Lord Polak contributions to the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Act 2020

Wed 21st October 2020 Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill (Lords Chamber)
Ping Pong (Hansard): House of Lords
3 interactions (263 words)
Mon 5th October 2020 Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill (Lords Chamber)
Report: 2nd sitting (Hansard - continued): House of Lords
3 interactions (352 words)
Mon 14th September 2020 Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill (Lords Chamber)
Committee: 3rd sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
3 interactions (242 words)

Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill Debate

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Department: Home Office

Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill

(Ping Pong (Hansard): House of Lords)
Lord Polak Excerpts
Wednesday 21st October 2020

(4 months, 1 week ago)

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Lord Duncan of Springbank Portrait The Deputy Speaker (Lord Duncan of Springbank) (Con)
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Five Members have indicated that they wish to speak at this point: the noble Lord, Lord Polak, the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Neville-Rolfe and Lady McIntosh of Pickering. I call the first of those speakers, the noble Lord, Lord Polak.

Lord Polak Portrait Lord Polak (Con)
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My Lords, I have no intention of delaying the House as I have made my views on this pretty clear. The noble Lord, Lord Oates, has been very clear and precise. I believe that the Government are sticking their heels in for no good reason.

I should make it known that this morning there was a power outage at the police national computer centre in Hendon—run, of course, by the Home Office. As a result, police forces across the country were not able to access the police national computer. I do not need to explain to noble Lords that power outages of this sort have a serious effect on police operations. Following the technical issue that affected our voting on 30 September and this issue today, surely those EU citizens who request physical proof should be able to receive it like any other citizen.

The noble Lord, Lord Oates, tabled the amendment in lieu to deal with the cost element that the Minister brought up on Report. I agree with him, because non-EEA citizens now receive physical proof, so I really fail to understand what the up-front costs that the Minister referred to are. It is an existing scheme. EU citizens deserve to be treated equally and the amendment deserves to be accepted. This is a matter not of policy, but of process. Non-EU citizens can obtain physical proof of settled status, so EU citizens will be the only group without that physical proof. I fail to understand why the Government are unable to accept the compromise amendment that now deals with the financial question.

Baroness Ludford Portrait Baroness Ludford (LD)
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My Lords, I am pleased to follow my noble friend Lord Oates’s excellent speech, and that of the noble Lord, Lord Polak, with whom I worked on the EU Justice Sub-Committee. The Minister referred to people being able to use their smartphones for this purpose. A friend of mine could not open the link in the email she received confirming her settled status. She had to go to an internet café to do so. I am not quite sure what went wrong there.

I will refer to a report published yesterday by the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union in the other place called Implementing the Withdrawal Agreement: Citizens’ Rights. I do not know whether the Minister has had a chance to look at it, but it backs the amendment so that EU citizens should have

“the option of … a physical document to evidence their residency status … in addition to their digital status.”

I am very pleased indeed that it has given that support. It refers to a number of reasons why this should be accepted. It talks about

“examples of people getting assistance from unregulated immigration advisers to make their application, then the third party retain the log-in details necessary to access the platform”

and make a

“charge to send on details to employers.”

I hope that is something the Home Office might look into.

The committee also talks about how, because the online product

“remains linked to the physical document, such as a passport, used by the individual in their application … If the passport is changed, then the applicant has to update the online system.”

That is an issue that will recur. The committee also says that

“accessing the online profile is not straightforward for people not fluent in IT”—

something we have discussed a lot on this subject—so they

“end up relying on the pdf document they receive informing them that a status has been granted”.

The Minister referred to that being put in the desk drawer. It is, of course,

“not a substitute for actual evidence of status”,

but unfortunately it might be used by some people who are confused by the online environment, which is a recipe for some difficulty.

Then, of course, the person asking the EU citizen to demonstrate their status has to understand it. The Minister referred to support for the holders of settled status. I am not sure whether she plans to give lots of tuition to prospective landlords, employers and so on. She talked about the NHS. It was not quite clear what that system will be. The Public Law Project has listed nine steps that a third party such as an employer would have to take to check the status of an EU citizen. It is worth quickly mentioning them:

“Request the code from the applicant … Wait for an email with a link to arrive … Open and read the email … Search, identify, and open the correct website”,

because apparently there is no link in the email,

“Start the checking process … Enter the share code from the email … Enter the applicant’s date of birth … Enter their company name”—

I am not sure what happens for an individual landlord—and, lastly,

“Check that the photo on their screen looks like the person applying for the job and keep a secure copy of the online check, either electronically or in hard copy.”

All this requires reliable access to the internet. If you do not have access to wi-fi, which you might not in an empty flat that you are showing it to a prospective tenant, a person would have to rely on mobile signal, which is honestly not great, even in London.

Also, the committee’s report says that apparently

“the lack of a physical document has contributed to the confusion over eligibility for benefits, because claimants have been unable to show a photo ID card showing their status … it was unclear how some decisions have been made by the DWP in terms of using settled status as a proof of eligibility.”

It is quite a serious point that even the DWP does not seem to have got this right.

The report says that

“the option of a physical card would give an additional layer of safety against criminal attempts to ‘hijack’ someone’s status.”

We are being warned all the time about cybersecurity, and the dangers of malware, hacking and so on. The report says that, in a recent survey of 3,000 EU citizens, apparently more than 10% had been asked

“to provide proof of settled status, and that the digital only status was deterring some from applying.”

It was actually putting them off. The report continues,

“physical proof came right at the top of concerns of EU citizens: 89% said that they would like an option, not compulsory, of physical proof.”

Having gone through all that evidence, it is hardly any wonder that the committee in the other place backed this sincere, reasoned request for EU citizens to have the option of a physical document. I know the noble Baroness cares about people and people’s lives, but it really seems the Government ought to find a way to accede to this request.

Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill Debate

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Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill

(Report: 2nd sitting (Hansard - continued): House of Lords)
Lord Polak Excerpts
Monday 5th October 2020

(4 months, 4 weeks ago)

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Lord Oates Portrait Lord Oates (LD)
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My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 18 in my name and that of the noble Lords, Lord Polak, Lord Kerslake and Lord McNicol of West Kilbride. In doing so, I give notice of my intention to test the opinion of the House unless the Government are willing to move on this issue. I also thank all noble Lords who are speaking in the debate and all those who have spoken in previous debates over the years; they have shown consistent support on this issue.

It seems that we have been over this ground on numerous occasions over the past few years. In that time, the Government have failed to put forward any convincing arguments to deny EEA nationals, alone among all of the people residing in the United Kingdom, physical proof of their right to do so. This amendment would right that wrong and in doing so it would alleviate anxiety for millions of people, in particular the elderly and the most vulnerable.

The amendment has no partisan or ideological flavour and it is backed by Peers from all sides of the House, from all parties and from none. It is simply a practical measure to make life easier for a large number of people and to deliver a consistent system of proof of residents’ rights which does not discriminate between nationalities. It is deliberately modest in its ambitions. It does not require that physical proof is issued to every EEA national who is granted settled status, only that EEA nationals must be provided with physical proof of their status if they request it.

The Government’s arguments against this very modest proposal seem to be as follows. The first is that offering both digital and physical proof of status would be confusing. That argument is hard to understand because this is exactly the system that operates for all other permanent residents in our country. Far from avoiding confusion, a digital-only system will sow it in abundance. Landlords, employers and others required to check immigration status will now be confronted by two systems, one for EEA nationals and one for non-EEA nationals. They may wonder at this discrimination between nationalities and, given that they face crippling fines and the possibility of imprisonment if they get things wrong, they may decide that in the absence of physical proof, it is safer to replicate the Government’s discrimination and not to employ, rent a property to or provide a service to an EEA national.

Secondly, the Government claim that a digital proof is better than a physical proof because a digital proof cannot be lost. The answer to this is simple. We are not suggesting the removal of digital proof or digital records; we are simply arguing that physical proof should complement digital status. None the less, it is worth questioning the Government’s repeated claims in Committee about the resilience and robustness of the digital system. These arguments come to us in a month in which the Tokyo stock exchange lost a full day of trading due to a technological failure not only of its main system but also of its back-up, the Conservative Party virtual conference was rendered inaccessible to many of its delegates, denying them what is doubtless, for Conservatives at least, the unrivalled pleasure of a speech by Michael Gove, and of course the failure of our own House of Lords voting system when we were discussing this very Bill on Wednesday last and the failure of our hybrid proceedings this afternoon.

Let us be clear: systems failures are not a matter for the history books but happen every day. Technical faults occurred on the EU settled status scheme website in August this year, a nationwide failure of the US Customs and Border Protection system happened in August last year, and we all know of the scandalous injustice visited on sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses as a result of the supposedly infallible Horizon IT system. In each case, those responsible made extravagant and categorical claims about the robustness and resilience of their system.

Even temporary failures may give rise to permanent effects. If an employer or a landlord is unable to access the system at the point they have to decide between potential employees or tenants, the likelihood is they will give the job or rent the home to someone who can provide physical proof of their right to work or rent accommodation.

Thirdly, the Government argue that they intend to move to a wholly digital system in future and that it therefore makes sense for this new settled status scheme to adopt a digital-only model from the outset. It makes no sense at all. If a digital-only system is to be adopted, it should be extensively trialled in advance with widespread pilot schemes conducted with citizens who are confident in their status and who have the security of physical documentation as well. Australia, one of the few countries to have moved to a digital-only system, trialled it over a period of more than a decade.

As I said in Committee, we should not conduct an experiment with the lives of millions of people who are in receipt of an entirely new status, whose rights are not even underpinned in primary legislation and who are understandably nervous about their status, given the Government’s declared intention to violate the very treaty on which that status is based. We should especially not conduct an experiment with the lives of millions of people when the one trial the Government have undertaken, which involved non-EU citizens who had the back-up of a physical residence card, found the following:

“There is a clearly identified user need for the physical card at present, and without strong evidence that this need can be mitigated for vulnerable, low-digital skill users, it should be retained.”

I asked the Minister in Committee to explain to the House what has changed since the Government made that assessment in 2018. She either could not or would not answer that question. Neither could she tell us when the policy equality statement related to this policy, which the Government have confirmed exists, will be published. It is unacceptable that we are being asked to decide on legislation that will affect millions of lives when the Government are withholding from us such vital information, so I ask the Minister to address these issues in her response.

On every occasion we have discussed this matter, I have asked the Minister and other members of the Government, just as my noble friend Lady Hamwee did on an earlier amendment this afternoon, to try to walk in the shoes of others and to understand the huge anxiety which the Government’s refusal to listen and make this minor change is causing to EEA nationals, particularly to the elderly, vulnerable and those who lack IT literacy. At the end of the day, this argument is not about technology, documents or computer systems—it is about people’s lives, whether EEA nationals can feel secure in the status on which their whole lives are based, and whether the elderly and vulnerable can operate the system without dependency on others. It is about whether victims of domestic abuse will face further misery as an abusive partner exercises control over their lives through control of the email address on which their status is based, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, raised in Committee. It is about whether those seeking employment, accommodation or access to services will be discriminated against by employers, landlords or service providers who are confused that EEA nationals alone cannot produce physical documentation.

The case for this modest amendment is overwhelming. The practical arguments demand it, the principle of non-discrimination requires it, and the most basic level of consideration for the EEA nationals who have made their home with us compels it. I beg to move.

Lord Polak Portrait Lord Polak (Con)
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I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Oates, for his tenacity. We sat together on the Justice Committee some years ago, discussing these exact issues. As I stated at Second Reading, I am pleased to add my name to the amendment. I also thank my noble friends Lord Parkinson and the Minister for the time they gave me last week.

Like other noble Lords, I have received many messages from individuals supporting the amendment, from people whom I have never met to a number of colleagues from all sides of the Chamber—and I am grateful for that. As I have stated, the amendment is not political in nature but practical and sensible, and it should not prove onerous, as it mandates the Government to provide physical proof only if requested by an individual. Rather than giving my own opinion, I quote from a letter that I received from Maria:

“I am an EU national who has been based in the UK for over 26 years. As of 1 July 2021, I will be faced with proving my right to live and work here on a continual basis, hindered by the fact that I have no physical document with which to do so. Instead, for every different employer I work for, I will need to go through a lengthy, contorted, multi-step process involving my passport, my birth date, a unique one-off code sent to my phone, the employer’s email address, their business details and us both accessing the government website separately. I also must count on having all the necessary correct information to hand, the wi-fi connection being strong enough, the website not being down and there being no access errors with the database. In addition, I must hope that the other party is willing enough to go through the entire complex and time-consuming process with me. This is also the process I will need to go through to access the NHS, to rent a flat or, indeed, convince a sceptical airline employee abroad that I have the right to return to the UK without a visa in my passport or a physical document.”

As the noble Lord, Lord Oates, said, look what happened last Wednesday in our own House—a technology issue affected our voting and the House was adjourned. You could not make it up: this amendment was delayed by a technology failure. Yes, it can and does happen. I imagined the scene of Maria trying to board the plane and explaining that she has the right to come back to the UK while the website was down.

Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill Debate

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Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill

(Committee: 3rd sitting (Hansard): House of Lords)
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Monday 14th September 2020

(5 months, 2 weeks ago)

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Lord Oates Portrait Lord Oates (LD)
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My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 49, to which the noble Lords, Lord Polak, Lord Kerslake and Lord McNicol of West Kilbride, have added their name. The noble Lords, Lord McNicol and Lord Kerslake, have asked me to pass on their apologies for not being able to participate in the debate—the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, cannot do so for obvious reasons—and to make my remarks on their behalf also.

I pay tribute to the3million for its tireless advocacy on behalf of EU citizens in the UK, as well as to British in Europe and the other country-specific groups that represent UK citizens in the EU and work so hard on their behalf.

The amendment’s importance is underlined by the fact that it not only commands cross-party support but is backed both by people, like me, who passionately wanted us to remain in the European Union and by those who, like the noble Lord, Lord Polak, were equal in their passion to leave. This amendment is not about refighting the battles of Brexit. It is simply about ensuring that EU citizens feel secure in their new status and do not face discrimination in the provision of services or the right to employment. It might even be described—properly, on this occasion—as specific and limited in its nature.

The amendment would require the Government to provide physical proof confirming settled or pre-settled status to all EEA and Swiss nationals and their families who have been granted such status and who request it. It would also require that the document be provided free of charge. The only way in which it appears to diverge from Amendment 51 in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Kennedy of Southwark, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, is that physical documents would be provided on request rather than automatically, so that those who did not feel the need for a physical residence card would not get one but those who did would be guaranteed one.

If the Government are correct that the system of verification and cloud-based proof of status will prove simple to use and will run smoothly, there may be little demand for such documents. But if, as I suspect, those granted settled status find that the digital system does not work effectively or is not understood by the service providers they must interact with—or if they simply want the physical surety that I would certainly desire were I permanently resident in another country—it will be available to them as it should be.

The arguments for the Government’s position are a little hard to follow but they seem principally to be these: first, that it would be confusing to people to have a digital system as well as a physical proof of status; secondly, that a digital proof is better than a physical proof because a digital proof cannot be lost; thirdly, that the Government intend to move to a wholly digital system in future and that it therefore makes sense for this new settled status scheme to adopt a wholly digital model from the outset.

On the first point, it is not clear why the Government think that having both physical proof and digital proof would be confusing, as this is exactly the system that exists for non-EEA citizens. They can access a digital proof of status and have a physical document. Landlords, employers and others who are expected to check for immigration status already operate under this system.

Within the settled status scheme itself, there are two different categories. Astonishingly, non-EEA nationals who are family members of EEA nationals—and who therefore acquire settled status through their family relationship—have the right to a physical document, while the EEA family member through whom they gain their status does not. Can the Minister explain to the House the logic behind this very curious arrangement and how it can possibly be said to provide clarity to anyone?

Secondly, when we discussed these matters, the Minister argued that digital proof is better than physical proof because it cannot be lost. I will be very clear to the Government and the Minister that this amendment would ensure that a physical document complements digital proof and would not replace it.

Thirdly, the Government have argued that it makes sense to adopt a digital model as this is the direction of travel of the Government as a whole. However, if a wholly digital system is to be introduced, it should be extensively piloted first with British citizens who are secure in their immigration status. We should not conduct an experiment with the lives of millions of people who are in receipt of an entirely new status, whose rights are not even underpinned in primary legislation and who are, understandably, extremely nervous about the situation in which they find themselves. It is, quite simply, wrong, especially when we already know the problems it will lead to. In 2018, the Government trialled their digital right-to-work scheme with non-EU citizens who have the backup of a physical residence card. Their own internal assessment stated the following:

“There is a clearly identified user need for the physical card at present, and without strong evidence that this need can be mitigated for vulnerable, low-digital skill users, it should be retained.”

In her response, can the Minister explain to the House what has changed since the Government made that assessment?

I hope that, during this evening’s debate, the Minister will be able to put her brief aside and try to walk in the shoes of the people who will be subject to this new system. I hope she will consider the anxiety and distress that they will be caused by the fact that, of the 70 million people living in Britain, they alone will be refused physical proof of their right to do so. I hope she will consider the fact that this anxiety and distress will be particularly acute among the elderly, the vulnerable and those lacking digital literacy.

I have tried to imagine what it would be like if I had an elderly relative who was an EU citizen and I had to explain to them that the whole proof of their continuing right to live in the UK existed only somewhere in the cloud, dependent on the resilience of government IT systems, the integrity of the data within them and the vagaries of an internet connection. I can imagine the distress and disbelief with which that relative would receive this information, and I wonder how I would explain to them why the Government were unwilling to do a simple thing and provide them with the reassurance of a physical document: something they could hold in their hand and show, themselves, to whoever in authority required it. This is something that will be provided to all UK citizens resident in the EU. I do not know whether the Minister or any of her colleagues in government have really thought about how those conversations will go and the distress that will be caused. However, if they have not, I hope they will now think about it and the position they have taken.

We still await the policy equality statement on the settlement scheme, which was originally promised in the spring. On July 28 this year, the Minister for Future Borders and Immigration, Kevin Foster, stated that it would be published shortly. Can the Minister confirm that the equality statement exists, that it will be published and when it will be published? Does she recognise that the failure to provide such information before we debate legislation makes it very hard to make parliamentary accountability effective?

While the most vulnerable will inevitably suffer the most, all those with settled status are likely to be impacted by the absence of physical documents. Briefing from the3million group provides illustrative examples of the problems that people will encounter under the new system, which could have a severe impact on their ability to work, rent a property or access medical and other services. They are instructive illustrations and I hope the Government will look at them—and the issues they give rise to—carefully.

As the briefing tells us, research conducted by the Residential Landlords Association found that 20% of landlords are less likely to consider renting to EU or EEA nationals as a consequence of their lack of physical documentation. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants conducted 150 mystery shopping enquiries and found that 85% of prospective tenants who asked landlords to conduct an online check received no response at all. Of those landlords who did reply, only three said explicitly they would carry out such checks.

The situation is little better when it comes to employment. A poll of 500 employers conducted on behalf of the3million found that only 36% of employers knew that an online verification system would be applicable to EU citizens after the end of the grace period. This fell to just 17% among small businesses with a turnover of under £500,000, which means that four out of five such employers are not aware how right-to-work checks will operate under the new system.

What is the likely outcome of such confusion? It is that landlords and employers, who face unlimited fines and potential imprisonment if they employ or rent to someone who does not have the right to work or rent in the UK, will play it safe. As a result, EU citizens will be discriminated against compared with those who can show a physical document indicating their right to live or work in the UK. This is the real world, and these are the real effects on people’s lives, which could be corrected so easily by this amendment.

I hope that in the face of this compelling evidence of the clear harm that this discriminatory system will impose on millions of EU citizens, and in accordance with the promises made by senior members of the Government during the referendum campaign, the Government will think again, show themselves to have empathy and compassion and agree to this simple amendment, which would prevent so many unnecessary problems and so much unnecessary hardship from arising.

I beg to move.

Lord Polak Portrait Lord Polak (Con)
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My Lords, I am pleased to have added my name to this amendment, and I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Oates, for his excellent and thoughtful introduction.

Non-EU citizens are given physical proof of their settled status. Can it really be that EU citizens will be the only group without physical proof of status? The immigration system should treat people fairly and justly. People who have come to the UK and live here lawfully should not struggle to demonstrate their rights. A physical document, such as a biometric residence permit like those issued to non-EU citizens, will give that peace of mind.

I am entirely at one with the Government and specifically the Home Office’s ambition to digitalise. Of course, it is the way forward. But we are not there yet and, as the noble Lord, Lord Oates, said, the lack of physical proof will be of great concern to those who may not be digitally literate—specifically, some older people. So I was happy to support this amendment once it was agreed to add the requirement that the Government provide the physical proof if requested, thus alleviating the strain on the department.

As the noble Lord, Lord Oates, began, this amendment is neither political nor a repeat of arguments. It is simply a practical and sensible option to give some people comfort. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will agree with me that it is just the right thing to do.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP) [V]
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My Lords, I am the first person who signed Amendment 51 to speak on this group. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Oates, for providing such a clear introduction to both the need for a physical document and the difference between these two amendments. Amendment 51, which I signed with the noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Kennedy of Southwark, calls for the automatic provision of the document, as the noble Lord, Lord Oates said, and Amendment 49 would provide one on request. I would argue that Amendment 51 is stronger because “on request” requires people seeing into the future and predicting when things might not work. It would be simpler and easier for the department to administer, but either one of these amendments would be a significant improvement on the situation we have now.

As the noble Lord, Lord Oates, said, both the3million and Britons in Europe have done a great deal of work to spread the information about the need for this document. I was at a briefing earlier with the Children’s Society and the3million, focusing on the situation of the 260,000 children who have acquired settled status and the 150,000 who now have pre-settled status. If we think about the situation where—in about 10 or 15 years’ hence—one of those young children has to suddenly prove their status, recovering all the emails, the phone numbers and all the other information they might need to do that is likely to be far from simple.

I also want to address the situation for adults. Can the Minister confirm my understanding of what the process would be? My understanding is, for example, if someone wants to prove their right to work—as we were discussing in an earlier amendment—they will need to access their status via a website, providing the passport or ID card they applied with and their date of birth; they will then have a choice of getting a code with either email or phone; that code will need to be entered on the website; if that is successful, their status will appear on the screen and there will be an option to prove their status. They will then have to fill in the employer’s email address; the system will attempt to email a code to the employer, who will then need to find the correct website, enter the code along with some security information and finally see a screen with a photograph and proof that the person has the right to work. Does the Minister acknowledge that this has many moving parts? If any one of these fails, then it all fails.

We were talking before about landlords being reluctant to go through the extra hassle. We can also imagine plenty of employers who might be similarly reluctant—if they are choosing between two nearly equal applicants—and thinking, “Well, let’s just go for the simpler option.” We saw research from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants that showed that only three in 150 landlords said they were prepared to do those digital checks. Perhaps employers might not be quite so prepared—if they are concerned about discrimination legislation—to talk about their reluctance to do it, but you have to wonder if it would be there.

Of course, as other speakers have already said, this is really very frightening; it makes people feel very insecure. It is estimated that 22% of people do not have the essential digital skills to complete this process. It might be that they rely on someone else—such as the small child that I started off by talking about—but what happens when that person is no longer accessible or available to them or in contact with them? Physical back-up would provide people with certainty and security. It would be good if everyone had it, but either way it should certainly be available. Therefore, I commend both of these amendments, but particularly Amendment 51, to your Lordships.