EU citizens in the UK: Falling through the welfare gap

Exclusive taz investigation: European migrants who claim Universal Credit in Britain increasingly fail at a tough hurdle: proving their„residency“.

A person enters a bus with a british flagged bag

No longer at ease: Boarding the London service at Sofia coach station, Bulgaria Foto: reuters

LONDON taz | „They refused me social welfare three or four times. They claimed I was not entitled claiming I was no a resident of the UK.“ Natasja, 39, the woman whose words these are, lives almost penniless in a refuge in England together with her two children. The Dutch national experienced domestic violence from men in different relationships twice since coming to Britain nine years ago. Womens' organisations came to her rescue.

In accordance with UK Law she would be entitled to Universal Credit (UC), the new British social welfare payment, even though by her own account she never continuously worked here long enough for entitlement under ordinary rules because of what happened to her. However, for victims of domestic violence there are special regulations. The administrators in the job centre, which deals with applications for social welfare on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) nevertheless failed her several times. Natasja is currently awaiting the result of a new claim she made with the help of advisers.

Her case is one of apparently many in which citizens from the EEA (European Economic Area) states – the other 27 EU countries, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland – who live in the UK have failed, at least at the first attempt, their applications for UC. The reason: They fail , the so-called Habitual Residence Test (HRT) and are not classified as people who reside in the UK with full and equal rights to social welfare.

HRT was supposed to protect Britain's welfare system from fraudulent claims after the expansion of the EU. UK residents, unlike in other countries such as in Germany, are not obliged to register with local or national authorities upon taking residence; hence, they have to prove their residence status on their welfare applications in other ways. In order to be someone with residence status, applicants need to show real employment (minimal earnings £155/wk) or must be genuine job seekers or have personal or family relations with British citizens or other persons with permanent right to stay. Those who have worked in the UK without a break for over five years are considered to be equal to nationals in most regards.

Due to Brexit, a new registration system for the estimated 3.5 to 4.1 million EEA migrants in the UK has been developed: Settled Status (EUSS). Migrants are able to register here for their permanent residence status and can do so even via a phone app.

The application is free of charge, because an initial fee for this registration was waived after protests. EUSS would probably allow Natasja to apply for UC-social welfare without any difficulties whatsoever.

However, her Dutch passport, which she needs for the EUSS application, expired some time ago. For a new passport, the Embassy of the Netherlands asks for a fee of €136.16 (£126), plus a confirmation from the British Home Office that she is not a UK citizen. This „NQ-Form“ comes with the hefty price tag of £250. „Where shall I take so much money from?“, asks Natasja. It's an apparent trap: Without the money she cannot get a new passport, without a valid passport she is unable to secure her status in the UK and apply for social welfare, nor can she travel to the Netherlands.

Such situations do not come without consequences. Natasja even attempted to take her own life – not that officers in the UK were more sympathetic as a result. „During one of my applications, I was bound to a wheelchair. They told me that if I am really without means, they will take my child away and into care because the child is British.“

In any country, it can be laborious and challenging for migrants to assemble the necessary documentation required by government agencies. But access to British social welfare benefits currently appears to be especially hard. According to Malgosia Pakulska of the East European Resource Centre (EERC), which helps East European migrants, 25% of her service users were not receiving social welfare, for no other reason than being wrongly classified as „non-resident.“

The British National Association of Welfare Rights Advisors (Nafra) reported on these problems already in the name of its 260 member associations to a parliamentary committee in February. It claims that UC administrators often lack sufficient knowledge about residency regulations. Usually they would not accept relevant documents, and they would not even check internal information from their very own department which could shed light on the prior history and possible entitlement of an applicant. Besides, they note: „When social welfare is declined, then the file gets closed, and, crucially, it is not permissible for applicants to then refer to that file, even if it may contain important documents and evidence.“

In that way, even victims of human trafficking can be rejected for help. It is easy to imagine what the result of such an attitude is: unnecessary hardship – for no other reason but that those affected originated from EEA countries. A few months ago, taz met the homeless 46-year-old Slovak man Frank K. in Peterborough. A bag of the former delivery driver which contained all his documents was stolen, he told us. Due to that, he was unable not only to work anywhere but neither to claim UC or even Settled Status. He slept in a tent in a park and fed himself from a soup kitchen.

„Universal Credit“ is not without its sharp critics quite independently of the European dimension. It was meant to simplify social welfare in the UK by bringing different elements of welfare together into one single system. British nationals who have been moved from the former system into the new UC system, not infrequently found themselves in worse circumstances than before, due often to long waiting periods or more stringent assessments of disability. Quite a few welfare advisers stated to taz, without wishing to be quoted, that they believed this to be so almost by design – applicants are expected to appeal for reconsideration of their cases. The success rate of appeals is around 70 per cent, confirms Daphne Hall, the vice-chair of Nawra.

The EU commission explains that EEA citizens have equal rights to local citizens. Already in 2011 it warned the UK government against any additional tests for EU citizens in order to claim social welfare. However, the habitual residence test is an extra hurdle. Daphne Hall found: „Since the beginning of the nationwide rollout of Universal Credit in 2017, and especially during the last year, the caseload concerning such cases had significantly grown, not least because previously agreed social welfare credits were simply newly tested.“ Hall's experience is that the assessors in the job centres are „specialists in measuring up social, physical and mental conditions, but not concerning questions regarding the validity of immigration status.“

One year ago the DWP, which administers Universal Credit, reported that 28 per cent of initial UC applications were rejected. One third of these, 9% of all applications, were denied due to either failing the residence test or due to access of applicants to personal capital. A further breakdown of the figures was not given. Asked by taz, the Ministry stated that it was unable to find any increase in UC appeals for HRT related matters. Daphne Hall says that this does not counter her claims at all: „After requests for reconsideration or calls, the cases are often checked by experienced officers. They usually quickly rectify the false assessments before they reach the stage of a statistically recorded hearing. „

Some persons will, however, accept the first rejection and do not attempt to appeal. How many is anyone's guess. „When they nevertheless appeal, they do not even have a guarantee of a deadline by when they can expect a case to be reconsidered“, states Pakulska. She reports having seen people with evidence that shows continuous work for over six years and income tax receipts of over eight years who still get refused social welfare.

Justyna Mahon, who advises Polish migrants near Liverpool, wrote to taz about a Polish migrant who under the old social welfare system was a recipient of income support and housing support and who ended up being rejected after he was switched to Universal Credit, due to the residence test being wrongly applied. She says that he passed away due to cancer before the result of his request for reconsideration came in.

Margaret Greenwood, Shadow Secretary for Work and Pension (Labour) calls these reports shocking, as they suggest that DWP may be denying support without good reason to citizens of other EU states who have made their home here, contributed to this country and maybe brought up children. “It is a major concern that DWP does not appear to have even used its own records of people's employment history and previous claims in some cases, instead of placing all the onus on them to have kept evidence like old payslips that are easily lost.“ She notes that people could be pushed into debt and even left at risk of destitution if their claim is delayed or denied due to error. Citizens of other EU states who live in the UK must be treated fairly, just like anyone else, she says and charges the Government with failing in its duty if EU citizens are met with indifference or hostility.

The German Welfare Council in London, which advises Germans in the UK, confirms that it knows of German nationals who have been falsely classified as they have not applied for Settled Status. The „In Limbo Project“ director and book author Elena Remigi, who documents experiences of EU migrants during Brexit, showed taz several anonymous statements from affected EU migrants about falsely rejected social welfare, amongst them Germans. „For some of the affected, we initiated crowdfunding when they were left without heating or food for their children“ She recounts unsuccessful attempts to raise the issue in the UK media. So far, there has only been a short report in the Guardian, with no details.

EU member states' embassies in London were found to be not very aware of the problem. The German embassy stated that it „had not received relevant numbers about problem cases.“ However, it did mention that they were aware of „vulnerable citizens, such as older people and people in remote areas, also widows of British soldiers.“ Concerning EUSS applications, the embassy added that „some people are possibly not aware of the fact that they have to get active themselve, in order to make an application and not to end up with the status of living in the UK illegally.“

To prevent this, the German Embassy has held over 35 information events in different cities all over Britain. Of the estimated 126.000 to 300.000 Germans who live in the UK, according to records of the British Home office, only 29.700 individuals have applied for EUSS. The Spanish Embassy has also set up a particular unit for vulnerable and older citizens to help them with EUSS. They report 1137 Spanish nationals who sought their help for 7179 legal matters.

Of all the EU and EEA citizens in the UK, the number of persons who have applied for EUSS is 909.300. In other words, three quarters of those who should apply have yet to do so. 65% of 805.500 completed EUSS applications were so far granted, while the remainder received pre-status, often because the individuals concerned have not been in the UK for long enough.

The British Home Office is confident that it is sufficiently proactive. It says it has made 1500 members of staff available to assist with EUSS applications, including a „digital help-service“ at some 300 locations throughout the country. Up to £9million are available to for 57 community-based and advice organisations throughout the country „to support the approximately 200.000 most vulnerable EAA residents“. The Department for Work and Pension emphasises meanwhile that there are no changes in Universal Credit due to Brexit and that EUSS will eliminate all uncertainties regarding eligibility.

Malgosia Pakulska remains unimpressed. „One of my service users is a person who was initially rejected legitimately. He now has Settled Status, because his partner has residency rights here. In spite of that, he was rejected again. They were, it seems, not minded to investigate the submitted documents properly. We appealed and are awaiting the results.“

Postscript: Shortly before publication of this article, Natasja received her NQ form from the British Home Office – free of charge. She can now use it to apply or a new passport. She can't quite believe this, after all those bitter years of waiting. She thinks it could have something to do with the questions taz raised, although her specific case was in fact never mentioned.

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