Thousands of EU citizens could be living on breadline during pandemic because of flawed benefits process

Signage for the Department for Work and Pensions; Kirsty O'Connor/PA.

Signage for the Department for Work and Pensions; Kirsty O'Connor/PA. - Credit: PA

Thousands of EU nationals could be cut off from support during the coronavirus pandemic because of flaws in the Universal Credit application process, a thinktank has warned.

A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) estimates that a growing number of EU citizens are missing out on vital government assistance during the pandemic because of a 'flawed' application process for Universal Credit.

The thinktank analysed thousands of applications lodged to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in the last 12 months to discover that 45,000 claims - around 10% of the total load - had been rejected because applicants did not satisfy the 'Habitual Residence Test' (HRT). Around half are believed to be EU nationals.

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The HRT requires claimants to prove that they have a settled home and a 'right to reside' in the UK to gain access to benefits.

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But, people on zero-hour contracts or the self-employed fail to meet that threshold because of their low income.

The report also says poor communication from department officials and 'burdensome requests' placed on claimants to provide documentation are leading to the high number of people being turned down.

MORE: 'Pre-settled status' EU citizens denied Universal Credit during coronavirus crisis

Marley Morris, associate director for immigration at IPPR, called for urgent reforms of the system, pressuring Boris Johnson to 'make good' on a promise to help EU nationals.

'EU citizens are at the sharp-end of this crisis – with many working in vulnerable sectors such as hospitality and retail and at serious risk of redundancy. Yet the government's flawed 'Habitual Residence Test' risks barring many from accessing Universal Credit, leaving them with no safety net as the economic crisis unfolds,' she said.

'The prime minister has praised the contribution of EU citizens and just last month said to those who had left since the lockdown that 'we want you back'. Now he can make good on these words.

'Suspending the test for the duration of the immediate economic crisis would cut bureaucracy at the DWP, relieve the pressures on councils, and provide a lifeline for EU citizens who have made the UK their home.'

One rejected claimant, a French citizens who has lived in the UK longer than a decade and lost her job in March due to the pandemic, recounted being asked to collect documentation on her income stretching back to 2009.

She was later told she had failed the test without explanation, only that her income may have been too low to be considered 'genuine'.

'I was not even aware that it was called the habitual residence test, until I received the outcome and I was told that I failed it. I had no idea what was going on and it wasn't clear what they were looking for.'

'When I explained [to the jobcentre attendant] why my income was low, and I explained to her the process of having new clients and everything, she understood, but then she said to me, 'because you're an EU national you need to prove that you were in genuine employment'. But what does it mean? I mean, I was working.'

She added: 'I didn't sleep for a few nights... I was having panic attacks so I had to be on medication for a few days... In normal times it would have been very difficult, but considering the context [of the coronavirus outbreak] I could not even imagine that they would make this kind of decision without any real reason.'

EU nationals residing in the UK longer than five years who also have EU settled status automatically pass the HRT test, while those who have not need to provide their right to reside.

Stephen Timms MP, chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee has welcomed IPPR's findings and hopes it will spur change to application process.

A DWP spokesperson said: 'This government is committed to supporting people affected by Covid-19 and has implemented an enormous package of measures to do so such as income protection schemes, mortgage holidays and additional security for renters - which are all open to those with no recourse to public funds - as well as injecting over £6.5bn into the welfare system.

'EU citizens who are exercising a qualifying right to reside and are habitually resident in the UK will pass the HRT and can access income-related benefits. EU nationals can also apply to the Home Office EU settlement scheme to prove their right to reside.'

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