunities now available to Scotland outside the EU, whether it is Scottish exports, farmers, fisheries, the repatriation of powers from Brussels to Edinburgh, UK business support or state aid. This latest attempt to score political points on the impressive EU settlement scheme underlines the fact that a Scotland without the SNP would surely be better off.
I am conscious of time so, on a lighter note, although football may not be coming home to Hampden, it may still be seeking settled status here in Britain. I have no doubt that every Scot, including every SNP Member here today, will be cheering on England tonight as the sole home nations representative left in the tournament.
During the Brexit referendum, the Prime Minister promised that nothing would change for EU citizens in the UK. Yet everything has changed, as millions of people who had settled here have had to apply for permission to remain in their homes and jobs. Conservative Members dismissed this as no big deal, but my husband is German, and, after spending more than 30 years working as a doctor in our NHS, he felt as if the rug had suddenly been pulled from under his feet.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams) highlighted the importance of language, and I agree with him, but while our First Minister in Scotland reached out to EU citizens on the morning after the referendum, the language in this place described them as bargaining chips and playing cards. The most upsetting thing for my husband was when the former Prime Minister described EU citizens as “queue jumpers”, implying they had somehow cheated the immigration system to settle here. Such language already made EU citizens feel unwelcome even before Brexit was completed, and it contributed to an almost 90% drop in the number of EU nurses coming to the UK. That is a loss the four national health services could ill afford, especially with the challenges of this last year.
Apart from the emotional upheaval felt by many EU families such as mine, there are practical issues with the settled status system. Instead of automatically being granted indefinite leave to remain, as promised by the Prime Minister, it is an application process, which can be refused. While EU citizens would still have had to register, there would have been no question of refusal, and vulnerable groups such as the elderly or children in care would not now be in danger of becoming illegal. Only 2% of applications have been refused outright, but that is over 100,000 people, and 43% have been granted only the much less favourable pre-settled status, often despite living in the UK for many years. There is a real danger that many with permanent residency assume it means what it says and that they are secure, and do not understand that they now need to apply for settled status. Women in particular can struggle to gain full settled status if, owing to caring responsibilities, they do not have an unbroken tax record.
A widespread concern among EU citizens, as we have heard this afternoon, is the lack of physical proof of their status, particularly with the example of Windrush before them. Having to provide an online document creates problems for those with poor digital access, and some landlords and employers are already excluding EU citizens from the opportunity to work or rent a home as they simply cannot be bothered with the hassle. Whether it is a lack of health and social care staff, farm workers, HGV drivers or academic researchers, the UK will be poorer without the EU citizens who no longer come to live and work here and contribute to our society. This is particularly an issue in Scotland because of our ageing demographics and the risk of rural depopulation. The UK Government’s dismissal of Scottish requirements simply highlights the need for Scotland to be able to set our own immigration policies, and Government Members who dismiss that simply ignore the fact that Ireland still has freedom of movement.
Freedom of movement was the biggest benefit of EU membership that we all gained as individuals, and it worked in both directions. We have had the right to live, love, work or study in any one of 31 countries, yet we have taken that away from the younger generation, while EU citizens here contribute to our public services, communities and economy, as well as being our family, friends and neighbours. So despite the Prime Minister’s original Brexit promises, I can tell you that many EU citizens do not feel secure in the UK, but rather feel unwelcome and unsettled.
I rise to celebrate the fact that almost 6 million EU citizens have chosen to remain here and indicated they wish to make this place their home. I appreciate it might be difficult for the SNP to comprehend why, when it is seeking to leave the United Kingdom, a number of EU citizens greater than the total population of Scotland have chosen to stay in the United Kingdom. I think that puts the scale of this into perspective: the number of people who have applied for settled status and been granted it is actually greater than the total population of Scotland.
I want to place on record my thanks to the Home Office, the ministerial team, former Ministers and all the staff who have made the scheme so simple, so easy to apply and so successful. Compared with other immigration schemes of the past, the EUSS is a breath of fresh air. It is so simple and straightforward that it can be done on a smartphone ,and, as we have heard, very many people have applied for it. The SNP do it a disservice by scaremongering, trying to present a picture of this scheme as difficult, uncertain, and something that applicants might have problems with. The reality is that for the vast majority of people, it is very easy and straightforward, and in some cases that I know of, they secure their settled status within hours of applying. We need to celebrate just how great this scheme has been.
By the end of last month, as has been said, almost 6 million people had applied for the EUSS. When we set up the scheme, we thought that only about 3.4 million people were likely to apply. That puts into perspective just how successful the scheme has been. Some have said that there are people who may be unaware that they need to apply for settled status, but my experience is that there are very few. The Government have done an incredible job working with local authorities and other bodies across the UK to get the message out, and the conversations I have had with EU citizens in Cornwall show that they have all been absolutely aware of the scheme and how to apply for it, so again I think the Home Office needs to be commended for the incredible work it has done.
Some are calling for the scheme to be extended. I fully appreciate that the SNP wants to continue free movement and see this as a way of doing so through the back door, but we promised in our manifesto that we would end free movement, and it is right that the scheme has a deadline and comes to an end. However, I welcome the pragmatic and proportionate approach that the Minister has taken to dealing with those who may have applied to the scheme late.
We should celebrate the EU settled status scheme as a great success. It has demonstrated that, far from the claims made by those who want to paint our country now that we have left the EU as a closed country—an unfriendly place, a place that does not welcome people—exactly the opposite is true: we welcome all those from the EU who have been here over the years and who wish to make their home here. The scheme has been a success, and it demonstrates the very best of our nation. We should celebrate that fact, so I say to the SNP that I know this debate is not really about the EU settled status scheme: it is about having another go at the Westminster Government and working to their own agenda. However, the reality is that the scheme has been successful, and we should welcome it and celebrate all those who have applied to stay here.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double). I would like to start by thanking the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) for his comprehensive and detailed explanation of the problems, obstacles, and failings of the settled status scheme system. I agree with him wholeheartedly about those drawbacks and failings, but as much as I am impressed by his explanation, I am astonished that he cannot recognise that he is also reciting a litany of the problems that Scotland and England would face if the SNP were to have its way over independence.
However, just as this is not another rerun of a debate on Brexit—the damage to our trade, the obstacles in the way of small businesses, and the problems that Brexit will create as we recover from it—nor should it be a debate about independence, because it is about something far more important than either of those things. It is about people: people who have come here, contributed, paid their taxes and raised their family here and regard this place as home, like so many of my constituents—almost 3,000, in fact.
One particular letter I received sums up this issue for me: “Dear Christine, I am a French citizen, having lived and worked in Scotland for more than 20 years. My husband is also French, and we have two children aged 12 and 9, both born in Scotland, and we have serious worries.” Their worries are about the future, about settled status, whether they will face another Windrush-type scandal, and how much it will cost them for their son, who was born here, to have British citizenship and a passport.
While I accept Ministers’ assurances about the extended deadline and that we will not face another Windrush, I do not believe that the Government have addressed the fact that so many people like my constituents no longer feel welcome in the country that they made home and to which they have contributed.
There is also, frankly, panic among many people who live and work here, who perhaps married British citizens and are now confused about exactly what their future will hold. I do not blame them. We know that applications are taking longer to process than was promised and that the process is not as straightforward as was originally suggested. People have to make separate applications for children. We have heard all these promises today, but what the Government promised, as with so many things, has not materialised. We are not treating people with respect. What about all those still waiting for the decisions?
Much as I agree with the Scottish National party that the loss of freedom of movement is regrettable and about the situation that EU citizens now find themselves in, I am afraid that I cannot support the motion today because of that last sentence about immigration. Immigration should not, I believe, be the responsibility of one part of the United Kingdom. Yes, there are fruit pickers in Scotland who need staff and the NHS is calling out for migrants to come here and work—on that point, I feel that a great number of migrants in this country deserve indefinite leave to remain as a thank you for the contribution that they have made during covid.
But the need is not restricted to Scotland. Fruit pickers are needed in Cornwall as much as in Scotland; NHS staff are needed in Essex as much as in Scotland. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) pointed out, if it took as long to set up an immigration system as it has a benefit system, we would wait a long time before we got the people we needed.
Although I sympathise with much of what the SNP has said today, I regret that yet again an issue has been used as an opportunity to promote independence—and not, I believe, the best interests of EU citizens in this country. They should not become another weapon in the independence battle.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine).
The decision to leave the EU was taken through a referendum. This was the will of the British people with all that entailed, including the loss of freedom of movement for EU citizens. It is difficult to understand the concerns that the Scottish National party is citing about the EU settlement scheme, given the efforts that the UK Government put in to ensuring that as many EU nationals as possible who are living in the UK had the support they needed to apply for settled status.
More than 1,500 Home Office staff were working on the EU settlement scheme. When it opened in March 2019, the Home Office estimated that between 3.5 million and 4.1 million EU nationals would apply for settled or pre-settled status. It is testament to the robust nature of the systems that the Government set up and the work put in by the Home Office team that over 6 million applications have been handled by the scheme. Most are turned around in five working days and over 5.1 million grants of status have been confirmed. The application figures are clear—they are a clear demonstration of the hard work that the Home Office, the DWP and other partners have put in to reaching out to EU nationals across the UK through many different channels, including employers, landlords, charities and public bodies.
In my constituency of Ynys Môn, with its close ties to Ireland and direct link to Dublin, the Home Office engaged with key local employers such as Stena to ensure that their EU staff understood the requirements and could access the systems that they needed. To support EU nationals wishing to apply over the past two years, the Government have committed significant support and guidance. The EU settlement resolution centre, set up for those needing general assistance, has handled more than 1.5 million callers and responded to more than half a million online contacts. There was the assisted digital service for those without the appropriate skills, confidence or experience to complete online applications. Some £22 million of grant funding was given to 72 organisations across the UK to reach and give support to more than 310,000 vulnerable citizens and their families, including victims of human trafficking or domestic abuse. For those whose applications were submitted before the deadline but are still being considered, their right to live in the UK will be extended until a decision is reached.
Recognising that there may be good reasons for some to have missed the deadline, the Home Office has a late application process, and that means that those who could not or who did not apply for good reason, such as being in a coercive or abusive relationship, or who lacked the physical or mental capacity to do so will still be able to apply. It is right that there has been a settled status process because, going forward, EU nationals will be subject to the same immigration processes as people from other countries. It is difficult to see what more this Government could have done to ensure that those who have a right to settled status have had the opportunity to apply.
Along with my hon. Friend the Minister, I fully recognise and appreciate the contribution that EU nationals make to our lives and our economy in the UK. Over the past 18 months, EU nationals working in hospitals such as Ysbyty Gwynedd and in other key worker and frontline positions have been a critical part of our fight against covid-19. I end by saying that the UK will continue to have close ties to our continental neighbours and we still, as we always have, will warmly welcome the individuals, the skills and the cultural diversity that our migrant population brings to us.
The Minister boasts that the EU settlement scheme has been “a huge success”, with more than 6 million applications received. Let me be clear from the outset: these are not 6 million applicants. They are 6 million individuals who are our family members, our neighbours, our friends and our colleagues and their loved ones. Shamefully, they have had to face needless anxiety and bureaucracy ever since the disastrous vote to leave the EU five years ago. Each one of these individuals has a story of how they came to live here, why this is now their home, and why they should not have been put through this unnecessary, traumatic process simply to maintain the rights that they have always had.
I was particularly taken aback by the story of one of my constituents, Irena Jendrycha. Irena is 77 years old and was born in a Nazi concentration camp in 1943. She was scheduled to be executed but was saved when the camp was liberated at the end of the war. Incinerators were being prepared for the extermination of all the camp’s inhabitants at 12 o’clock that day but Irena and her mother were thankfully saved just in time, 10 minutes away from death, a moment Irena describes as an act of God.
After the camp’s liberation, Irena and her mother were sent to a refugee camp in Italy where her mother met Irena’s stepfather, after he had been released from a Russian gulag at the end of the war. As a family, they were transported to the UK and, at the age of four, Irena settled in Scotland. She has spent her life here since then and, in fact, has never even left the UK after arriving all those decades ago.
I am telling this story because Irena is one of the many millions who has had to apply for the EU settlement scheme. She is one of the UK’s last holocaust survivors and told me that the application process made her relive every horror of her past. In her own words, she described it by saying that
“any goodness within me was sucked out of me like a syringe”.
This is morally reprehensible and should shame the Government, but it is the reality of this scheme and their hostile environment. It is the consequence of being dragged far right by the UK Independence party and the Brexit party and treating individuals who contribute so much as mere statistics or a migration target to reach. I am sure that Irena is not the only one who has been left feeling like an outcast with no sense of belonging as a result of having to go through the scheme’s process to remain in the place they call home. Simply put, this scheme clearly demonstrates that the Tories are living up to their reputation as the nasty party. Indeed, Irena made it clear that she was appalled by politicians who every year will pose for pictures, speak in debates and attend events remembering the holocaust, yet are willing to make people like her feel unwelcome due to this hostile regime.
Irena has one question for this Government:
“Why are you putting me through this? I have to re-live it, through every horror… I went through this at school and now I am going through it again.”
I have a question for the Minister: after hearing all this, how can he judge the scheme as what he calls a huge success? This is not a country that I want to live in. The Scottish Government have always said that EU nationals are welcome here. The contrast in the message from the SNP and that from Conservative Members is crystal clear.
Finally, Irena asked me to tell her story today, as she wants to be a voice for the many who suffer in silence. I am deeply humbled that I have been able to do that. I want to assure Irena and all our citizens who call Scotland their home that, despite the cruel, callous and shameful approach of this UK Government, Scotland is their home and they should feel thoroughly welcome. I and all my SNP colleagues will continue to defend their rights wherever they come from and whatever their story is.
It is a pleasure to follow those comments from the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), although I disagree with almost all of them.
The settled status scheme has shown us that more than 6 million people have taken advantage of the opportunities that the United Kingdom offers and moved to this country. The first point to make is that this shows how successful the scheme has been. We have already heard that it is by far the most generous scheme in Europe, simple to apply for from home with a good app, well-advertised and well-supported by agencies. The numbers show how well the scheme has been developed and applied by the Government. Now that the scheme deadline has passed, it has been suggested, not least by the previous speaker, that applicants for this settled status might be at risk of what is described as a hostile environment. Yet the Government guidance to civil servants on how to approach applications after the deadline has been published and it simply explodes that myth. Rather than being a hostile environment, civil servants have been instructed to give applicants the benefit of the doubt when discrepancies arise, and to show a proportionate response. If mistakes in an application have been made, they should be pointed out to the applicant who then should be given a reasonable amount of time to correct them and resubmit without criticism. Applications out of time will also be permitted indefinitely if there are reasonable grounds for the delay.
This is the opposite of a hostile environment. To my mind the Government have bent over backwards, and continue to do so, to facilitate applications. They have commissioned £8 million of advertising to raise awareness. A wide range of support has also been offered and made available online, over the telephone if it has been needed, as well as from 72 organisations across the United Kingdom funded by the Government to help in the application process, and it has worked as the huge take-up proves.
Looking at the statistics, there is a key number that jumps out: just 290,000 out of more than 6 million EU citizens have chosen to make Scotland their home. These are figures that have been unaffected by any constraints on immigration. It is an historical measurement, so it is a measurement of the relative attraction of Scotland under the SNP to immigrants. Rather than seeking devolution of immigration powers, as the motion demands, the SNP might want to reflect on why it is that so many of these welcomed immigrants who have voted with their feet to make a new life for themselves here in the United Kingdom have decided not to make that life in Scotland.
The SNP has been in continuous power in Scotland since 2007, so this is the SNP Scotland that has been judged by European Union immigrants. What does it say about the anti-business approach of the SNP with the resulting underperformance of the Scottish economy with the SNP in charge, creating fewer job opportunities and successful careers? We should not forget that between 2007, when the SNP took over, and 2019, the Scottish economy has grown by 9.3%. The UK as a whole over the same period has grown by 16.5%, and that is including the drag of the SNP’s Scottish economy. What does it say about the prospect of having to pay the SNP’s higher taxes as an entrepreneur in Scotland than in the rest of the United Kingdom? What does it say about the prospect of sending their children to the SNP schools that are going backwards in the international league tables when compared with the rest of the United Kingdom?
With the relentless focus on separation by the SNP, how welcoming is that message for immigrants, whether from the EU, the rest of the world, or the rest of the United Kingdom? Creating a border at Berwick is the last thing to encourage inward migration. This is another example of the SNP obsession with separation damaging the real interests of the country.
The EU settlement scheme should never have needed to be put in place, and it is a travesty that our European friends and neighbours who have been living lawfully in this country, in some cases for many decades, should be forced into a situation where they have to apply for, and prove, their basic rights. The hon. Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew), who I have the pleasure of following, hailed the scheme as a success, but he neglected to mention that the Government underestimated by 100% the number of EU citizens actually in the UK. Members of this Government promised that nothing would change—a promise that was quickly broken. The situation is now only worsening for the citizens to whom that promise was made and who are now arguably subject to a hostile environment. I noted the comments from the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie), who is no longer in her place, on the steps that the Home Office had taken, but it does not sound like a particularly warm welcome to require those in coercive relationships to detail such trauma to prove that they have the right to stay in this country.
I have been inundated with correspondence from constituents to do with the EU settlement scheme, and I find it hard to believe that Conservative Members have not also heard from their constituents about that. I have heard from constituents who are appalled by the scheme and the risk it poses to their European friends and neighbours, and from those who are struggling to apply to the scheme themselves. I wrote to the Home Secretary on their behalf last month to highlight the issues that they raised, and I know that other Members have raised some of those issues this afternoon.
Those issues included, first, glitches on the app preventing the applications from being made. The Home Office has proudly said that it will be a digital system that will benefit EU citizens, but if the app does not work now, it is hard to trust that the system will work later. Secondly, there was supposed to be easy access to paper forms for those who need them. There are lots of reasons for people to need a paper form even when the app is working properly, but they can often be accessed only by phoning the helpline and getting them sent out in the post. That is ridiculous for a system that is meant to be making the most of digital technology, and disastrous for those who needed to apply by the deadline but could not get through on the helpline.
A third issue was that people had been unable to reach an adviser on the EU settlement scheme resolution centre helpline. I have received letters from those in considerable distress, because they are trying to apply for the scheme but either need assistance or have called the helpline repeatedly throughout the day over multiple days and have never been able to get through.
Finally, I sought an assurance that those who were unable to apply through no fault of their own would not be subject to a hostile environment. Some weeks later, and past the deadline to apply, I have yet to receive a response. I therefore ask the Minister to provide an update in his closing remarks on when that will be forthcoming.
Here we are, one week past the deadline to apply, and I, like many Members, am still hearing about these problems. I have been working with the organisation Fife4europe, which works with EU citizens from across the kingdom of Fife, covering not just my constituency of North East Fife but those of Dunfermline and West Fife, Glenrothes, and Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath. In my most recent conversation with the organisation earlier today, I was told about a number of issues that people are continuing to have with the scheme. I heard stories of parents not knowing they needed to apply for a child; of people being unable to access passports due to the closure of embassies; of incomprehensible forms and legal terminology; and, again, of that inability to get through to the resolution centre. These are not case studies for a campaign; they are anecdotes about what is happening to friends and neighbours, and I have no doubt that there are those experiencing the same thing throughout my constituency and the country as a whole.
I have also heard a huge amount of fear and confusion over how to apply and what might happen if the deadline was missed. What if those people were unable to access and fully complete the written forms? What about those people who have been unable to get the appropriate evidence to support their application by the cut-off point? I have heard that many people have ultimately put in incomplete applications just to get a certificate of application and get more time to jump over the hurdles set for them by the Home Office. By the deadline last week, there was an estimated backlog of 400,000 cases, and it is now estimated to be up to 570,000, according to the latest statistics.
It is clear the Home Office’s inflexibility is just creating extra work for itself and adding to the anxiety of those left in limbo—and it is indeed limbo. The Home Office is providing a certificate of application, but that does nothing to demonstrate somebody’s long-term rights to potential landlords or employers. Landlords and employers are looking for candidates who will be around in six months’ time, and it would be understandable for them to prefer those candidates who can give that guarantee. I ask the Minister: what steps are being taken to deal with this backlog and when will the uncertainty be over for those hundreds of thousands of people?
What happens to those who were missed: those who did not know about the scheme despite the advertising, those who are not on the electoral roll or those who do not use the internet? The cut-off disproportionately impacts the vulnerable, those in social care, the old, the young, looked-after children and care leavers: those who need extra support but have now been made subject to the hostile environment. What support is there for them? What are this Government doing to ensure that those rights are upheld?
Even when somebody has managed to apply, we know that it is not plain sailing. We have been told time and time again that this is a digital status because that is easier, cheaper and safer, but it seems to be far from easy to make changes to that status—changes that are foreseeable over the course of a lifetime, such as getting new a passport with a new ID number, or getting married and changing one’s name. Can the Minister explain how something that we were told was so simple can be more cumbersome than getting a new passport?
Speaking of ID cards, this Government seem happy to produce some ID cards, so why do they continue to reject physical proof of status? We are happy to use vaccine passports. If the Government say that they can find the money to produce voter ID cards, does the Minister agree that providing EU citizens with a usable physical proof of status is not too much of an ask? Clearly, much more needs to be done.
I speak as the representative of the vibrant and diverse community in East Renfrewshire, whose population reflects a long tradition of migration into Scotland. The EU nationals in East Renfrewshire are our family, friends and neighbours. Many of them served on the frontline during the pandemic in our NHS, in our public services or in other essential roles.
The latest figures show that there have been more than 1,200 applications from East Renfrewshire alone, and that is before we get to those who missed out. How can they get absolute certainty over the right to live and remain, as they were promised by the Prime Minister? They need that or they face unemployment, homelessness and the refusal of benefits or healthcare. We should all be concerned about that, and we should be concerned to minimise the chances of people ending up in such distress through no fault of their own because the Tory Government are hellbent on pursuing their destructive race to the Brexit bottom—no matter our friends, neighbours, colleagues or Scotland’s vote.
People in East Renfrewshire voted 74% to remain in the EU, and yet here they are having to deal with these serious issues in large numbers when they did not ask to have their lives thrown into turmoil. A major issue is that the UK Government try to provide reassurance, but no one can believe a word that they say. Their response to legitimate concerns can be summarised as, “Trust us—there’s nothing to see here.” The reality that we have all seen played out has been somewhat different. Anyone who wants a masterclass on why we cannot rely on a word that the Government say only needs to watch the Prime Minister tell a Northern Irish businessman that there will be no customs declarations on goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, and then have a wee look at what the UK Government website says today.
The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary said after Brexit that there would be
“no change for EU citizens already lawfully resident in the UK”
and that they would
“automatically be granted indefinite leave to remain”.
There was no mention of a deadline to redeem that pledge. The concern is that unless guarantees are put in place now, the Tories might do what they did—indeed, what they continue to do—to the Windrush generation, tying applicants to the Windrush compensation scheme in a web of confusion, delay and further disrespect.
Last week, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) questioned the Prime Minister over an extension to the deadline, the Prime Minister brushed it off in his usual “Who cares about the details?” fashion. Within hours of that dismissive response, the system creaked to breaking point under more than 50,000 applications that were made as the deadline approached. The deadline was extended, but instead of giving a reasonable extension, the UK Government shifted it by just nine hours. If an extension were possible, why not show good faith and make it a reasonable one? After all, the processing of applications will continue for months. Instead, late applications might wait months to be processed, leaving people unable to start jobs, enter new tenancies, obtain driving licences or make new benefit claims.
Scotland needs our EU citizens. We need workers in industries such as transport, hospitality, food, health and many other sectors, but the hostile environment created by this Tory Government runs counter to the needs of our economy and our values as a welcoming, open nation. Scotland needs an immigration system that works for our society. It is clear that that will not be delivered while crucial policy areas such as migration, citizenship, asylum and refugee policy remain under Westminster’s control. That is why Scotland needs the full powers that will come only with independence.
I am happy to support the SNP in this motion; the Alba party endorses it. It seems to us to be a microcosm of a wider issue, which is the diverging of two societies and different positions that have understandably been taken by their Governments, reflecting, perhaps, the wider views of their people. South of the border, immigration is being seen as a danger, a threat and something that has to be clamped down on, whereas in Scotland immigration is seen as a necessity, an opportunity and something to be supported. That is now reflected in the political directions of the two Governments.
Immigration has been with Scotland since almost time immemorial. It is reflected in our place names. Argyll, after all, is the land of the eastern Gael; it is where people came to when they originally came from Ireland. Sutherland may be in the north as part of Scotland, but it is actually the south lands for those coming from Scandinavia or the north. That has continued as people have come from south of the border, Italy and Ireland, and now from India, China and Africa. But especially in recent years they have come from the European Union, particularly from central and eastern Europe. That has been a good thing. They have come here and made Scotland their home. It is only a few years back that one in 10 children born in Scotland had a Polish mother. They have made Scotland a better place, enhanced our communities and benefited our economy.
The flipside to immigration is emigration. That is also why immigration is required in Scotland, because as well as immigration forging our nation, emigration has scarred our nation. Sometimes it has come about through hardship, or indeed through brutality, as with the highland clearances. More often, people have left for opportunity or for love. Equally, though, many people have had to go because they lack opportunities due to the mismanagement of the economy, especially by British Governments in recent years. Those of us who grew up in Scotland in the 1970s and ’80s have seen our school classmates from the years before having to go south or abroad. That is why there is hardly a Scottish family who does not have a relative in Australia, Canada or some other place in the new world. That gives a different perspective. It is why we recognise that emigration is part of what happens while immigration is something that we should have and is of benefit to our society.
The EU settlement scheme is causing fear and alarm, as people have narrated today. It is causing disruption in our economy, including in agriculture, hospitality and the HGV sector. Even today, our Transport Secretary is having to announce changes when things would be much easier if we just had the available labour that was primarily coming from eastern European drivers. That is why the Scottish economy requires immigration. Our economy as well as our society is being damaged by this. Some of the proposed changes by the Government in extending the scheme are of course welcome. The situation can be ameliorated. Any decision to take a view that is much more supportive of those who, for whatever reason, fail to apply is to be welcomed, but it does not go far enough.
Scotland requires its own immigration policy. I will not go into the question of an immigration policy at independence, as that is for another day, but immigration can most certainly be dealt with in a devolved system. That has previously been talked about by the Tory Government, and its failure to be delivered is shameful and is damaging us. It is available, as the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) mentioned, in the Isle of Man. It also applies in south Australia, where there are distinct needs for different economic areas such as New South Wales or Victoria. It also applies in Quebec, as has been mentioned. I listened to the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) going on about how the policy was apparently opposed in some areas of Canada, but let us be quite clear that no federal Government in Canada has sought to remove the scheme whereby there is a distinct immigration policy for the province of Quebec. No mainstream political party in Quebec, as far as I am aware, is seeking to remove it or would seek to abandon it. That tells us that even Quebec Tories are more radical on immigration than Scottish Labour or the Scottish Liberal Democrats, who do not seem to want something that applies even in countries that operate with a federal or devolved structure. Scotland requires the same powers that are not only available in the Isle of Man but apply in Quebec and in Australia.
I support this motion not simply to stand up for those immigrants who have come here from the EU and who make our country a better place, but to make sure that our country can be the land that we know it can be. To do that, as throughout past centuries going back millennia, we require people to come here to make this their home, work here and make our society better. To achieve that, we require powers of immigration that can be dealt with without independence. But if the Tory Government will not give us that, then there is no alternative but to obtain independence to deliver the society that our people are entitled to live in.
Like other Northern Irish MPs, I have spent a lot of time in the Chamber, in Select Committee meetings and in the media talking about the free movement of goods and about people’s emotions and identity in the context of Northern Ireland. However, there has been much less discussion of the plight and the rights of EU nationals who have been living, working and contributing in our community. The free movement of sausages has demanded a lot more political time and energy than the lives and horizons of our neighbours, friends and colleagues.
We know that, following the referendum, uncertainty was created in the lives and careers of many EU nationals, and that chill set in long before the settlement scheme was announced. Employers were not sure whether a person would be around long enough to justify the investment in a training course. Would a landlord be allowed to sign a one-year lease with a particular tenant? Would it not just be less hassle and less admin to hire a local worker, even if they were less qualified? There has been a cloud over the future of EU citizens, and their horizons have been limited. Of course, the horizons of young people in this country have been limited too, with curbs put on where their life and their work may take them in the future.
Overnight on 30 June, many people previously living legally here and in Northern Ireland found themselves more vulnerable to the hostile environment. I proudly represent the most diverse constituency in Northern Ireland, and my team and I have been helping constituents navigate the new system. We have experienced at first hand their difficulties, knowing the culture of “no” that pervades in the Home Office—a presumption of guilt and unsuitability, and a disregard for people and the emotional consequences of living a life in limbo.
The immigration frameworks that the UK is introducing devolve the hostile environment to the community. Despite assurances that EU nationals and their family members would not be required to provide evidence of their status in order to access services, unlawful checks and discrimination are a reality. We know of cases where GP practices, landlords, employers and social security providers have requested share codes and additional documentation. Public servants, in all their fields, have become immigration officials, and a chilling inevitably follows that. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to clarify the legal viability and the legal rights of those citizens, and to reiterate that they are legal and welcome and valued here.
I have been told by the Home Office that there is no service standard, so there is no indication of how long people might wait for a decision on their case, and, as others have outlined, many struggle to access the helpline. As well as taking steps to rectify that, will the Minister address the widespread calls for a physical record or manifestation, so that people do not have to share screen- grabs, with all the data protection issues that that raises?
The overall Brexit immigration policy delivers a further blow to our society and economy. Northern Ireland traditionally has had net neutral immigration. To the extent that we have had anything approaching an immigration problem, it has been an issue of young people leaving our shores and not coming back. In fact, over the last decades, EU workers have helped us to address those problems. They have brought hard work and have brought diversity and vitality, as generations of people from the island I live in have done to other countries over many years.
EU migrant workers have staffed core economic activities, such as agrifood, manufacturing, tourism and hospitality, and certainly health and social care. In 2016, 7% of employees were EEA nationals, making Northern Ireland, outside London, the region with the highest level of labour migration from EEA countries. According to the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland, that number has fallen by 26% since the referendum. A quarter of those workers—our colleagues and our neighbours—upped sticks and left rather than deal with the hostility that was created by a campaign that framed them as the cause of all our problems.
Members will know that the pandemic has absolutely nailed the lie that wages are synonymous with the skill or value of a worker. An immigration framework should not use salary level as the primary determinant of a person’s ability to work in the UK, especially when the same Government do little to address chronic low pay. With lower wages than the UK average, the points-based threshold of £25,600 is particularly ill-suited to Northern Ireland. Fewer than a third of migrant workers are currently able to meet that threshold. I would love to believe that it will drive up wages for local workers or EEA workers, but I not believe that was in the hearts and minds of the system’s architects.
While the protocol’s measures against a hard land border for goods have mitigated some aspects of Brexit, the unfit-for-purpose immigration rule is an example of the creeping borderism that Brexit is bringing to the island of Ireland. A Spanish backpacker can no longer make their way along the Wild Atlantic way from Cork all the way up to Belfast by working in bars. An Estonian software engineer can no longer seamlessly transfer from the Dublin office to the Belfast office. Why would someone from the EU come to work in Derry when 10 minutes over the border in Donegal they can do so with no bureaucracy or paperwork? Why would a multinational company choose a location in Newry when there is less cost and less red tape a few miles down the road in Dundalk?
Northern Ireland’s only saving grace in the competition for foreign direct investment is that the protocol offers companies the unique and alternative proposition of access to both markets and it is ironic that—in addition to the hostility of these immigration frameworks—the Government seem determined to spaff that up against the wall. That is why the people of Northern Ireland have rejected this approach for the last five years.
Nobody who campaigned to leave the EU will have considered the human cost of Brexit and, despite many heartbreaking stories, the Tory Government still do not. EU citizens have been treated appallingly, and their hardship continues. Many find themselves in legal limbo and fear that their status will become unlawful. For those who moved to the UK—decades ago in some cases—and have lived, studied or worked here and have fallen in love or started a family here, this country has become their home, but the future is uncertain for all those who have not become British citizens.
For those with pre-settled status, the situation is even worse. The Government must show that they are serious about the rights of EU citizens and, at the very least, provide them with physical proof of status to prevent discrimination. Many EU citizens, including constituents in Bath, are struggling with the untried, untested digital-only status, and 89% have expressed unhappiness about a lack of physical proof. It is incomprehensible that the Government are still not listening to them.
EU citizens seem no longer to be of any interest to this Tory Government. It is hostile Britain par excellence. Each time an EU citizen returns to their adopted home, they cannot be certain that they will be allowed in. Such fears are not unfounded. Here is another example why digital-only proof does not work. Research from the Residential Landlords Association found that 20% of landlords were less likely to consider letting their property to an EU or EEA national. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants found that, in 115 mystery shopping inquiries, only three landlords explicitly said that they were willing to conduct an online check; 85% did not even respond. People are required to prove their immigration status throughout their lives. They could be seeking a new job, finding a place to live, opening a bank account, getting treatment at a hospital or returning home from a holiday abroad. The big promises about a simple proof of the right to be here have been shamelessly broken. The EU has mandated all member states to issue British citizens a uniform physical residence document; the UK must reciprocate.
As a European migrant, I feel the pain and sadness of all such EU citizens that Britain—a country that we once admired and chose as our home—has turned into a country of small-minded insularity. I ask the Government once more to show more sense and compassion towards EU citizens. Economies and societies are about people. For decades, the UK has welcomed and nurtured those who came. The country was a good example of an open, tolerant society and has seen the benefits of being modern and diverse. The pendulum is swinging the other way, not by accident but by political design. Britain continues to be geographically, historically and economically part of the European world. Europe is a continent with few barriers between countries, where academic, business and private life is shared across non-existent borders. The UK is no longer part of this open Europe. Those with choices, those with skills and qualifications, the best and especially the young—those the Government want to attract—have already moved or will move and not return. This is the tragedy of my adopted country.
Five years after the Brexit poll and the initiation of the article 50 process, we are still discussing the fate of millions of EU nationals across the UK, including many of my constituents. The persisting uncertainty in the lives of many EU nationals across the UK is causing distress and worry.
I welcome the fact that more than 6 million applications have already been processed, and it is reassuring that the Minister has confirmed that none of the cases currently being processed will be subject to immigration enforcement, and that the EU nationals concerned will have their rights legally protected.
However, there remain many questions on the rights of those who missed the deadline, which could have disastrous consequences for vulnerable EU nationals in the UK, such as those fleeing domestic abuse. If the deadline for settled status is missed and a late application is made, their ability to access benefits and homelessness assistance will be halted until they receive a successful grant of status. That risk is not a hypothetical scenario but a reality.
According to Refuge, the domestic abuse charity, reports from its frontline services indicate that many domestic abuse survivors who come from EU countries remain unaware that they need to make an application to the scheme, and that a separate application needs to be made on behalf of their dependants. Migrant survivors of domestic abuse who face forms of precarity will be comforted to know that the Home Office pays attention to that when considering their status.
EU nationals who experience domestic abuse have often found it difficult to provide the necessary documentation for their application, with many reporting that the documentation has been destroyed by an abusive partner. Indeed, Refuge even reports that some of its clients have been told by their abusers that, due to Brexit, they can no longer contact the police or the health services, risking deportation if they take such steps.
Although it is reassuring that the Home Office has agreed to accept late applications in cases where an individual has reasonable grounds, and that experience of domestic abuse will be considered to be such reasonable grounds, it would be helpful if the Minister would detail whether and how the Home Office will ensure flexibility in what can be considered to be acceptable evidence for a late application on those grounds.
It is also noteworthy that guidance for late applicants to the settlement scheme considers serious medical conditions or significant medical treatment that prevents someone from being able to complete an application to be a reasonable ground. This is, of course, welcome, but it would be useful to know whether it extends to mental health issues. Where someone with depression is unable to perform day-to-day tasks, would that fall within the scope of the clause?
For many years now, EU nationals have been subjected to a state of permanent limbo, anxiety and uncertainty about their future, and I hope the Minister will consider these modest steps to help our EU national friends and neighbours remain here, where they belong.
I do not welcome this debate, as it should not have been necessary. That said, there have been some very interesting contributions. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) for being all over this subject, as he always is. I also thank the3million for its ongoing support and campaigning for all those who are still worried.
My office is always busy with casework, but in recent months it has been snowed under with people who have real difficulties with the EU settlement scheme. They have gone above and beyond the call of duty, working all sorts of hours, so I put on record my thanks to them.
I do not think I have any new questions, because I have asked them all before—I have just had difficulty getting an answer other than, “It’ll be all right on the night.” I do want to ask about late applications. I know that the Minister is always happy to give the example he gave today of the five-year-old child in care who in 13 years’ time discovers that their status was never resolved, and to say that that is of course a good reason for a late application. That is great, but I would really like to hear other examples because—he will forgive me for saying so—that is quite an obvious one. Who would not overlook a late application in that instance?
We on the SNP Benches would feel more comforted if the Minister elaborated on who else could make a late application and in what circumstances. He said something today about people who do not have the mental capacity to apply, and the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) talked about people in coercive relationships, but could we get a bit of detail? Are we are talking about people in domestic abuse situations? Anyone who has been trafficked or bereaved or who is homeless? Anyone experiencing mental or physical ill health or an addiction? And can we talk about what is likely to happen in the immediate future, rather than 13 years hence? It is not likely that anyone around today will be still around then to be held accountable—I do not mean they will not be alive, just that they will not be here to be questioned.
I am going to hazard a guess that the Government are not that bothered about the toll this is taking on individuals—it is not all guesswork, because I have a fair bit of evidence about how we treat all categories of migrants. But if the Government do not care about the people involved, they surely must care about the economy. Scottish Government analysis shows a decline in the number of EU nationals working in Scotland, and that is hitting industries such as agriculture and hospitality hard. As others have said, that is happening not just in Scotland but across the UK. I know that this Government do not listen to the Scottish Government, so will they listen to the National Farmers Union, whose figures show that last year only 11% of seasonal workers were UK residents? That was despite the big Pick for Britain campaign. Farmers need workers but are struggling to get them. How would the Minister do his job if he could not get support staff?
Will the Government listen to the owner of Wetherspoons, Tim Martin? I never expected to refer to him to make any point in this place but, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) said, even the arch Brexiteer himself is now lamenting the fact that he cannot get the staff he needs and is calling for a special dispensation for his industry. If he of all people is saying that, we know what a terrible impact Brexit must be having in terms of people leaving, and the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) spoke about why. If on top of that we have EU nationals who are living here and entitled and willing to work, but who are unable to prove it quickly or easily and are therefore unable to work, what does that do to the availability of labour and to the economy?
I will not repeat the arguments about how important the requirement for physical evidence is, because my colleagues have covered that. All I will say is that there is absolutely no reason to require it. If the Government can do it to prove that people have been vaccinated, they can do it for EU citizens, if they want to.
So we have lengthy delays; people who missed the deadline; no physical evidence of the right to remain; online systems that are unable to cope; employers scared to employ; and people feeling unwanted and heading off. Many of my colleagues have today echoed the calls of Jenny Gilruth, the Scottish Government Minister for Europe, for the deadline to be extended, but that is not our preference. As has been said, our preference is for a declaratory system and for the settlement scheme to be scrapped. We are not asking the Government to do something fanciful: 14 countries in Europe—including Spain, Germany, Portugal and Italy—automatically granted residency status to UK nationals living in those countries. That is the thing we promised but did not do. The immigrants we sent to those EU countries were treated an awful lot better than we are treating people from those countries. But then, our people are never immigrants, are they? They are expats and we expect them to be treated with respect. I agree, but respect cuts both ways, and making people jump through hoops is not respectful.
There is no doubt about it: this is a sore one for those of us in the SNP. Nothing—I mean nothing—throws light on exactly what is wrong with this Union more than the Brexit vote. It is a tale of two countries with completely diverging views on migration, or at least on inward migration. The latter, Scotland, votes 62% to stay in Europe, but because the former is bigger, it gets the final say, and my country is dragged out of the EU completely against its will. Now, my country is supposed to stand by and watch while this Government break the promises of the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister who, as we have heard, signed the pledge that said that
“EU citizens will automatically be granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK”.
That pledge was a lie, because the two people who signed it are the very two who could have made it happen, and still could. It does not matter what the Minister says—that cannot be denied. The people of Scotland did not fall for that lie. We voted against it, but still we are expected to stand by and watch our family, friends, neighbours and colleagues go through hell, waiting months, and not knowing whether they can stay or not. We will not stand by much longer.
We will not be party to treating people that way. We will not put up with watching whole sectors of Scotland’s economy fail because they cannot get the workers that they need, because those workers cannot prove their right to be here, because we are not allowed to invite them to our country or because they just do not want to be somewhere they do not feel welcome any more. None of that is in our name, and if Government Members mean what they have been saying throughout the debate— I am tired of hearing it—they should lobby the Prime Minister. They should tell him to make up for the democratic deficit that is Brexit and do the only democratic thing that he can do when it comes to Scotland: give us our section 30 order so that we can have a referendum on independence.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) said that the debate should be about people. Independence is about people, and I am in no doubt that the people of Scotland will tell this place that none of this—not Brexit, the EU settlement scheme or the hostile environment—is in our name. They will know that the only way to be able to create the kind of country that reflects who we are is to take control of our own affairs by voting yes to independence.
It is a pleasure to respond to this important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) on securing it. Before I pick up on some of the points that have been raised, I send my best wishes to my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire). I hope he makes a full recovery from his condition. I also express my concern about what my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams) told the House about the attack on his constituency office, which is not something that any of us should have to endure.
I absolutely agree that language is important in this debate, and I agree with the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine), who reminded us that this is about people. Some sensible questions have been posed, and I will endeavour over the next seven minutes or so to respond to as many as I can—apologies if I am unable to reference everyone—and to do so in the spirit in which they have been raised.
I agree with the point that many hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Guildford (Angela Richardson) and for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), made—that we welcome and cherish the contributions that our friends, neighbours, colleagues and partners from other EU countries have made to our constituencies and to the country as a whole.
I also put on the record that I could not disagree more with the point that the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) made—that Scotland’s and England’s views on immigration are somehow divergent. I absolutely refute that. I represent a very diverse constituency, with constituents from all parts of the world. To declare an interest, my partner is a Malaysian national, so I have every good reason to cherish immigrants to this country and the contribution that they make. I will not have this painting of Britain outside the EU as some insular place, hostile to immigration. I reference our bold and generous offer to British nationals in Hong Kong as evidence of our approach.
Contrary to what the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) said—I hope I picked her up correctly—I want to emphasise that Home Office caseworkers’ priority is to look for reasons to grant status, not to find reasons not to, and refusals are a last resort. Where someone has not provided the necessary evidence, Home Office caseworkers will contact them to help them to provide the evidence required, and will exercise discretion in their favour, where appropriate, to minimise administrative burdens.
I assure the House that all options will be exhausted before refusing someone’s application. Those who have been refused but are now able to provide evidence to confirm their eligibility can simply apply to the scheme again, free of charge, and there is a range of support available online, and by email and telephone, for those who have questions or need help in applying. At this point, I wish to acknowledge the hard work that civil servants and employers have done to help applicants gain their status—a point powerfully made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie)—and I thank them for that. It is also important to reinforce the message, which several Members raised during the debate, that those who applied before the deadline but have not yet had their response have their rights enshrined in law until the decision is made. We need to send that important message out from the House tonight.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) raised an important point about the support available to vulnerable and hard-to-reach groups, including adults and children in care settings. The Home Office has awarded £21.5 million to 72 organisations across the UK to provide face-to-face appointments and support online, over the telephone or by email to help vulnerable people apply. That work continues to be funded, and we are continuing to reach out to those vulnerable groups to make sure we capture everyone we can. Further assistance is available from the Home Office’s settlement resolution centre, which is open seven days a week for telephone and email inquiries.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin), in replying to the debate, asked a perfectly fair question about other examples of what might be deemed a “reasonable ground” for a late application. I am happy to tell her that the Home Office has published a non-exhaustive list of 17 pages on its website, giving those reasons, with one being where someone is a victim of modern slavery or is in abusive relationship. If she needs more information on that, I am sure my colleagues in the Home Office would be happy to supply that to her.
A number of hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, who moved the motion, and the hon. Members for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) and for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), raised the need for EU citizens to apply for status in the first instance. The Government’s view is that the constitution of the system, in the form of the settlement scheme, is the best way to deliver our commitment to European economic areas citizens who have made the UK their home—in fact, it is the best way to prevent another Windrush-type situation from happening. It provides citizens and their family members with clarity about what they need to apply for and by when, and about the secure evidence of their status that they need. It is also ensures that service providers such as employers and landlords have a way of confirming who has what status. On the other hand, a declaratory system could lead to a situation such as Windrush where EU nationals do not have sufficient evidence to prove their status and entitlements in the UK.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not give way, as I have two minutes left before the conclusion of the debate. As I was saying, that system could also result in third parties making incorrect or inconsistent decisions on someone’s status—we do not want to allow that to happen.
Finally, let me touch on the issue of physical documentation. We do consider digital evidence of immigration status to be secure, and it can be accessed anywhere and in real time. It cannot be lost, stolen or tampered with as a physical document can. It does put individuals in control of their own data; they have direct access to information held by the Home Office about their status. In line with the principles of data minimisation, we will also be able to share only the information required by a checker, rather than all the information held on a physical card.
The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) raised points about what happens where someone does not have the digital passport as they arrive in the UK. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) tells me that that is not required, and the presentation of their passport will be sufficient to give all the information they need to.
In the last few seconds of this debate, let me say that we have made it clear throughout that we want those who are eligible for the EU settlement scheme to stay, and we welcome the fact that so many of them want to do so. They have made an enormous contribution to this country and will continue to do so.
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.