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Thousands of EU citizens set to have benefits cut off from next month

Exclusive: Vulnerable Europeans in UK will be ‘pushed into destitution’, campaigners warn

Adam Forrest,May Bulman
Sunday 08 August 2021 08:53 BST
Today's daily politics briefing

Thousands of EU citizens living in Britain face losing benefits next month if they have not applied for settled status to stay in the UK.

Campaigners warn the government decision to cut off European nationals – many of whom remain unaware of the need to apply for settled status after Brexit – could push the vulnerable into destitution.

The Independent understands that around 70,000 European citizens in receipt of benefits had not yet applied to the settlement scheme shortly before the deadline at the end of June.

An internal Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) letter, seen by The Independent, reveals that final warning letters will be sent out in September to European benefit claimants who have not yet applied to the EU settlement scheme (EUSS).

The group will then be given one month to sign up late to the scheme before their benefit payments are cut.

Despite the government’s decision to allow late applications to the scheme to be considered, campaigners fear many European citizens – including vulnerable people who struggle with paperwork and IT literacy – will have remained out of reach since the deadline passed.

The 3million group, which advocates for the rights of EU citizens in the UK, has written to work and pensions secretary Thérèse Coffey urging the cabinet minister to rethink the plan to cut off benefits in the autumn.

“We are very concerned that there will be many EEA or Swiss nationals who will have their benefits entitlement terminated and be pushed into destitution,” the group’s head of policy Luke Piper told the minister.

Mr Piper said: “Based on the correspondence we have seen, this will be an inevitable consequence of your policy, and will impact on people who are in very vulnerable circumstances.

“We understand that the estimates of [European] nationals who had not applied was in excess of 100,000 and that number was reduced to approximately 70,000 during June 2021,” he added.

“We ask that you urgently revisit this policy and not terminate DWP benefits. We ask that you ensure that every recipient who has not applied is individually identified and supported to apply to the EUSS.”

Dr Dora-Olivia Vicol, chief executive at the Work Rights Centre, which supports EU migrant workers, said she was “very worried” by the DWP push to end payments.

She warned that thousands of people were likely to be affected by the benefits cut-off in spite of government efforts to warn them. “Mail will remain unopened because there are people who get anxious whenever they get a letter from the government,” she said.

“Others are not able to understand the administrative language and rely upon the help of family, friends or advisers to interpret it, or struggle with IT literacy. It’s unrealistic to expect that everyone who should have applied has done it already.”

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 30 June 2021 in order to maintain their rights in the UK after Brexit.

Ms Vicol claimed the benefits cut-off had arisen as a result of the Home Office’s “insistence” on forcing all European citizens in Britain to apply to the scheme in order to maintain their rights.

She said the government had rejected campaigners’ pleas to “learn from Windrush and opt for a more permissive declaratory system”.

The DWP would not say many how many letters it expects to send out to European benefit claimants in September. The Times reported in late June that 70,000 European citizens on benefits had not yet applied for settled status, after the DWP initially identified a cohort of 130,000.

The internal letter seen by The Independent states that benefits – including universal credit and housing benefit – will be “suspended” if those yet to sign up to the scheme fail to make an application within one month of their September letter.

It also states that once their benefits are suspended, the claimant will then have a further month to make an application to the settlement scheme.

It the claimant does not apply within this month then all benefits claims will be “terminated … as they will be treated as a Person Subject to Immigration Control”.

A government spokesperson said the letters would make “very clear” the support available to people to make a late application, and that safeguards were in place to help protect against removal of benefits for potentially vulnerable individuals who may ultimately be eligible for status.

“Every day thousands of people are being given status through the hugely successful EU settlement scheme and the government continues to use every possible channel to encourage those who are eligible to apply and secure the status they are entitled to,” they added.

It comes as immigration lawyers are set to launch legal action challenging the Home Office’s decision to block some family members of European citizens from joining their relatives living in the UK.

Letters by the Home Office, seen by The Independent, informed a group of ten European nationals that their relatives – including siblings and cousins – will not get a “family permit” to join them in Britain because a deadline for the process had now passed.

The Home Office announced on Friday that family members who apply late for a family permit under the settlement scheme will have their rights “temporarily protected” for three months until any appeal is decided.

But campaigners remain angry that many are having applications for family permits turned down – despite the Withdrawal Agreement stating that extended family members who are “dependents or members of the household” of EU citizens will have a right to reside in Britain.

Mr Piper, of the3million group, said there could be “several thousand” people left in “this strange limbo” – and said he expected their lawyers to take legal action against the government.

The government revealed shortly after the June deadline that just over six million applications to the settlement scheme had been received, with 5.4 million applications approved – leaving a backlog of around 600,000 cases for the Home Office.

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