Brexit: How EU nationals navigate the automated checks of the “settled status” program
The British Home Office deployed a mobile app so that EU citizens can apply for permission to stay in the UK. Some are confident about the partly automated process; others live Kafkaesque experiences.
Pablo Duro, a 28-year-old Spaniard, is a PhD student and member of staff at Manchester Metropolitan University. He started his research work in October 2019. After applying to stay in the UK, he was notified that his status was “pre-settled”. To obtain “settled status”, which would allow him to remain in the UK for good, he would need to be resident in the country for five years. He said that remaining a European citizen in the UK was not a concern for him even though Brexit preparations were already in full swing. Be- ing an immigrant was no big deal, he said.
Mr. Duro first heard about the settlement procedure and the mobile app it involves during a chat with another Span- ish citizen. He visited the Home Office website and followed the steps. He had to complete a form, download a mobile application, scan his passport, and upload a photograph of his face in order to verify his identity. He said the process was very quick. Within five days, he received a notification in his mailbox confirming that he had been granted the pre-settled status.
Mr. Duro said the process was clear and concise. He believed there was no risk in sharing his data via the app as an official institution created it.
The Tilbrook family, in Newcastle, would certainly envy such an experience. The grandmother of the family, an 80-year- old who requested anonymity before being interviewed, found the settlement process distressing.
The elderly Danish woman worked in paid employment in England for three years from 1961 to 1964 before working at home, like many women of her generation, Jane, her daughter, explained. The 80-year-old asked her son-in-law to download the app and fill out the application form for her.
The first attempt failed – her legitimate claim for settled status was refused – and she received a “temporary status”. Her daughter and son-in-law shared the experience on social media and contacted the administration to understand why their elderly relative’s application had failed. They had to upload additional documents, following which Jane Til- brook’s mother was granted settled status.
Highly dissatisfied with the process, Mr. Tilbrook, 60, said his mother-in-law was tech-savvy for her age – she uses a smartphone – but this operation was “way beyond her”. He
said using near field communication, or NFC, to upload the details of a passport chip is beyond the abilities of most people he knew, let alone an 80-year-old.
He explained that she would have been unable to upload the required documents. When he did it, the first attempt took him two hours. The second attempt was even longer.
Mr. Tilbrook described the process as “very intimidating”. His mother-in-law, reluctantly, had to share private information, and, like many women of her age, most of the required documents were written in her husband’s name. Understandably, she wanted a written document confirming her status, but the app only provides an electronic confirmation.
The Tilbrook’s case is not isolated. Many similar examples can be found on social media. For example, the Twitter account “EU Settled Status Horror Stories” lists tweets from EU nationals who have complained about the process.
By the end of the public test of the app, on 21 January 2019, the system had received over 200,000 applications from nationals of all 27 EU countries. Then, on 30 March 2019, the Home Office officially launched the simple, free system.
In the “Processing Level Memorandum of Understanding” document, the Home Office justifies the data sharing process and automated checks they use. The document states that the algorithm used was developed to support the EU Settlement Scheme and manage the influx of applications as the UK leaves the EU. According to the document, this approach improves the user experience, while reducing fraud, errors, case processing time, and excessive paperwork.
Applicants who downloaded the “EU Exit: ID document check” app are required to complete five key steps: firstly, they take an image of the personal details page of either their passport or identity card. Then, they must scan this document, via a smartphone, by using the NFC feature. The smartphone then reads the contents of the electronic chip stored inside modern identity documents. The applicant must then take a video and a photo of their face. Finally, she or he must answer an online questionnaire. Additional documentation may be required later in the process.
However, this is not the end of the journey. Applicants are invited to provide their National Insurance (NI) number to verify their residence history in the UK. This is not a mandatory step, but official documentation says that applicants who submit their NI number will not have to provide further evidence. This step uses an algorithm-based verification process.
Automated processing of tax and other benefits records is only carried out when an applicant has provided their NI number. This automated check is done against records held by the tax authority (HMRC) and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
A Home Office document titled “How the automated check calculates the period of residence” mentions that, if the automated check finds evidence of UK employment or some benefits in a month, then that month counts as a month of continuous residence. If the automated check cannot find any evidence of residence for more than 6 months in any 12-month period, this counts as a break in the applicant’s continuous residence in the UK. If this happens, the applicant is told which time periods this applies to.
But not everyone has an NI number. And the online process has caused several problems (such as email providers erroneously marking official messages as spam), some of which were spotted during beta trials and subsequently fixed. At the end of this process, a caseworker looks at the application and makes the final decision.
Alternatively, applicants can send their identity documents by post or visit their local authority in person to have their passport or biometric residence card checked manually.
Not so simple
Settled.org is a UK charity dedicated to guide, inform, and assist those vulnerable and hard-to-reach EU citizens who may be at risk of not having the authorization to remain in the UK by the time the EU Settlement Scheme ends. They say the EU Settlement Scheme is not as “simple and straightforward” as the government has stated.
The Home Office uses a surprisingly reassuring tone to explain the app, considering that Mr. Tilbrook said he did need to enter an NI number for his mother-in-law, adding that he was not informed of an alternative to using the app. “The algorithm simply doesn’t fit,” he said.
Settled.org strongly recommends EU citizens to begin applying for settled status well before the application period ends on 30 June 2021. Applicants with atypical profiles may find it challenging to obtain the right status, a spokesperson for the charity said.
Lily Beurrier, a French citizen who moved to the UK in 2003, applied for settled status in June 2019, two years before the official end of the process. She said she was fired from her work and was worried that this could impact her chances of obtaining settled status.
She said she is confident using IT software and she thought the process would be quite straightforward. She said that using the app to submit her application was fairly easy, yet sometimes frustrating. For example, it took a couple of attempts to scan her passport before it worked. However, the most frustrating part, she said, was to get the right light in the room so that the app could recognize her passport and accept her photo.
The process took about ten minutes, but then she received her result: “application denied”.
“I never thought this could have happened to me,” she said. “I have been living in the UK for over 15 years with the same amount of years employed by the same employer. It was a real shock.”
In vain, she phoned the government helpline. Then, she complained on social media, which is when the BBC contacted her. Her subsequent interview, and contacts with journalists, allowed things to move forward slightly.
The Home Office asked her to provide further evidence of residence. Her employer wrote a letter confirming her 15 years of continuous employment in the UK.
Interestingly, she said that she was advised to use her computer rather than the app to upload the letter. A couple of weeks later, she was granted settled status.
Ms. Beurrier said this was a very challenging and upsetting process and that she felt “cheated” by the app. For example, the questionnaire does not consider the social aspect of her application. “How could an app or automated platform decide on my future in the UK? I am married to an English man and both our children were born in the UK.”
Lady-Gené Waszkewitz’s story also defuses the theory of the age gap between young tech-savvy students who can easily deal with apps, and elderly people who might be confused by smartphones. The 28-year-old German moved to the UK in 2011 as a pupil barrister. In total, she studied for five years in the UK. But she, too, struggled to obtain settled status.
She said the app was not compatible with all devices, meaning she needed to take time out of her workday and go to Southwark Council to have her passport scanned to complete this first part of the process.
Then, she had to photograph five years of bank statements, council tax exemption forms, enrolment certificates, tenancy, and employment contracts, and forms to account for five continuous years of living in the UK - the minimum amount of time needed to obtain settled status.
She said the process was not at all straightforward because she, like many others, did not have all these documents to hand and she had to contact the relevant agencies and authorities to obtain them – including her university overseas.
“I did not feel particularly overwhelmed by the process but rather annoyed at having to obtain this information which should be in the government’s hands through my National Insurance number, for example,” she said.
Lawyers instructed over the summer by The Legal Education Foundation (TLEF) wrote in a public opinion that the settled status process did not look at Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) data concerning child benefits or child tax credits, and thus could be discriminatory towards women. According to their report, 87% of child benefit recipients were female.
Ms. Beurrier confirmed that she was indeed a recipient of child tax credit for her children. It is very likely that the automated checks could not find evidence of residence for more than six months in any 12-month period. “I never thought to mention or refer back to the child tax credit,” she said.
Furthermore, the lawyers pointed out that the process of proving documentary evidence is far from easy and that the Home Office gave very few clues as to what type of document would better support an application. Connected to this idea, Mr. Tilbrook said the process does not take pensions into account. His mother-in-law receives the basic pension. “They know she’s been in the UK,” he said.
Despite these woes, the Home Office published satisfactory figures. Public data released puts the total number of applications received, up to 31 January 2020, at over 3.1 million. 88% of those applications have been processed: 58% were granted settled status, 41% were granted pre-settled status, and seven applications were refused on suitability grounds. However, given that there are no precise figures for the number of EU citizens living in the UK, it is too early to call the scheme a success.