Home Secretary Priti Patel is facing calls to extend the June 2021 deadline for EU nationals to apply for settled status to remain in the UK after Brexit, after new figures showed a collapse in applications since the start of the coronavirus outbreak.
Statistics published by the Home Office showed that just 125,000 people applied to the scheme in March, in a 47 per cent drop from numbers in February. Grants of settled status were also down 47 per cent to 77,800, while numbers given pre-settled status fell 45 per cent over the month to 62,600.
The government’s settlement resolution centre has been closed during the lockdown, with staff working online from home but not taking phone calls. The Home Office was forced to take action to rectify delays to processing caused by the coronavirus disruption.
Liberal Democrat home affairs spokeswoman Christine Jardine said the slowdown made it “virtually impossible” for the authorities to process the estimated 3.6 million EU citizens living in the UK by the deadline, with a backlog of more than 320,000 applications still to be dealt with.
According to the latest figures, some 3,468,700 applications have now been received and 3,147,100 concluded.
And Oxford University researchers have warned that some European residents are “falling through the cracks” of the Home Office scheme.
In a report, the university’s Migration Observatory warned that authorities may be underestimating the number of EU nationals in the country, arguing that official estimates exclude or undercount several groups of people, including those in dormitories, care homes or caravan parks
Director Madeleine Sumption said: “For a host of reasons, it’s possible that the number of EU citizens granted status through the scheme could greatly exceed the current official estimate of 3.4 million but that wouldn’t necessarily mean the task is finished.
Figures released on Thursday showed that Polish citizens were the largest group applying for settled status, with 665,000, followed by Romanians at 564,300, Italians at 351,600 and Portuguese at 273,000.
Of the 3.1m concluded cases, 58% were granted permanent residency with settled status and 41% pre-settled status, which requires them to reapply within five years or lose their right to stay in the UK. Of the remaining applications, 23,900 were withdrawn or voided, 10,000 deemed invalid and 600 refused.
Guidance is due to be published to spell out how late applicants can demonstrate "reasonable grounds" for having their case considered after the dedaline passes.
Ms Jardine said that applications fell sharply in March as the whole country went into lockdown conditions limiting individuals’ movements outside the home.
“Now that this coronavirus crisis has shone a spotlight on the enormous contributions EU citizens make to our public services, our economy and our society, they must have the right to stay,” she said.
“The prime minister rightly thanked a Portuguese nurse who looked after him in intensive care last week, but this Government is still refusing to honour its promise to grant all EU citizens like him the automatic right to stay.
“No-one ever seriously believed that the Home Office would successfully grant all 3.6 million EU citizens settled status by the June 2021 deadline, but the coronavirus pandemic now makes that virtually impossible. Thousands of people will be left effectively undocumented and at risk of eviction, detention and even deportation.
“Liberal Democrats are fighting for the rights of EU citizens. The government must drop its arbitrary deadline and give them the automatic right to stay in the UK.”
Maike Bohn, co-founder of campaign group the3million, said: “The UK does not know how many people must apply, how many people have applied, and they also don’t know whether the people who have applied successfully have been granted the right status.
"We fear that by the application deadline next year neither the Home Office nor organisations like the3million will know how many EU citizens will not have secured their rightful status."
Immigration minister Kevin Foster insisted that support was continuing to be offered during the coronavirus pandemic.
“EU citizens have made an enormous contribution to the UK and we want them to stay,” he said
“The EU settlement scheme is the biggest scheme of its kind in British history and I’m pleased there have already been more than 3 million grants of status with more than a year left to go until the deadline for applications.
“Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, applicants have still had access to a range of support either online, by email, or telephone. The Settlement Resolution Centre is continuing to provide support online and by email, and additional support is available through Assisted Digital, which can offer assistance over the phone.”
Ms Jardine has tabled a European Citizens’ Rights Bill to guarantee the immigration status of EU and EEA nationals after Brexit, which had its First Reading in the House of Commons on 26 February.
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