REVEALED: How kids in care could 'slip through the net' under the Home Office's Brexit citizenship shake-up
Labour and the Liberal Democrats have demanded urgent changes to the Home Office's "cruel" post-Brexit citizenship scheme amid fears children in care could lose their right to stay in the UK after Brexit.
Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott told PoliticsHome that kids in care should be granted an "automatic" right to stay in Britain once the country leaves the EU, after MPs, charities and cash-strapped councils warned it was "almost inevitable” that some will not be able to secure their immigration status unless ministers offer more help.
An estimated 5,000 looked-after children and 4,000 care leavers in the UK are European nationals.
Like other European citizens, they will have to apply to stay in the United Kingdom under the Home Office's ' EU Settlement Scheme ' scheme before 30 June 2021 if Britain leaves the EU with a deal - or by 31 December 2020 in the event of no-deal.
But campaigners and experts told PoliticsHome that struggles in confirming nationality, securing documents such as birth certificates, pressure on social workers, and the need for specialist legal knowledge are among the barriers facing children in care who are being asked to secure their right to stay here.
Ms Abbott said: “It has never been clearer that the EU settlement scheme is a Windrush scandal in the making.
“The idea that vulnerable children could so easily become undocumented, is not only ridiculous but cruel.
“Children in care should be granted automatic settled status and any citizenship fees should be waived.”
The latest Home Office figures show that just 12% of eligible children under 16 have applied for either 'pre-settled' or 'settled' status since its launch in August 2018.
Labour's Teresa Pearce is one of several MPs calling for automatic status to be granted to the vulnerable cohort - and demanding that fees for British citizenship applications - which currently cost £1,012 - are scrapped.
The “crippling” figure, MPs and charities claim, acts as a “disincentive” for hard-pressed councils - who have a legal responsibility to assist children in care with their applications - to do so.
Ms Pearce said: “The current process is overly complicated, riddled with confusion about who qualifies for British citizenship versus who qualifies to apply through the EU settlement scheme - and, in addition to this, fees for citizenship can be crippling.
“Compounding all of that is the fact that there is no documentation that identifies children and young people by their nationality.
“This means hundreds of children and young people are slipping through the net at risk of becoming undocumented and left without lawful status.”
Ms Pearce has urged Home Secretary Priti Patel to “do more and quickly”, as she warned: "If action is not taken we will be creating a second Windrush scandal with thousands of young people destitute, desolate and undocumented in a post-Brexit UK.”
Fellow Labour MP Steve McCabe has meanwhile warned: “This has all the makings of a disaster, but it is a disaster that could be avoided.”
Christine Jardine, Home Affairs spokesperson for the Lib Dems, said: "Boris Johnson and the Leave campaign promised to guarantee the rights of all EU citizens in the UK, but they have broken that promise.
“The Conservative Government is forcing EU citizens to apply for settled status. Many – especially the most vulnerable – won’t apply in time. They would lose their rights and become the victims of a new Windrush-style scandal. That is unacceptable."
Coram Children’s Legal Centre, a charity which receives funds from the Home Office to help local authorities with the scheme, told PoliticsHome that there was a “very, very strong” need for children in care to receive specialist legal advice to help them navigate the scheme.
Policy manager Marianne Lagrue said: “The scheme for children is not always simple and easy.
“If you’re paying tax in the UK and you’ve been living here for a decade, and you’re an adult with a clear HMRC record and access to an Android phone and your passport - yes, the scheme is very simple.
“But for separated children, none of those things are going to apply, though they may have lived in the UK their whole lives.”
Ms Lagrue said there were still “really low levels of awareness” that children in care may need to apply to secure their status.
“It might be lots of local authorities are really working hard and struggling to get passports for children in care,” she said.
“There might be all sorts of practical barriers such as parental consent, getting hold of birth certificates and their parents’ marriage certificate. These kinds of practical barriers can lead to significant delay.
“But we’re against a ticking clock and there’s only so much you can delay.”
And she added: “There’s a mountain to climb to get vulnerable EU citizens and their family members to apply for the scheme. There is a very real and present danger that many children in the UK will lose their rights. The risk is huge.”
That view was echoed by the Children’s Society, who told this site that Home Office guidance to social workers had failed to spell out the differences between pre-settled and settled status for children in care.
“I think the system is set out as such as very much focused on what you can prove rather than what actually should be the right status for you,” the organisation's policy and research manager Ilona Pinter said.
Ms Pinter said councils were already “really struggling” with helping young people use the system and were not "equipped with the resources to be able to make these applications".
'COMPLICATED AND TIME-CONSUMING'
Ministers have vowed to ensure that the scheme is "accessible for everyone" and has pledged cash to outside organisations so that they can help vulnerable people navigate the system and secure their status.
But some councils approached by PoliticsHome confirmed that they were still waiting on promised funds from the Home Office.
Councillor Philip Owen, chair of the children and young people’s committee on Nottinghamshire County Council, said: “The nationality of some of these children is unclear because of the combination of the parents’ differing nationalities and the child’s place of birth.
“The work needed to resolve the issues involved will require costly and specialist legal work."
Speaking of his own local authority's work, Councillor Owen said: "No applications have been made to date although the necessary preparations for managing applications are under way.
“The council has received clear guidance from the Home Office about the steps which will need to be taken and a promise of funding to cover these additional requirements.
“However, the level of funding has not currently been confirmed and no money has yet been received."
Birmingham Children’s Trust, which is responsible for 50 European children in care and is assisting a further 24 care leavers, meanwhile confirmed it had yet to begin wading through applications, and was still making sure its “process and guidance materials" were "fully understood".
And while East Sussex County Council said it was “fortunate” to have a relatively small number of just six children affected by the issue, a spokesperson told this site: “It has been particularly complicated and time-consuming due to these children not having passports or ID documents.
“We already have very limited resources due to ongoing funding pressures facing all local authorities and would welcome additional resources to address these extra responsibilities.”
Criticism has also been levelled at the fact teenagers aged 16 and 17 are “subsumed” into the Home Office's adult category, despite legally being children - a move that some fear makes it harder to track their progress through the system.
Sarah Hammond, children's director at Kent County Council, said the process for 30 out of the 49 European children under its care had been "easy" because of its own "sophisticated" data system for looked after-children.
But she said the “real difficulty” for the authority was helping the smaller numbers of looked-after children who come into care under ‘Section 20’ rules - where local authorities look after them but parents maintain responsibility and take decisions for the child.
Under the Home Office's guidance for the EU Settlement Scheme, these children's applications must be made by their parents.
But Ms Hammond said: “These are children and young people whose parents don’t want them in their care. It’s a very, very delicate dynamic.”
She added: “Do I think some young people in this category will get to D-Day without the settled status? Yes, I think that’s almost inevitable.”
Alongside children in care, it is also feared that “unknown numbers” of children in need - those who never entered the care system - could also fall through the net in Britain's post-Brexit immigration system.
Children in the criminal justice system, abandoned children and homeless teenagers are among those who campaigners and MPs are concerned could fall foul of the system.
Ms Pinter of the Children's Society said: “We are going to face a situation in a year’s time where they will still be hundreds of thousands of people who haven’t put in their applications.
"And we will need to think really seriously: are we going to leave a huge population of children and young people and families without status, unable to access basic support and housing and education or employment as a result of that?”
MINISTER: WE WANT THEM TO STAY
The Home Office said it had "made it our priority to ensure that the EU Settlement Scheme is accessible for everyone".
A spokesperson told PoliticsHome: "The Government has confirmed that it will make provision for those who have reasonable grounds for missing the deadline, including children whose parent or guardian has failed to submit an application on their behalf.
“We are providing grant funding of up to £9 million for voluntary and community organisations across the UK to support EU citizens who need help.”
Local authorities also told PoliticsHome they had been able to take part in teleconference calls with the Home Office, helping them to understand the scheme and obtain key contact details.
Officials told this site that the Home Office would be monitoring progress through data provided by councils and health and social care trusts to try track any arising problems.
Home Office minister Brandon Lewis said: “We’ve been crystal clear – EU citizens are our friends and neighbours, and we want them to stay in the UK. I am delighted that over 1.5 million people have already applied.”
He added: “There is plenty of support available, including over 1500 Home Office staff working on the Scheme and dedicated help online, on the phone and in person.
“EU citizens and their families have until at least 31 December 2020 to apply.”
But Ms Pinter of the Children's Society warned: “I think the gravity of the consequences for children of not getting settled status we don’t know at the moment, because the Government hasn’t given any reassurance that those who do not sort their status by the deadline won’t become unlawfully resident. That’s basically the reality at the moment.”