30 June 2021. One year today. The last day for our friends, family members and neighbours affected by Brexit immigration changes to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme.
The opening of the EU Settlement Scheme in March 2019 seems a world away. The bus stop posters with cups of tea, politely inviting people to apply, have been overtaken by Brexit comings and goings, a general election and a global health pandemic.
What hasn’t changed is the risk to those who haven’t applied by the deadline. The consequences could be catastrophic: no access to the job market, higher education, welfare benefits, private rented accommodation, bank accounts, driving licences, and the risk of immigration raids, detention or removal from the UK. It sounds like a horror story. As the bitter experience of the Windrush generation shows, that’s exactly what life is like facing the Hostile Environment.
The Home Office is pre-occupied with the number of people who have applied – over 3 million – but ignores the more pressing question: how many have not? The answer is, the government doesn’t know how many people in the UK need to make an application. What is clear, from the experience of support organisations across the country, is that certain groups are more likely to end up on the wrong side of the deadline. People with disrupted pasts and complicated presents that make it difficult to get the evidence required to make an application: domestic violence survivors, people experiencing homelessness, children in care and care leavers…
An estimated 10,000 children in care and care leavers are affected by Brexit. We’ve been working with children’s services and leaving care teams to try to make sure that the hundreds of children and young people affected in Greater Manchester are properly supported. One example is Manchester City Council’s pledge to support its affected young people.
Gleaned from our work with social workers, personal advisers, service managers and legal staff, here are the three things we believe local authorities must do if their children in care and care leavers are protected through the Brexit immigration change-over.
Collect nationality data
The biggest barrier to local authorities being able to support young people with immigration needs, like Brexit, is that they are unable to identify them. Nationality data is not routinely collected and so for most local authorities Brexit has meant manually trawling through case files one by one. As a result too many are being missed. Having accessible information on children’s nationality needs to be an integral part of effective care planning. And it’s imperative this information is collected with a data firewall to Home Office enforcement.
Set up referral protocols for immigration advice
All young people identified as affected by Brexit should be automatically referred for independent legal advice. Local authorities should consider commissioning arrangements where necessary to enable this. The Home Office has strongly pushed people towards the EU Settlement Scheme, but that might not be the only or the most secure immigration application. Immigration advice allows an exploration of all options (including citizenship applications) in the best interest of the child.
Support British citizenship
For many children (born in the UK or having lived here for many years) rights to British citizenship need to be considered. Citizenship takes children out the system of immigration control with its exorbitant fees, uncertainty and fear. This has particular importance for young people in contact with the criminal justice system; it means matters stay in the criminal justice system and don’t leach over to immigration. Local authorities need to protect their Brexit generation from the spectre of charter flights like #Jamaica50 which saw young men, in the UK since small boys, deported for one-time, historic, low-level offences. And this means paying the Home Office application fee (currently £1,012 for children – £640 of which is pure profit).
Our work has shown that a strategic response is required from local authorities, owned at a corporate level, rather than relying on good social work practice from individuals. There are advantages to this proactive approach, both for young people and local authorities. Measures put in place to support children and young people with Brexit will identify and support a wider group with insecure immigration status; young people born in the UK who think they are British but have no documents to evidence it or children from families who have no valid immigration status. Several Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman investigations have found against local authorities deemed to have acted in an inappropriate or untimely manner to support looked after children with their immigration issues, including in London and the West Midlands. This pro-active approach, learning through Brexit, puts local authorities on the front foot, means they are better able to plan (including around budgets, staffing and communications) and ultimately means they are best placed to do the right thing by their children.
The government is so far refusing to bow to the logic of automatic status for people affected by Brexit immigration changes – the immigration bill currently in parliament provides another opportunity for the arguments to be made, but as it stands the government does not appear to be listening. Which means that because of the inherent difficulties for children in care and care leavers applying to the EU Settlement Scheme, and the added delays caused by COVID-19, actions taken by local authorities in the coming months will decide whether their futures in the UK are secured, or if they become part of a generation described as ‘Windrush on steroids’.