Fears that shift from paper to digital permits could prevent those with settled status accessing jobs, banking and healthcare
Thousands of EU nationals could face problems accessing essential services because the government is refusing to issue physical proof of their right to live in the UK.
The settlement scheme grants EU citizens the right to remain in the UK after Brexit. Unlike other foreign nationals, they are not provided with a biometric residency permit proving their status.
Instead they have to access the Home Office’s online database each time they need to produce evidence of eligibility.
The process, which requires applicants to have a smartphone and reliable internet access, is part of a government plan to phase out paper permits and make the entire immigration service digital.
But it means those with settled status and service providers have to negotiate a sequence of logins, emails and share codes to confirm their eligibility. And critics claim the challenges of the online system could prevent them accessing jobs, housing and medical treatment.
“A lot can go wrong – technology outages, people unable to navigate the digital system and service providers unwilling to engage with it,” says Maike Bohn, a co-founder of the support group the3million, which is campaigning for a paper backup document while the digital system beds in.
“We don’t want a two-tier society developing in the UK: British and non-EU citizens who can prove their right to work and access healthcare anytime, anywhere, simply by showing a physical card or passport – and EU citizens who cannot.”
Problems are already emerging for people who have attempted to use the new system.
Elisabeth Dodds had the offer of a £50,000 home improvement loan rescinded when her bank insisted on proof of her status.
“I submitted both a copy of my letter from the Home Office confirming that I had been granted settled status, as well as the share code for checking my status online,” she said.
“Royal Bank of Scotland [RBS] refused to accept this information. On advice from a loan adviser, I printed out the Home Office documents, including screenshots from the Home Office website showing I have indefinite leave, and brought it into a bank branch.
“This was also rejected. I was variously told they had never heard of settled status and were powerless to change what form of proof they could accept.”
A survey published this month by the3million found that only 14% of companies questioned were clear on the new rules for employing EU citizens after free movement ends in December, while one in five would more readily accept a biometric permit as evidence of status over a digital check.
Strict penalties on employers, landlords and banks that fail to verify the immigration status of applicants mean that those unfamiliar with the requirements may err on the side of caution and reject EU nationals.
Research by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants shows that only three in 150 landlords would be prepared to perform digital checks on prospective tenants.
An EU passport remains valid proof of status until July 2021, but there are concerns about what will happen after that.
Dodds, who is American but qualifies for settled status as the spouse of a Swedish national, later secured a loan from another lender that did not require status verification, but fears for the future when EU passports are no longer valid proof.
RBS apologised after being contacted by the Guardian. “We would like to reassure customers, and prospective customers, that this was an isolated incident. We should not have rejected this application,” a spokesperson said.
Paula Uusnäkki, an EU national, was one of the first to apply for settled status when the scheme was launched in 2018. She received an email confirming her application had been approved, but when she attempted to view her status in June the system had no record of her.
“Fortunately, I discovered this before needing to officially prove my status to a landlord or employer,” she said.