The third phase of testing for the government’s settled status scheme has opened, with millions of EU nationals expected to apply to continue living and working in the UK.
The government previously said earlier test phases of the scheme had gone smoothly, however experts have warned the huge number of individuals expected to apply now the scheme is more widely open could cause the system to “fall over”.
There are an estimated 3.5 million EU citizens currently living in the UK who will have to apply for settled status by 30 June 2021 if they wish to remain in the country after Brexit.
This latest stage of the rollout is only open to those with a valid passport – as opposed to a national ID card – and applicants must be able to download the Home Office app for Android phones.
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Karendeep Kaur, senior immigration consultant at Migrate UK, said the benefit of the scheme was that it allowed employers and HR professionals to apply early and “spread a sense of security” through their workforce.
But Kaur warned applicants still faced obstacles. “With there being a huge number of applicants looking to apply... it is more than likely that the system will fall over when attempting to process the millions of applications which will undoubtedly be flooding in,” she said.
“However, this is one of the aims of the public test phase to combat any issues with the system prior to the nationwide launch in March 2019,” she added.
Applications cost £65 for over-16s, and many employers in both the public and private sector have already committed to meeting the cost in order to retain employees. Heathrow Airport, Islington Council and a number of NHS trusts are among those that have pledged to cover the cost of applications.
Gary McIndoe, MD of Latitude Law, which specialises in immigration law, told People Management paying for employees’ applications was a “pretty easy win” for employers. “It's not a massive amount of money for an employer and it shows positive intent,” he said.
Employers can’t force staff to apply for settled status, but they “can certainly encourage their staff to make their applications in a timely way and they can support with documentation to support applications”, said McIndoe. He conceded it was much easier for larger organisations with dedicated HR departments, but urged all businesses not to overlook or sideline the issue.
“The thing to bear in mind for an employer is if you don’t act in the right way and you don’t encourage your EU staff to register by the deadline then you’ve got some very significant penalties if you fail right-to-work tests,” he added. These include large fines for every employee without the right to work, which can add up to tens of thousands of pounds.
“They’re off the scale compared to the cost of funding those £65 applications,” said McIndoe.
The latest round of applications follows two previous test phases – the first involving just over 1,000 people, and the second almost 30,000. Of those who applied in the second round, no individuals were refused. However, McIndoe warned this was unlikely to happen this time around.
“Its broadening out to a much wider range of employers,” he said. “My overall feeling is this next stage is going to show up some gaps and flaws in the process that haven't been revealed so far.”
The scheme will be fully open by 30 March 2019.
UPDATE: Since this article was published, prime minister Theresa May announced she will scrap the £65 application fee and reimburse any applicants who have already paid.