The Home Office is being warned it risks creating a new “Windrush scandal” as the roll-out of its post-Brexit scheme to register an estimated 3.5 million EU citizens living in the UK begins.
EU nationals and their family members who wish to remain in the country beyond June 2021 must apply to the settlement scheme, which enters its first public testing phase on Monday.
The website and app opens to EU nationals living in the UK with passports and their non-EU family members with biometric residence cards, ahead of a full launch by April.
Critics are warning that thousands could be left without legal status if applications are not processed quickly and efficiently.
Jill Rutter, think tank British Future’s strategy director, said: “The Home Office must invest in getting the EU settlement scheme right from the start.
“Failure to do so could cause massive problems in years to come, on a far bigger scale than the Windrush scandal.”
Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes said extensive testing “shows clearly that we are well on track to deliver a system that will make it easy and straightforward for EU citizens to obtain status”.
But pressure group the3million surveyed its EU members to find their biggest concern was losing their rights in the future, with founder Maike Bohn warning trust in ministers is low.
“The Windrush people trusted the Home Office and many of them got deported because they were citizens but couldn’t prove it,” she said.
Officials expect they can process about 6,000 applications a day, with about 1,500 caseworkers on the scheme and a further 400 in a resolution centre to deal with issues.
A trial of nearly 30,000 applicants was restricted to people in specific professions, with only a small number of vulnerable people participating.
More than two thirds were approved in three working days and 81% within a week.
While improvements to the process have been made, nearly a quarter of people told the Government they found it difficult during previous testing.
The price of applying for settled status is £65 for adults and £32.50 for children, although people already granted permanent residence face no extra charge.
Many will choose to use an app created by the Government but it can only be used on Android devices, which excludes iPhones and iPads, although there other ways to apply.
British Future’s report, entitled “Getting it right from the start: securing the future of EU citizens in the UK”, has identified potential barriers.
It says people may not hear about the scheme, might not realise it applies to them, struggle to provide proof of residency or find the system hard to navigate.
There is also a possibility the system will have technical difficulties matching names and official records, according to the report.
Its co-author Ms Rutter said: “The stakes are high.
“Get it right and the UK sends a strong message that EU citizens are welcome and the Government is in control.
“Get it wrong and the consequences are dire.”
British Future suggests a “cost-price” British Citizenship offer, at a reduced rate of £300, to EU citizens with five years’ continuous residency, who meet the other citizenship requirements.
Liberal Democrat MP Ed Davey MP said: “No one seriously believes that the Home Office will be able to grant settled status to everyone who’s eligible within two years.
“Thousands will be left effectively undocumented and subject to Theresa May’s hostile environment.”
Those who have lived continuously in the UK for five years can apply for settled status, meaning they are free to go on living and working in the UK indefinitely.
People who do not have five years’ residence can seek to stay until they have, at which point they can seek settled status.
Applicants are asked to prove their identity, declare any criminal convictions and upload a facial photograph.
Officials check employment and benefits data to confirm proof of residence, while all applications are run through UK criminality and security databases.
It is anticipated that the total number of applications could run to more than 3.5 million.
A Home Office spokesman added: “It will be simple and straightforward for EU citizens to get the status they need.
“They will only need to complete three key steps, prove their identity, show that that they live in the UK, and declare any criminal convictions.”