Research Summary

What are the aims of the project?

This research explores the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS), a policy framework and an administrative procedure introduced in line with the Withdrawal Agreement ratified by the United Kingdom and the European Union in January 2020. It is focussed on the algorithmic design and digital operation of the EUSS, with particular attention to the  systematic asymmetry between the administratively efficient processing of information and decisions, and opacity for those engaging the system. The research aims to address two intersecting research questions:

  • How does the digital management of the EUSS reconfigure issues of equality, fairness and accountability in systems of immigration control?
  • How does the digitalization of immigration control in the EUSS reconfigure processes of legal monitoring, representation, and redress through which the responsibilities for administrative justice are enforced?

What kinds of research methods does the project use?

Using a process tracing research methodology, the project is designed around two main strategies of generating and collecting data:

  • Digital archival research, which includes qualitative and quantitative information already in the public domain, as well as data discovered trough freedom of information requests and other strategies to generate disclosure.
  • Interviews and workshops with key stakeholders, which include politicians, policymakers, civil servants from the UK and EU, as well as representatives of civil society organisations and independent scrutiny bodies involved in the implementation, monitoring, or challenging of the EUSS operations.

What is the duration of the project?

The project runs from January 2021 until December 2023.

We will engage with stakeholders throughout this time, although we seek to complete data collection stages by December 2022.

Background information:

The EUSS was introduced in line with the draft Withdrawal Agreement to transfer EU, European Economic Area and Swiss residents and family members currently living in the UK into the UK’s immigration system. It can also be used to facilitate entry into the UK for eligible family members. It is operated by the Home Office and opened to the public in spring 2019.

The EUSS is a constitutive system: with the exception of Irish citizens, all eligible residents living in the UK have to apply to it, or else they will lose their legal status in the country. The Home Office estimated that population eligible for the Scheme includes from 3.5 to 4.1 million people, but the exact figure remains unknown due to lack of data and movement of people. By February 2021, the EUSS received over 5.0 million applications and made over 4.6 million decisions: grants of indefinite and limited leave to remain, as well as rejections and refusals. The deadline for residents to apply, or lose their status, is 30 June 2021. The EUSS runs at least until 2026 to allow repeat applications for over 2.0 million users granted only pre-settled status, which is temporary and affords lesser socioeconomic rights than the permanent settled status.

This research project approaches the EUSS as one example of a more widespread process of administrative reform in the post-Brexit context, and as intersecting with the digitalisation of administrative systems across government and the public sector in the UK and globally. As the prime example of digitalisation of immigration control in the UK, the EUSS has generated controversy concerning the consistency of its automated procedures with principles of administrative justice. These concerns are publicly articulated through the interaction between government agencies, statutory monitoring authorities, EU representatives, and civil society organisations. The public controversies around the EUSS revolve around issues of access to information and reliability of official reporting, which make it difficult to establish whether there are systematic inequalities in outcomes, and difficult to establish grounds for redress and review of the operation of the system.

The EUSS is characterised by a systematic asymmetry between the administratively efficient processing of information and decisions, and the lack of accessibility for those engaging the system. The opacity of the EUSS is therefore central to the conceptual focus of this project, and it directly informs the methodological strategy of ‘process tracing’. This has a dual aspect: an investigation of how information is processed in and around the system; and inquiry into how the forms of grievance that emerge from its operation give rise to organised forms of mobilisation, campaigning, and legal challenge.

The research will contribute to understandings of three aspects of changing practices of governance after Brexit:

  • Given that the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement between the UK and the EU remains an uncertain and contested field, the research will throw light on the evolution of the UK’s relationship with the EU.
  • The EUSS provides a case study in the emergent politics of digital decision-making in the public administration of immigration in the UK, in light of the stated intention to design any new points-based immigration system as digital-only.
  • The EUSS provides a case study of the role of civil society organisations in shaping processes of redress and review of the structured inequalities generated by new systems of public administration and governance.