The Home Office has been accused of being ‘less than co-operative’ in helping the vulnerable apply for its post-Brexit settlement scheme.
The criticism came after a 101-year-old man was told his parents must confirm his identity and a 95-year old was told to prove he is a resident in the UK as part of the application scheme.
Now the watchdog reviewing the government department’s handling of the project described some of its responses to concerns as “less positive and constructive” than hoped.
David Bolt, the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, praised some of the Home Office’s work to grant EU citizens permission to stay in the UK after Brexit and help vulnerable applicants, but also raised concerns and made a string of recommendations for improvements.
He said: “Most of the recommendations were aimed at improving the way the scheme operates for vulnerable and hard-to-reach individuals, and applicants who are finding the process difficult.
“Given the Home Office’s considerable efforts to date to make the (scheme) a success, I imagined that I would be pushing at an open door.
“Some of the responses are less positive and constructive than I had hoped.”
Maike Bohn, co-founder of the3million, claimed some people were “struggling to apply” or still do not know about the scheme and could miss out, adding: “The report echoes our key concerns that not enough has been done to reach, inform and assist EU citizens through this crucial process, like David Bolt we hoped for more positive and constructive responses from the Home Office.”
Bell Ribeiro-Addy, Labour’s shadow immigration minister, said: “It is unacceptable that government departments have been less than co-operative when the status of millions of EU citizens is at issue.”
The group Migrant Voice said: “We’re pleased this report shines a spotlight on some key concerns, such as the hidden costs of applying, a lack of transparency and detail in the Home Office data, and the need for consistency in how applications are processed.
“We know that the Home Office has been failing to fully recognise and respond to concerns regarding vulnerable EU nationals and it’s good to see the chief inspector advising the department to rectify this (although concerning that such obvious advice is still needed).”
The government has been previously warned it is walking into another Windrush scandal with its post-Brexit scheme for EU citizens.
The Home Office accepted all but one recommendation from the watchdog – which raised concerns about potential “hidden costs” of applying to the scheme and asked the department to consider whether it had done enough to ensure the application process was “genuinely free and therefore accessible to all applicants”.
The report highlighted costs which could be incurred through phone operator charges when calling the scheme’s helpline and charges imposed by some councils for ID document scanning services.
The department insisted it is free to apply to the scheme and it had not imposed charges but conceded on occasion some applicants may incur costs.
It said help and information was available by a variety of means, suggesting the costs could be avoided.
Around £4 million is being spent on advertising the scheme after a radio advert was banned for failing to make clear that more documents than just a passport or ID card would be needed to apply.
Migrant Voice also criticised the delay in publishing the report, which came out some five months after Bolt sent it to the home secretary.
He had asked for it to be made public quickly so there was “as much transparency about the scheme as possible”.
Officials put the delay down to the general election and the Christmas break and indicated this may put some of the report’s contents out of date.
A Home Office spokesman said: “We’re pleased that the inspector praised the Home Office’s management of the EU Settlement Scheme and recognised the wide range of support available online, by phone, and in person.
“It is the biggest scheme of its kind in British history, and we have granted nearly 2.9 million status with over a year to go.”