On Monday, the Prime Minister stood in the House of Commons trying to sell her Brexit ‘plan B’. Her plan clearly is not a plan B at all, but simply a regurgitation of the same red lines and the same positions that have been discussed and dismissed as unachievable countless times already.
Undoubtedly, the Prime Minister knew that. So in order to make things look better than they really were, she announced that the government would scrap the fee for settled status — the status all EU citizens have to apply for if they want to stay in the UK.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement. It will, there can be no doubt, help EU citizens already at home in the UK to secure their future here. The cost of applying, especially for families, would have proven a hurdle for many, so to move that hurdle out of the way is positive. Yet while that is the case it is important to be very clear about a number of things.
First of all we need to recognise that it was the UK government who put that hurdle up in the first place. To see the Prime Minister and the Conservatives pat themselves on the back for doing a u-turn on their shameful decision to introduce a fee in many ways added insult to injury.
More importantly, the u-turn did not come out of nowhere. It is the result of the incredibly hard work of EU citizens group the3million, who had made the scrapping of the fee one of their main priorities, working with support from other campaigners and groups such as Unison. It was – and I mean this – positive to hear the Prime Minister recognise their work in her statement. Without the3million, the rights of EU citizens would be, there can be no doubt, in a much worse place. They are our beacon of hope.
Despite this significant step forward, however, it is absolutely critical that we do not now lose focus. The waiving of the fee, while welcome, does not change anything about the serious issues settled status still presents, nor does it take away the problem that lies at its very core: that it is based on an application.
With the potential for an application to be refused come very serious concerns. As SNP MP Stuart McDonald rightly asked the Prime Minister, why are there “no appeal rights in the new immigration bill for EU citizens who are refused settled status? ... [And] why do the Government continue to insist on an application cut-off date, inevitably meaning that the hundreds of thousands who miss that deadline will end up in a situation very close to that faced by the Windrush generation?”
The Prime Minister’s reply made clear that she has no intention of helping overcome the latter, one of the most pressing concerns. She simply noted that the government “set a significant period of time for people to be able to apply”.
A significant period of time. 942 days have passed since the EU referendum. The Prime Minister has had, in that capacity, 926 days so far to work on the UK leaving the EU. What she is suggesting is that it will work just fine to process the applications of 3.6million people in either 710 days (in the event of no-deal) or 891 days (if a deal is agreed). Let’s be clear what this means: processing either 5,000 (no-deal) or 4,000 (deal) people. Every single day from today.
Even if just 1% of EU citizens are not processed in this time it would mean that 36,000 EU citizens fall into the hostile environment. They would have no legal status, losing the right to work, rent, and hold a bank account. People already at home here. People here legally now.
To illustrate the potential scope of the problem that could stem from this we do not have to look very far. The government’s own report of the second private beta testing phase released on Monday, makes very clear how extensive the problem already is. While the government, unsurprisingly, celebrates the test because the majority of applications were successfully processed, closer inspection reveals a much less positive picture.
29,987 applications were submitted during the test period, but by 14 January 2019 only 27,211 decisions had been made. While the government notes that no cases were refused, the fact that over nine per cent of applicants are still waiting for a decision, with their cases considered too complex and further details being required, is a real concern. This holds true in particular given who this pilot was open for: primarily those working in the NHS and at universities.
We cannot look into the future, but it is very clear that those who applied in the private test phase were largely people who fit well the ‘ideal applicant’ profile the Home Office used to develop the scheme: someone in work; someone likely to have all the required data footprints; and someone able to use modern technology to apply.
How will the EU citizen Alzheimer patient in her late 80s deal with this? What about the EU citizen children in care? What about other vulnerable EU citizens such as those with disabilities, or the many women who do not fit the profile? The government has no answer and their attempts to reach out and inform EU citizens are patchy at best.
These people, their future in what already is their home, is why today I would like to end again by asking you to become an EU Citizens’ Champion in support of the3million. Together we can make sure that no EU citizen is left behind.