Phoebe Arslanagić-Wakefield is a Researcher at Bright Blue.
The EU Settlement Scheme’s close is rapidly approaching on 30th June, with over five million EU citizens having applied for the right to live and work in the UK. Let us consider the position of those EU citizens who can cheerfully ignore this impending deadline because they have already applied to the Scheme and received their settled status. Though not provided with any physical proof of that status, such as a biometric card, the Home Office claims that they need not worry, because they have been supplied with digital proof instead.
The Government argues that digital proof is more secure because it cannot be lost, tampered with or stolen. These are real benefits, but providing EU citizens with digital-only proof raises questions around reliability and digital exclusion, particularly in the absence of a gradual rollout and without the option of requesting physical proof.
Earlier this month, a global internet outage caused by the malfunctional server of an obscure company took down websites all over the world, including Twitter, The Guardian and crucially, Gov.uk, for around an hour. Had a potential employer been attempting to carry out Right to Work checks on an applicant with settled status in that time, the Gov.uk website would have unhelpfully said ‘Error 503 Service Unavailable’.
Though a worldwide internet crash is highly uncommon, there are also concerning reports of EU citizens being unable to access proof of settled status because of unreliable internet connections, and even due to Gov.uk website maintenance. Whether it be down to dodgy wifi or malfunctioning websites, the importance of proof of settled status necessitates it be as reliably accessible as possible. Digital-only proof currently fails that high standard.
Digital settled status also makes indefensible assumptions about the digital literacy of users. It requires: a good internet connection; a smartphone or computer; the knowledge to be able to use those devices; and, the ability to navigate the website itself, including its two-factor authentication process. This problem cuts both ways – while it is unfair and discriminatory to assume all EU nationals have these skills, we also cannot assume that landlords and employers, who need to see proof of status, do either.
Indeed, the Government’s own 2018 assessment of the move to digital-only proof of Right to Work clearly identified that such a system would cause those with low digital literacy “a lot of issues”, concluding that there was a clear need for access to physical proof.
Furthermore, while we lack good data on the digital literacy of EU citizens in the UK, the Universal Credit system reveals the pitfalls of a purely digital set-up. Bright Blue research identified that claimants with low digital literacy were much more likely to encounter serious issues navigating the online Universal Credit system, but that even those with good digital skills could still find using the system complex and challenging.
Finally, digital-only proof is flawed in less tangible ways. Undoubtedly, there is a sense of security when a document as important as that which proves one’s immigration status is physically held. It is difficult to quantify this benefit, but helpful to imagine how few British citizens would elect to trade in their passport for a purely digital version. And if you would not give up your passport for a digital one, then why should EU citizens be content with a digital-only version of the document proving their very right to be here?
When asked in 2020 whether there were plans to review the decision not to grant physical proof of settled status, Kevin Foster, the Home Office Minister, responded that the department was developing a “digital by default” system for all migrants, pointing to Australia as a nation with a similar system. But while it has a digital-only visa system, it was rolled out gradually since 2004, with the free option of a physical backup until 2015, rather than imposed on a swathe of the population with no alternative.
In this context, the Home Office must change its position and, as a matter of urgency, offer EU citizens the option of physical proof of settled status while it continues to roll out its “digital by default” system for all migrants. That should be simple because non-EU citizens living in the UK already receive physical proof of their immigration status in the form of Biometric Residence Permits.
The option of a physical back-up would positively capture digitisation benefits while reducing the risk of EU citizens experiencing issues with digital-only proof when looking for employment or a place to live. By reducing the likelihood of such issues, we can do our best to ensure that EU nationals feel secure and confident in their future in the UK, maximising their opportunity to work and contribute.