The Home Office is trying to discourage EU nationals from applying for permanent residence in the UK to avoid being deluged by applications after the triggering of the Article 50 Brexit clause.
According to new guidance released this month, EU citizens are instead advised to sign up for emailed news alerts that will tell them if and when they need to take action over their UK residence. However, there is no indication the British government is offering any new guarantees over their status post-Brexit.
The updated advice — initially emailed to immigration professionals and now posted on the Home Office website — clearly discourages EU nationals from embarking on the 85-page residence application.
“You do not need to do anything as a result of Article 50 being triggered. There will be no change to the rights and status of EU nationals living in the UK while the UK remains in the EU,” it reads.
“Under EU law you don’t need a document to confirm your residence status in the UK. If you’re planning to apply for a document just to confirm your status, you can sign up for email alerts instead.” Those updates, the guidance adds, will inform interested parties about future steps to confirm their status in the UK post-Brexit.
One immigration lawyer said that while the Home Office had always maintained EU citizens were under no legal obligation to secure residence in Britain before Brexit, the guidance now amounted to officials saying “quite forcefully . . . ‘please, don’t apply’.”
Nick Rollason, partner and head of business immigration at Kingsley Napley, the law firm, said the message was an attempt by the Home Office “to calm people down and allay their fears that they need documentation”.
He suggested that officials were trying to delay an expected avalanche of applications until the Brexit negotiations provided greater clarity on the rights of EU nationals in Britain.
“I don’t think there’s any question that the Home Office will eventually put in place a process that allows EU nationals to prove their residence in an easier, quicker way,” Mr Rollason said. “The idea would be that the Home Office could deal with applications more easily and applicants could send in fewer documents. While the current system has been improved, it still takes up a huge amount of caseworker time.”
According to Home Office figures, more than 92,000 permanent residence applications were received from EU nationals in 2016. While the latest data have not been published, the total number is expected to be well over 100,000.
The figure has jumped steeply since last June’s referendum but it still represents only a fraction of the estimated 3m EU citizens currently in the UK. The Home Office announced last month that it was hiring an extra 240 staff in its Liverpool visa office to speed up processing times. But it is limited by budget cuts and does not have the resources to deal with a sustained increase in applications between now and the Brexit deadline of spring 2019.
The Home Office is facing criticism of its permanent residence process on several fronts. Despite some successful moves to streamline the system and reduce the amount of documentary evidence that applicants need to supply, some EU nationals are still being rejected on the basis that they did not take out comprehensive sickness insurance, which is a requirement under freedom of movement rules.
As the Financial Times has reported, there is also consternation in Brussels over the “unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles” imposed by the UK on EU citizens seeking to exercise their rights in Britain. The 85-page form has been cited as a particular point at issue.
Barbara Roche, former immigration minister and chair of the Migration Matters Trust, suggested the latest Home Office advice was likely to be about “helping to manage the process better”.
“I wouldn’t underestimate the burden on that department at the moment,” said Ms Roche said. First, there’s the work involved in designing what the new immigration policy will look like, and on top of that, there’s the question of what structures do we have to put in place to make sure that this can happen?”
The Home Office declined to comment.