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Brexit and EU citizens - why ministers are playing poker with people's lives

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With less than 6 months to go, 3.5 million EEA citizens in the UK still don't know what will happen to their rights after Brexit

For over two years, we’ve been calling for the government to stop playing poker with people’s lives and guarantee all EEA citizens the right to remain in the UK with full rights after Brexit.

This shouldn’t be up for negotiation – EEA citizens must have secure status even if there’s no deal between the UK and EU.

And employer associations including the CBI and British Chamber of Commerce and civil society groups agree.

Securing the status of EU citizens in the UK also makes it more likely the EU will do the same for the over 1.2 million UK citizens currently living in the EU.

But this week the government failed yet again to assure over 3.5 million people living in the UK that their security and rights will be guaranteed after Brexit.

What happened?

On Monday, immigration minister Caroline Noakes confirmed that the government’s promise to grant indefinite leave to remain (legally called ‘settled status’) to EU citizens after March 2019 was conditional on the UK and EU agreeing on a deal. You can watch her statement in the video below:

This means that if there is ‘no deal’ after we leave the EU, over 3.5 million EEA citizens (those from EU and the four EFTA countries) risk losing their legal status in the UK.

And rules introduced by Theresa May’s 'hostile environment' policies mean those without legal status also can’t claim rights at work and are denied access to housing and using the NHS.

This is no way to treat people who make a huge contribution to our society, working in key industries, helping to keep public services running and contributing to communities across the country.

Pilot problems

Problems are also starting to emerge with the residency registration scheme the government plans to introduce if there’s a Brexit deal.

This scheme is currently being tested in two ‘pilot’ stages.

The first was run over the summer in Liverpool, where staff at 15 NHS trusts and 3 universities were able to apply for ‘settled status’.

The second phase will begin later this month and is on a much larger scale. It will allow all university staff and all health and social care staff in the UK to apply for ‘settled status’.

Unions involved in the pilot have flagged concerns that EU citizens might not be able to claim legal status if the scheme is rolled out nationally. Their concerns include:

  • Narrow definition of ‘continuous’ residency
    To be eligible for the 'settled status' scheme, applicants must be resident for 5 years in the UK 'continuously' (which is defined as having a gap of no more than 12 months out of the country). As EU citizens naturally spend long periods in their home countries, many might be unable to meet this requirement.
  • Risks to insecure workers
    A lot of EU citizens are or have previously been employed on informal contracts while working in the UK. There is a risk that these workers will not appear on official records as ‘employed’ and so may struggle to provide adequate evidence to claim settled status.
  • Risk of increased discrimination
    It’s possible that employers might use the scheme to single out EU staff, increasing the marginalisation that they can face in some workplaces.
  • Cost
    Applying for settled status will cost £65 for over 16s and £32.50 for under 16s. That’s £195 for a family of four – a lot of money for low paid workers.
  • Inaccessibility
    The online application requires a level of English and digital literacy that some EU citizens won’t have (the form is only available in English). Cuts to libraries and other local services have limited the computer services available in many areas, while the data and smart phone required to apply via the app is unaffordable to low-paid EU workers.
  • Under resourcing
    No extra funds have been committed to ensure applications for settled status can be processed in the time required. The Home Office is already struggling with backlogs in processing visa applications for non-EU citizens. And the Migration Observatory has estimated that without significant increases in staffing levels it might take 140 years to process applications for residence for all EU and EEA citizens in the UK. Any delay to settled status approval will lead to legal uncertainty for EEA citizens, where their rights to work, rent accommodation or access the NHS could be questioned. The Windrush scandal exposed just what this could mean for millions of people in this country.

End the anxiety now

The TUC wants the Home Office to engage with trade unions to address these problems urgently before the final scheme is launched.

With less than 6 months to go, the government must end the anxiety and uncertainty that EEA citizens and their families are suffering.

Ministers should guarantee them the right to remain now.