When the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) was unveiled in April 2018, the then Home Secretary Amber Rudd boasted that for citizens of EU countries applying for new immigration status in the UK after Brexit, the process would be ‘as easy as setting up an online account at LK Bennett.’ The simplicity and speed of processing applications was cast as the unique selling point of the new digital system.
Three years on, the EUSS is still often presented as an efficient and thus successful administrative device. Claims of success are underwritten with statements about the sheer volume of cases received and processed by the system. The section of the Home Office website dealing with application processing times is similarly upbeat. Last updated in May 2020, it states that ‘it usually takes around 5 working days for complete applications to be processed if no further information is required, but it can take up to a month.’
The claim that efficiency equals ‘success’ is central to the public legitimation of the EUSS. It is a claim that opens up important questions about the digitalization of immigration systems in the UK more generally. As controversy about the operation has grown leading up to the deadline for applications on 30th June 2021, so claims about the ‘success’ of the EUSS have been more forcefully challenged.
Home Office reporting on the EUSS has been subject to ongoing questioning since the EUSS was established. Establishing the factual record of the EUSS is itself a site of contestation, campaigning, and controversy.
One aspect of this broad issue is the question of how long it takes for applications to be processed. Prompted by an EUSS applicant who wished to remain anonymous, and in collaboration with the3million as part of our project’s engaged research methodology, we recently submitted Freedom of Information requests in order to throw some light on this question. We asked for the number of applications submitted under the EUSS which are yet to be decided, split into the following categories:
a) 31-90 days outstanding since the application date;
b) 91-180 days outstanding since the application date;
c) 181-365 days outstanding since the application date;
d) 366+ days outstanding since the application date.
The aim was to better understand how many applications are taking longer than the maximum time of 1 month, the public commitment given by the government.
We received two sets of figures: for end December 2020 and end April 2021. The latter are the most recent figures available.
They show that at the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020, there were 79,555 cases older than one month. By 30 April, however, this figure rose to 205,875 cases of all the 305,000 cases that were pending at the time.
Between the end of December 2020 and April 2021, the volume of cases waiting 1 to 3 months has doubled, and the number of cases waiting 3 to 6 months went up from below 10k to 80k. The number of cases over 12 months also increased albeit slightly, and the only category to go down was cases pending 6-12 months; their number halved in the same period.
The details are shown in the table below.
|Number of calendar days elapsed since application date||Number of applications yet to be decided as at 31-Dec-2020||Number of applications yet to be decided as at 30-Apr-2021|
It is worth noting, as we pointed out recently in a conversation with May Bulman over at The Independent, that applications from people under 18 years old are disproportionately represented in the backlog of unresolved cases. Applications from children make up less than 15% of all cases in the EUSS system, but they represent 26% of all pending cases. However, we do not know yet how many such applications are amongst cases waiting for over a month.
As the Home Office website states, applications can take longer: for example if they require additional evidence, where they involve criminal record, or where linking with an adult’s application is require. However, that does not quite explain either the volumes or the causes of the above delays.
This backlog is worrying in the context of the application deadline on 30th June 2021 – less than a week from now. Behind each delayed case there is an EU / EEA / Swiss citizen or a family member awaiting status.
The backlog also generates problems for those who need to verify immigration status, who include not just government departments and public services but also employers and landlords. The digital platform used to verify status means that those with pending applications are locked out of it. Instead, they need to rely on Certificates of Application, which introduces last-minute complexity into a system that for years was presented as simple and straightforward. And reports of applicants waiting for a long time – even two months – to get a Certificate of Application are not uncommon.
In the last few weeks running up to the deadline for new applications, these technical issues have gained more public attention, thanks in large part to concerted campaigning that has problematised various aspects of the operational dynamics of this new digital immigration system. And the 30th June deadline for applications really marks the beginning of the next phase of the life of the EUSS, rather than the end point of a ‘successful’ scheme.