Will government reconsider digital-only status for EU nationals?

Written by Sam Trendall on 11 August 2021 in Features
Features

Having hitherto steadfastly maintained its opposition to issuing physical documents to recipients of EU settled status, the Home Office recently met with campaigners to listen to new proposals. PublicTechnology finds out more.

Credit: Pxfuel

As of the beginning of last month – and for the first time in decades – EU citizens in the UK can no longer demonstrate their right to live and work here simply by producing their passport.

Instead, they need to prove their obtainment of settled, or pre-settled status. 

Most observers of the system the government has created through which they can do so have expressed similar opinions on its merits.

One parliamentary committee warned that the digital system – which does not provide any form of physical documentation – has “clear parallels… with the Windrush scandal”.

Another Westminster committee claimed that the government is not “learning the lessons from Windrush”.

Throughout Brexit negotiations, representatives from Brussels also expressed worries about the lack of documentary proof available to those granted status. As did campaign and advocacy groups – chief among them the3million, which seeks to represent EU citizens in the UK.

Whenever the question has been raised of whether or not EU nationals in the UK should receive hard-copy evidence of their immigration status, there has typically only ever been one dissenting voice: the government itself.

In the face of more than two years of criticism and concern, the Home Office has held firm in its insistence on using a digital-only system.

In July 2019, after a flurry of critical select-committee reports, it said: “Any physical document may be lost or stolen or become out of date very quickly. In addition, there are circumstances in which an individual’s status document can be controlled by another person… moving to a digital status is a step forward in tackling those who seek to control others.”

In January last year, following public calls for physical evidence from the European parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt – who said the lack of lack of documentation was one of the major “anxieties” of EU citizens in the UK – the Home Office was similarly unmoved.

“There is no change to our digital approach,” the department said.

Eighteen months on, and with the deadline for applications to the settlement scheme having passed on 30 June, that approach remains unchanged.

But the calls to reconsider have not died down.

The most recent parliamentary report examining the programme, from the House of Lords European Affairs Committee, aired some longstanding concerns.

A lack of awareness of the existence of the scheme and the barriers posed by an application process that centred on an app may have resulted in many elderly and vulnerable “slipping through the cracks”, the committee warned. Peers expressed alarm that, as of March 2021, only 2% of status applications had been submitted by over-65s. 

And, even for those who have successfully applied for status, the report said that the lack of a physical document means that “EU citizens in the UK may face discrimination in securing employment and rental tenancies”. 

“The UK government has welcomed the EU’s decision to issue a physical document to all UK citizens in Europe – while resisting calls to do the same for EU citizens in the UK,” it added. “[The committee] demands the government explain why it holds these contradictory positions.”


6.02 million
Applications to the EU Settlement Scheme

 

2%
Proportion, as of March 2021, that were from over-65s

 

30 June
Deadline by which applicants need to apply


For its part, the3million – which gave evidence to the committee – has continued lobbying for a change of policy. The organisation’s #ProofEqualityNow campaign encourages people to write to their MP and implore the government to issue EU citizens with hard-copy status documents.

Not only is the3million campaigning for the issuance of physical documents, it has put together detailed proposals for doing so.

The plan is built on secure QR codes – an existing technology that the group claims could thus be deployed easily and at low cost. Codes, which could be issued both digitally and on documents or cards, would contain encrypted details of the status-holder – including their photo.

The system would hinge on the use of public and private keys. A private key would allow the Home Office to, effectively, include a digital signature that could not be replicated by anyone outside the department. 

Secure QR codes cannot be decrypted using a generic smartphone scanner app – only using the applicable public key, which the Home Office could issue via an app that could be downloaded solely from the department’s website, or from a clearly labelled Home Office account on an app store, the3million has proposed.

Monique Hawkins, policy and research officer at the campaign group, tells PublicTechnology: “When the card is scanned, you would see two bits of information: one is that is that is definitely generated by the Home Office; and two, the [user’s] original information [encrypted] inside the code – name, address, photograph. And you can then see that it matches what is on the rest of the card; if I steal a QR code from someone else and use it to manufacture a card… as soon as someone scans the code, they will know.”

The plan shares key similarities with the NHS Covid Pass system of vaccine certification, which provides NHS App users with a digital secure QR code to that can be displayed on their phone – but also offers the option of downloading a printable PDF file. Those without access to connected devices can also request a paper copy to be sent to them.
 

‘Assessing feasibility’
Since the3million launched its letter-writing campaign, a number of MPs have taken up the issue via parliamentary questions.

“We continue to welcome feedback on how we can improve our services,” said immigration minister Kevin Foster in June, in response to one such question. “Home Office officials are planning to meet with the 3million group to discuss the feasibility of their suggested approach.”

Shortly after the minister’s comments, a meeting did take place, during which the3million had the chance to talk to civil servants and outline its proposals. 

PublicTechnology asked the Home Office whether it was actively considering the proposals, and what might happen next. Could the department be set to finally soften its stance on status documents?

“We have had hundreds of reports of people missing out on a mortgage application because the bank just couldn’t get on with this system.”
Monique Hawkins, the3million

A spokesperson told us: “As would be expected, we regularly engage with stakeholders to consider their suggestions and assess their feasibility. Any proposal to change digital status must ensure that users’ data is secure and verifiable, that images can be included and that checking organisations such as employers and landlords have confidence in the data.”

The3million suggests that this assessment ought to be informed by the principles for digital identity developed by the government itself, via a strategy board run by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

In proposals published a year ago, the board identified six tenets for “guiding policy development” in the field of digital identity: privacy; transparency; inclusivity; interoperability; proportionality; and good governance.

“We feel that our proposal meets those but, moreover, what we feel is that the Home Office’s digital system does not meet them at all,” Hawkins says.
 

New borders
The proposed system would not just benefit EU citizens – but also the government, and the many organisations that are now required to check individuals’ immigration status, the3million believes. This includes landlords, employers, banks, the NHS, government bodies, such as the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, and local authorities. In the future, airlines will also be obliged to check the immigration status of EU nationals in transit to the UK – as they have long been required to for passengers from countries beyond Europe.

The current system for demonstrating settled status requires the status-holder to enter their passport number and date of birth via a GOV.UK platform, after which they will receive a text message or email containing a share code – which can then be provided to the organisation performing the status check. 

Hawkins says that the3million’s proposal would greatly reduce the administrative burden on organisations that, in many cases, do not yet fully understand how to fulfil their new obligations as, effectively, immigration watchdogs. Some do not even know they need to do so, she adds.

“It is the UK’s border control, delegated inwards,” she says. “What they have to do at the moment with this digital code – and many are unaware that they have to do this – is ask the EU citizens for a share code, go to a website, put in that share code and a date of birth, and then look at the output and save it. What they would have to do instead [in our proposals] is obtain an app and, thereafter, they would simply scan [a code] and the app could generate a copy for them to save in the same way. It would be less onerous for them.”

Under the existing system, there is a log of every time an EU citizen obtains a share code and when that share code is checked.

It is not clear whether this information is kept in perpetuity or deleted within a certain timeframe but, Hawkins says, it allows for authorities “to build up an ever-growing audit trail of an immigrant” – in a way that British citizens are not subject to.

What is more, EU nationals are facing discrimination as a result of the current system, the3million believes.

The organisation last year launched a tool through which people could report problems or difficulties they have encountered as a result of the digital status system.

“We have had hundreds of reports of, [for example], people missing out on a mortgage application because the bank just couldn’t get on with this system, and wanted something physical and didn’t really believe that a code would do the trick,” Hawkins says. “Employers and landlords get into trouble if they employ or let to someone they are not supposed to. And, if you go to the government’s website for guidance it says in bold letters, highlighted: ‘you will be liable to fines and penalties if you employ someone that you are not allowed to’. And then somewhere further down it says: ‘but you mustn’t discriminate’.”

She adds: “The tilt is all towards not getting this wrong – because the fines are huge and there is even the potential for criminal penalties. Whereas there isn’t the same pressure to not discriminate… there are lots and lots of what we call micro-instances, that would be hard to prove and to fight against; how do you prove you lost a job because of this?”
 

A big bang
While some guidance has been published for employers and landlords, there is no specific advice for banks and other organisations, and Hawkins says the Home Office is not adequately supporting businesses and public agencies in meeting their new responsibilities. 

The government has made it clear that it is on the path to a “digital by default” immigration system, and has pledged to, ultimately, eliminate all physical status documents.

But the3million takes issue with the suggestion that this is being done in a sufficiently phased manner.


69p
Cost per minute of calling the UKVI Resolution Centre before charges were revoked


Privacy, transparency, inclusivity, interoperability, proportionality, good governance
The six principles of digital identity, as defined by a government strategy board


770
Approximate number of letters sent to MPs in support of the3million’s #ProofEqualityNow campaign


“Up to 30 June, an EU passport was enough to prove your rights; from 1 July, the only thing you had was the digital status,” Hawkins says. “The Home Office say: ‘we are rolling this out gradually’ – and, for them, gradually is doing these six million people first and, in a few years’ time, all the rest of. But that is very unfair for the individual, for whom it is not gradual at all – it is completely big bang, in a society that is not prepared for it.”

The government often references Australia as an exemplar for moving to a wholly digital immigration system.

“But they took 12 years to do so, and they allowed physical back-up for almost all of that time,” Hawkins says. “They also did it in phases; for a long, long time people could still optionally request physical back-up, and then they had a few years where people could request it – but had to pay for it, to try and disincentivise people from doing so. Then, eventually, they turned it off. But, by then, the whole of society – employers, landlords, everything – had got used to the fact that this digital system existed.”
 

Status update
The need to get used to such a system will, of course, be felt most keenly by EU citizens themselves.

For those who might struggle to do so – because of a lack of digital literacy, or access to devices – the Home Office claims there are “numerous safeguards” in place to ensure they are not disadvantaged, and can view and prove their status when needed.

The department pointed to a UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) Resolution Centre as among the key resources provided to support those who are “less digitally capable” in navigating the system. The centre provides telephone and email support for those seeking help with proving their status.

However, the helpline initially charged people 69p per minute for calls, on top of a £5 pre-authorisation charge that callers are asked to make via a credit or debit card.

These charges, which the Home Office attributed to a technical error, have now been removed.

But, according to the3million, the centre – which government’s online guidance claims should operate from 8am to 8pm on weekdays, and 9.30am to 4.30pm on weekends – is only taking calls from 9am to 4.45pm during the week, and not at all on Saturdays or Sundays.

“We regularly engage with stakeholders to consider their suggestions and assess their feasibility. Any proposal to change digital status must ensure that users’ data is secure and verifiable.”
Home Office spokesperson

What is more, operatives are reportedly turning away calls concerning settled status queries.

“When we telephoned the UKVI helpline during opening hours, the member of staff we spoke to told us that the UKVI helpline cannot help with any EUSS related issues, and that we would need to hang up and call the EU Settlement Resolution Centre helpline instead,” said Hawkins in a recent letter to immigration minister Foster. “Our call to the UKVI helpline took 37 minutes before being connected to a member of staff – who was then not even able to assist with viewing and proving digital status.”

Some EU nationals who applied during the early stages of the scheme have also reported recent problems accessing their status, with attempts to do so prompting an error message informing them their status cannot be found. It is understood that the government is aware of the problem, and believes it to affect no more than several hundred people. Others have reported sporadic issues with finding the service is “temporarily unavailable”.

The3million believes such examples rebut the government’s oft-cited argument that, unlike a physical document, a digital status is always accessible, and cannot be lost or damaged.

Regardless of how the Home Office proceeds, this argument, and its counter, will no doubt be heard many more times in the weeks and months ahead.

“We will keep on with political pressure. If that doesn’t work, we may need to look again at litigation,” Hawkins says.

“We are certainly not giving up.”

 

About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology. He can be reached on sam.trendall@dodsgroup.com.

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