IT issues hinder foreign nationals seeking 'settled status' in UK

Written by Emilio Casalicchio and Tom Freeman on 11 April 2019 in News

Foreign nationals hit by hiccups in scheme to guarantee them a right to stay in the UK after Brexit

UK Border force passport check - Steve Parsons/PA

Foreign nationals who have lived in the UK for years have been hit by IT issues when trying to guarantee their rights after Brexit, Holyrood's sister site PoliticsHome has found.

UK ministers introduced the 'Settled Status' scheme as a way of ensuring EU nationals can continue living in the UK with full citizenship rights, but many have found the process of registering a logistical challenge.

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 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.

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."

Last week the head of research at England's education watchdog OFSTED, Prof Daniel Muijs, said he had been refused settled status.

However he now says the application has been accepted. 

"I am happy to report that my application for settled status has now been accepted, following submission of additional evidence," he tweeted.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wrote to all EU nationals in Scotland last week, promising to support their applications. 

"We will be supporting community groups and employers to help them ensure you know your rights, how to apply, and can get suitable help and advice if you need it," she said.

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