Surge in settled status applications as Brexit deadline nears

Employers warned to beware Home Office backlog, as government minister says free movement will end immediately on 1 November

More than half a million EU citizens applied to the EU Settlement Scheme last month, according to official figures, renewing concerns over the growing backlog of applications from European employees looking to stay in the country after Brexit.

Government statistics revealed there were 520,600 applications to the scheme in September alone. The previous record for a single month was 389,000 in April 2019.

It means the total number of applications for settled status has reached two million, out of an estimated 3.6 million EU citizens living in the UK and eligible to apply.

However, the figures also revealed just 373,000 decisions on status were made in September, adding to concerns that a backlog of applications – which totalled 275,500 at the end of September – could cause problems with the current Brexit deadline just two weeks away on 31 October.

The EU Settlement Scheme is a Home Office initiative designed to provide EU citizens and their families currently living and working in the UK with a route to remain in the country after Brexit. It is open to all EU citizens who began living in the UK before 31 December 2020 or – in the event of a no-deal Brexit – the date the UK leaves.

Many employers have been helping EU staff with settled status paperwork and actively encouraging them to apply, mindful that the number of EU citizens looking for work in the UK is already slowing as Brexit approaches. They will be concerned with any uncertainty over employees’ status, which could cause anguish for those involved and – in the most extreme scenario – could lead to some people having their right to remain revoked.

Karendeep Kaur, senior immigration consultant at Migrate UK, said: “The Home Office is already quite short staffed, so there is a bit of a mad rush with only a couple of weeks to go.”

Kaur added that, with the no-deal Brexit deadline so close, those who haven’t yet applied would be likely to do so, meaning the backlog was likely to increase.

“There’s still no certainty and a lot of people are preparing for the worst-case scenario – which is a no-deal Brexit – and trying to protect themselves and move forward with submitting applications,” she said.

Concerns have previously been raised that in the rush to make decisions, authorities could be awarding EU citizens eligible for settled status the less secure pre-settled status.

Today’s figures show that of the 1,524,500 decisions made by the end of September, 61 per cent granted settled status and 38 per cent pre-settled status. 

Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, said the record number of individuals applying for the scheme in September was “probably a response to ramped up no-deal rhetoric in August and September”.

Sumption said this meant applications had probably been received by about half of the 3.4 non-Irish EU citizens living in the UK. Irish citizens will still be able to live and work in the UK under an agreement predating freedom of movement in the EU.

Sumption added: “We have to be careful when trying to work out how close we’re getting to the ‘target’ number of applications. The official estimates of EU nationals exclude some people, such as those living in care homes or hostels, and may undercount others. The truth is that we do not know exactly how many people are eligible to apply.”

Settled status can be claimed by EU citizens who have lived in the UK for a continuous five-year period and allows the recipient the right to live and work in the UK indefinitely after Brexit. 

Any applicants who have not met the continuous residence threshold are given the more temporary pre-settled status, which only allows for a further five years of residence from the date the status is granted.

The importance of the scheme was highlighted today by Brandon Lewis, minister of state for security, who told German newspaper Die Welt that EU citizens in the UK would be subject to full immigration enforcement, and liable for removal from the country, if they missed the deadline.

However, Jon Boys, labour market economist at the CIPD, said it was already clear freedom of movement would end on 1 November if no-deal occurred. “This rhetoric of a hard line to end free movement is not something new. I don’t think that Brandon Lewis’s comments are necessarily the threshold for action,” he said.