Phoebe Arslanagić-Wakefield: The Government must give EU nationals the security they deserve

29 Jun

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.

Phoebe Arslanagić-Wakefield: Ministers should add legal aid to the ‘levelling up’ agenda

2 Dec

Phoebe Arslanagić-Wakefield is a Researcher at Bright Blue.

Perhaps over half-way through the pandemic, thoughts are turning back to the levelling up programme the Government has promised to pursue.

September saw eager Conservative MPs launch the Levelling Up Taskforce and the newly-formed Northern Research Group is putting pressure on the Government to deliver on its promise to level up the North.

But if Conservatives are serious about addressing regional inequalities across the country, then legal aid must make the cut and appear alongside transport, investment levels and R&D on the levelling up agenda.

This is vital. Austerity-era cuts and a lack of funding have created a system in which access to legal advice is highly regional. These damaging geographical inequalities now exist across England and are especially stark in the housing law practice area, and they will soon be made even starker by the effects of coronavirus.

The problem first emerged when 2012 cuts to legal aid saw the number of providers plummet, and plummet unevenly. The resulting creation of ‘legal aid deserts’ means that there are vast swathes of England and Wales where legal advice for housing issues is simply non-existent locally. These yawning gaps mean that as of 2019, 37 per cent of people in England and Wales – some 21 million people – live in a local authority area where there are no housing legal aid providers.

These figures have to be viewed in the context that housing legal aid covers the gravest problems that a tenant can face, including severe disrepair, repossession proceedings, and eviction.

Eviction is already the single biggest cause of homelessness in England and an estimated 227,000 renters have fallen into arrears since the beginning of the pandemic in March. The Government has responded to fears of a wave of pandemic-related evictions with an eviction ban that was effectively extended over the second lockdown, and by extending notice periods till March 2021.

Nevertheless, tens of thousands of people have already been made homeless as a result of the pandemic and sooner or later, the Government’s alleviating measures will come to an end. When they do, official forecasters have made it clear that the economic scarring of the pandemic will still be here, predicting soaring unemployment.

As harried tenants, months behind on rent with depleted savings, are eventually served eviction notices, they will need legal advice. But they may well find that a housing legal aid service simply does not exist in their area.

Busy Northern Research Group MPs may be pleased to learn that they can cross one thing off their list – when it comes to legal aid, the south trails the north. In the south west, a shocking 92 per cent of people live in a local authority with one or no provider. Cornwall must make do with a lone housing legal aid provider serving just over half a million people across an area of some 1,300 square miles.

The situation is also dire in the East of England, where 91 per cent of the population, more than five million people, live in a local authority area without a housing legal aid provider. A resident of Jaywick – named England’s most deprived area for the third time in a row last year – attempting to reach their nearest housing legal aid provider without a car, must make a two hour journey each way, taking two trains and a bus in the process.

Meanwhile, northern cities including Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield, have plenty of housing legal aid providers to go around. London stands apart as a veritable oasis, with an incredible 49 per cent of England and Wales’ housing legal aid providers concentrated in the city.

The regional disparities encapsulated in the legal aid desert phenomenon hamper the abilities of those living outside major cities to exercise their legal rights, to make good decisions, and to challenge unfair processes. This critically overlooked issue will continue to loom as the pandemic bites into next year, and more and more people face the terrifying prospect of eviction without access to solid legal advice.

For this reason, legal aid must urgently appear on the levelling up agenda, and Conservative MPs must pressure the Government on the matter, just as they do on coronavirus support measures or poor transport links.