In this second guest blog post trainee solicitor Caitlin Alexander writes about the current EU Settlement Scheme.
In March of this year, the government announced a further £8 million to assist vulnerable people to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme – a scheme which EU citizens MUST apply to if they wish to stay in the UK after 30 June 2021.
Before I got my job as a Trainee Solicitor, I worked as an EU Citizens Support Adviser at Citizens Advice. My job was to assist vulnerable groups to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme. In my role, I facilitated face-to-face appointments with clients, provided the relevant technology, advice and an interpreter if required. I also had shifts on a national telephone advice service and ran seminars and training on the Scheme. These are the kinds of services that this further £8 million will be funding.
Of course, I welcome the government’s help; however, I believe that there needs to be some more thought put into how to use this new block of funding most effectively.
I would like to use a case which I dealt with in my role to illustrate my point. This was one of many cases which “slip through the cracks” of the EU Settlement Scheme’s seemingly “streamlined” and “accessible” nature. In order to keep my client’s identity private, I will give her the pseudonym of Gabrielle.
Gabrielle had spent a large part of her life in an abusive marriage. She managed to leave this marriage just a short while ago and was excited to start her new life. Originally from an EU country, she has been in the UK for over 20 years and thus the first thing that she wanted to do was to formalise her immigration status, so I went out to her house to try to assist her. This is the great thing about this government funding – Gabrielle had no money for a bus journey, so I was able to visit her at her home. She also had no money for a smartphone or computer so I was able to provide her with these too, as well as legal advice that she could not afford.
The first part of the application to the EU Settlement Scheme is an identity check. This is done on a mobile app and scans only passports, Biometric Residence Cards or EU national ID cards. Over the course of Gabrielle’s abusive relationship, her ex-partner took everything away from her, to the point where she no longer had even an identity. As a consequence, she did not possess any of these forms of identification. I advised her that I could request a paper application and she could send another form of ID. She told me that she would try to source her birth certificate from her daughter, who was also an EU national.
At our first meeting, Gabrielle was in a difficult situation. She had no money due to her ex-partner financially controlling her, so she was living in council temporary homeless accommodation. She could not afford the rent in this accommodation as she had no income and so was being served with an eviction notice. She could not work due to severe mental health issues arising from her past abuse and she advised me that she was suicidal. Gabrielle could not access Universal Credit due to her immigration status. In order to be eligible for Universal Credit, Gabrielle would have to pass the “habitual residence test”. One way that this test can be passed is when someone has been granted Settled Status through the EU Settlement Scheme.
In order to be granted Settled Status, Gabrielle would not only have to submit a form of ID but also evidence that she has been present in the UK for at least 5 years. In her past relationship, her ex-partner, as a form of control, had his name on all of the bills so she could not use utility bills to prove her residence. She was also prohibited from working or claiming benefits by him so could not provide a national insurance number as evidence. Based on the amount of time she has stayed in the UK, I asked Gabrielle if she had ever been granted any form of permanent residence or indefinite leave to remain. I advised her that, if she provided evidence of this then the Home Office could see how long she has been residing in the UK. Gabrielle told me that her ex-partner would intercept all of her mail, so she did not know what her immigration status was.
I called the EU Settlement Scheme Resolution Centre, and made a case by explaining the severity of her circumstances, to get her a paper application form. In the application form, the applicant must explain why they cannot provide the accepted forms of ID and must provide another form of ID. Unfortunately, Gabrielle could not locate her birth certificate and consequently had no form of ID to submit along with the paper application.
I emailed the relevant consulate to ask if they could provide an appointment for Gabrielle to obtain an ID card. They explained that they were fully booked for the next while. I called and explained the urgency of the situation, asking for an exception to be made. They agreed and asked for her birth certificate. When I explained that she did not have this, I was told that they could not help.
In this time, Gabrielle started to feel more and more hopeless and suicidal as she could not break free from her situation. She fell into more arrears and was evicted from her accommodation. Unfortunately, my time at this job had come to an end and I could not stay to follow up on her situation. I cannot stop myself from wondering how she is doing, from wondering if she is even still alive and from wishing that I could be there to help her and to give her a voice.
I hope that the government can halt celebrations over their £8 million funding surge for long enough to stop and really think about how to make the EU Settlement Scheme truly accessible so that people like Gabrielle are not overlooked. I urge the government to look more holistically, and to consider the multiple forms of discrimination which people are subjected to. In Gabrielle’s case, her immigration issue intersected with gender-based violence, poverty, homelessness, and disability. Her inability to qualify for Settled Status stopped her from fully exiting her cycle of violence.
Given that Gabrielle’s difficulties manifest from structural shortcomings, it is down to institutions to create dialogue and work together. I suggest that the government and relevant EU consulates and embassies collaborate to find a solution to situations where EU nationals are unable to prove their identity. It may be that consulates, if urged, will be amenable to suggestions to expedite the process for obtaining ID or at the very least to provide clear advice on what to do in these circumstances.
If only one take-away can arise from Gabrielle’s situation then let it be this: her circumstances are an important example of how the current system is failing many EU citizens through this Scheme. Her situation is a powerful message to the government and to consulates, a plea from those who have been forgotten, to consider the vulnerable with ALL of their vulnerabilities.
Cailtin is currently a Trainee Solicitor, working mainly in Immigration Law. She is a passionate advocate for many Human Rights causes, using her spare time to volunteer with minority groups as well as teach sexual violence workshops on university campus.