EXCL Foreign nationals seeking 'settled status' in UK after Brexit hit by computer woes
Foreign nationals who have lived in the UK for years are being driven to despair by a government scheme aimed at guaranteeing their rights after Brexit.
Ministers introduced the 'Settled Status' scheme as a way of ensuring EU nationals can continue living in the UK with full citizenship rights.
One man who has lived in the UK for more than a decade and began tackling the system in January finally managed to file his application this week after his battle with the Home Office left him on the verge of tears.
Others who have come up against online issues and been told to clear their browser cookies or change the device they are applying through are still waiting for answers.
The Settled Status scheme, which has been trialled for months and was rolled out across the country at the end of March, allows EU nationals and their families to secure their rights in the UK after Brexit.
It is open to those who have lived in the country for five years or more, while those who have lived in Britain for less time can apply for ‘pre-Settled Status’.
But PoliticsHome has learned of multiple cases of applicants struggling to resolve online problems with the application process after receiving an error message that reads: “Sorry, there is a problem with the service.”
Ahmed, 36, said he first tried to apply in January after having lived and worked in the UK since 2006 - but was hit with the blocking error message.
He told PoliticsHome he had called the Settled Status helpline “more than 100 times” and kept having to explain the issue to different staff members before his application was finally submitted yesterday.
“I was about to break down,” he told PoliticsHome. “I started to think it was a deliberate act to make me suffer. It has affected me mentally really badly.”
Ahmed is Egyptian but is eligible for Settled Status as his wife is Spanish. She is pregnant and the pair have been hoping to confirm their immigration status before securing a mortgage.
He still harbours doubts about the system as the Home Office is apparently struggling to find record of his employment history.
Sarah is from Indonesia but was granted permanent residency in the UK under the Surinder Singh scheme, after her British husband spent time living in the EU.
The 38-year-old tried to apply on 18 March but faced the "problem with this service" message.
After contacting the Home Office she was sent a list of ways to fix the issue, but none of the solutions, such as using a different browser and clearing online cookies, worked.
Her case was eventually escalated to the Home Office technical department and she finally managed to submimt her application yesterday.
She told PoliticsHome the Settled Status process appears easier than applying for permanent residency, but that it was clearly “still suffering from teething problems”.
The Home Office told PoliticsHome people living in the UK under the Surinder Singh scheme could not apply during the final rollout of the second test phase.
But the department failed to make that clear in its guidance at the time, and failed to tell Sarah as she battled the technical issues with the online application.
'LACK OF SUPPORT'
Juwon Okafor (not his real name), who has Italian citizenship and has been in the UK for almost 10 years, has had similar issues since first trying to apply on 4 March.
The 22-year-old said after hitting the “problem with this service” message he had tried to call the Home Office but the “lines seem to be constantly busy”.
“Considering how long the service has been in its testing phase and how smooth the ID verification phase was, I'm extremely disappointed by the lack of support at this stage of the application,” he added.
The Settled Status Advice Service, a campaign group which was set up to help applicants with the process, said technical issues with the online application system had been a “major issue” for EU nationals.
Some have been unable to get their email addresses verified, while others have faced blank web pages at different parts of the online application process with no clear route forward.
Ricardo, a 23-year-old Portuguese national, said: "I need to apply to stay here for myself, my sister and my parents. We couldn’t even get past the email verification stage. It’s been four days and the problem is the same."
Lenita, a 63-year-old Finnish national, said: "I went through the whole application, but when I got towards the end it reverted to a ’service is unavailable page' and wouldn’t let me continue.
"I don’t want to start again in case having two applications makes them think it's a fraud."
The Settled Status Advice Service said technical issues "blight the system, leaving many applicants unable to secure their rights to healthcare, education, and welfare."
Lib Dem Home Affairs spokesperson Ed Davey told PoliticsHome: “Nobody should be worried or anxious about their right to stay in the UK.
"Yet predictably, thanks to a hapless Home Office that hasn't got its act together, too many EU citizens have been held in limbo.
“With their unsurpassed reputation for inefficiency, no-one should trust the Home Office to sort out this botched scheme. People deserve better, and Liberal Democrats demand better.”
He added: “Ultimately, the best way to avoid all of this mess is by giving the people the option to remain in the EU with a People's Vote."
Applicants have also faced other difficulties in dealing with the service. Some have struggled to find proof of residency dating back five years, after the Home Office refused to take documents from 2019.
One German applicant who has been a housewife for the past five years even struggled to produce documents for 2018 - suggesting others will face similar challenges.
Applicants who have no access to an Android phone and no passport have to send their national ID cards through the post, meaning they are left without their only ID and travel document.
It has left some EU nationals paying around £100 for new passports, despite the scheme being free, to avoid having no form of identification while the Home Office processes their application.
Those who do post documents are recommended by the Home Office to send them by recorded delivery, which adds another cost to the process. Others travel to help centres which are dotted around the country.
Meanwhile, the Settled Status Advice Service said many EU nationals “have no idea” about the scheme in the first place and urged the Home Office to do more to advertise it.
Tory MP Alberto Costa, who has called for the Settled Status scheme to be scrapped in favour of an automatic residency system, told PoliticsHome he had "concerns" about its legality and operation.
He added: "I am not satisfied that the system is as straight-forward as the Government claims and I will continue to raise these issues directly with the Home Secretary and insist that he deal with them as a matter of urgency."
A Home Office spokesperson said: “EU citizens are our friends, family and neighbours and the Government has been very clear that we want them to stay.
“The EU Settlement Scheme is completely free, straightforward and performing very well and over 400,000 EU citizens have already applied, with over 50,000 applications received on the opening weekend.
“We are looking for ways to grant status and automatic checks against government data are making it simple for many people to apply successfully.
“In 79% of concluded cases during testing, applicants did not need to provide any further evidence of residence themselves.”