Thousands could be stripped of rights amid ‘frantic’ last-minute efforts to apply for EU settlement

Ministers accused of ‘risking terrible injustice’ by refusing to lift 30 June deadline as swathes of EU nationals are unable to access Home Office helpline or find lawyers to assist with complex applications

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Wednesday 30 June 2021 11:11
Comments
<p>A man unfurls a union and EU flag outside the European parliament in Brussels</p>

A man unfurls a union and EU flag outside the European parliament in Brussels

Thousands of EU citizens could be stripped of their rights in the UK as frantic last-minute efforts to apply for settled status have been hampered by jammed Home Office helplines, website delays and overwhelmed advisers turning applicants away, lawyers warn.

Ministers have been accused of “risking a terrible injustice” by refusing to extend the 30 June deadline to register for EU settlement, as experts said swathes of people would not apply in time due to difficulties accessing support.

A surge in applications in recent weeks, with up to 12,000 applying each day, has seen applicants forced to wait in an online queue before they can apply and the scheme’s phone helpline at its maximum queue limit, telling people to “try another time”.

Lawyers said this was leaving thousands unable to access advice and help to do so – an issue exacerbated by the fact that charities funded to support vulnerable applicants are said to be “overrun” with “no capacity” to take on new cases.

The EU settlement scheme opened in March 2019 and required all EU and EEA nationals and their family members living in Britain to apply by midnight on Wednesday in order to maintain their rights in the UK after Brexit. More than 5.6 million people have applied.

The Home Office says that those who have “reasonable grounds” for missing the deadline will be permitted to make a late application, and that it will take a “flexible approach” to their cases.

But Luke Piper, legal director at the3million, said those who end up applying late “will not have the same rights as those who apply in time”.

He said employers and landlords would not be permitted to take on a new employee or tenant who has applied to the scheme late until they have obtained settlement.

And the time it takes to process applications can be considerable, with figures showing that more than two-thirds of applicants have been waiting over a month for a decision, and 6,755 waiting over a year.

“We are hearing increased reports of caseworkers and those supporting vulnerable EU citizens struggling to get their applications together and access support, and not able to access the helpline,” Mr Piper added.

Christopher Desira, director of Sepharus, a law firm contracted to provide free advice to vulnerable individuals about the EU settlement scheme, said he and others were working “flat out” and were now having to turn people away.

“People are looking for advice a couple of days before the deadline. Some people have only just found out about they need to apply now,” he said.

“Often these are people with immensely complicated situations, who with the best will in the world wouldn’t be able to put a decent application in on time alone.

“But even lawyers who charge for these services are under pressure, and free support services are overrun and won’t be taking on new cases at this stage. There’s no capacity.

“Vulnerable people – possibly thousands – will miss out simply because they can’t get access to that basic advice from the helpline and can’t find an alternative solution for support.”

Mr Desira called on ministers to lift the 30 June cut-off date, saying: “The deadline is ridiculous now. We’re trying to help everyone get through the system. The job is nowhere near done.

“And now the people who need to apply are the people who genuinely need more time. You’ve encouraged the bulk of people to get through, now it is time to extend it, there’s no reason for it.”

Cross-party MPs echoed these calls to drop the 30 June deadline during a Commons debate on Tuesday.

Labour MP Paul Blomfield, who tabled a question on the EU settlement scheme, said: “There is a real risk of new Windrush type tragedy in the future if we don’t get this right now.”

Immigration minister Kevin Foster responded citing the £22m in Home Office funding provided to 72 organisations to help vulnerable people apply to the scheme, which he said had directly assisted with 300,000 applications.

Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said: “There could not be a more powerful warning of what happens when innocent people are deprived of the right to be here than the Windrush scandal.”

Citing the fact that more than 400,000 applications are still being processed and indications that tens of thousands of benefit claimants are yet to apply, the shadow minister called on the government to announce an extension until the end of September.

“The government has not done enough to prevent people falling through the cracks. Surely, to avoid the risk of terrible injustice, it must extend the deadline and use the additional time to ensure all those who are eligible have signed up,” he added.

Mr Foster said the Home Office had published “non-exhaustive guidance” on what it would view as “reasonable grounds for a late application, including for many vulnerable groups”.

He added that the Home Office would work to expedite applications for the most vulnerable.

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