EU nationals living and working in the UK are increasingly anxious about what the future holds. There has been an unlawful suspension of Parliament, the so-called Benn Act requires the Prime Minster to ask for an extension to avoid a no deal Brexit but he is insistent that the UK will leave the EU on 31 October 2019 come what may. The Brexit uncertainty continues and in these circumstances what can employers and HR professionals do to reassure their staff who are EU nationals?
The starting point is to be aware of the provisions of the EU Settlement Scheme. Back in July 2018, the Home Office published a toolkit to help employers, industry groups and community groups in the UK to give EU nationals practical advice on how to apply for settled status: The EU Settlement Scheme: employer toolkit. This includes a range of leaflets covering such issues as an introduction to the Scheme, application guidance and communicating to EU citizen employees.
The Scheme is aimed at those EU nationals who are already in the UK and who wish to remain post-Brexit. It enables EU nationals and their family members to obtain the appropriate immigration status to continue to live, work and study in the UK and to continue to be eligible for public services, such as healthcare, schools and public funds. Note that Irish citizens do not need to make an application but can choose to do so.
The Scheme focuses on proving the residence of the EU national and was fully launched on 30 March 2019. More than 50,000 people applied in the opening weekend.
The Scheme introduced two types of status: settled and pre-settled. Settled status is to be granted if the applicant has completed a continuous period of 5 years of residence in the UK. Anyone who has not reached 5 years will be able to apply for pre-settled status to secure their right to remain in the UK and then be eligible for settled status once they reach 5 years.
There are two crucial dates to put in the diary and the application deadline is 30 June 2021, or 31 December 2020 if a deal is not reached.
According to the Government, the Scheme is designed to make it straightforward for EU citizens and their family members to stay after the UK leaves the EU. The application, which is free, is made up of three key steps, proof of identity, evidence of living in the UK and a declaration about any criminal convictions (only serious or persistent criminality will affect an application). The application process is meant to be very user friendly, with a short online application and phone app introduced for scanning applicants’ passports and faces.
On 9 October 2019, the Home Office published the latest statistics on the Scheme and as at that date, 2 million EU citizens had been granted settled or pre-settled status. The highest number of applications has come from Polish, Romanian, Italian and Portuguese people. More than 1,700,000 applications came from England, 92,700 from Scotland, 29,300 from Wales and 28,700 from Northern Ireland. However, there are an estimated 3.2 million EU citizens in the UK so, according to those figures, a very large number of EU nationals were still to make an application.
The ongoing concern of EU nationals in the UK may have been exacerbated by the Home Secretary, Priti Patel’s announcement that new border restrictions, ending freedom of movement, would be imposed overnight on 31 October 2019 if the UK left the EU without a deal. However, on 19 August 2019, the Home Office clarified concerns about a “legal limbo” by publishing a “Media factsheet: EU citizens and freedom of movement”. This confirmed that there are no changes to the deadline to apply to the Scheme but plans for a new immigration system which will apply both to EU Nationals and non EU Nationals are being developed which according to the Government’s current timetable are due to be introduced on 1 January 2021 although it remains to be seen as to whether this date is met. This is likely to be a new skill-based immigration system.
In these uncertain times HR should be proactively supporting their EU nationals staff and should consider the following:
- HR teams should be fully aware of the application process so that they are then able to help staff with any queries about how to apply. For instance, explaining what documents can be used as proof of identity – a valid passport or national identity card, or proof of residence – a national insurance number, employer letter or bank statements for example.
- HR teams could also make enquiries to find out which of their EU national staff have not yet made their application and the reasons why. Perhaps the individuals are unaware of the resources available to help them and they can then be told about the details of the step-by-step process set out in the Government guidance for Settled and pre-settled status for EU citizens and their families. Perhaps the member of staff is concerned about language difficulties in making the application? HR can reassure them that guidance is available in 26 European languages.
- HR teams can also reassure staff that a wide range of support is available and this includes a dedicated Settlement Resolution Centre with a telephone helpline and over 300 Assisted Digital locations supporting those with limited computer access or skills. In addition, there is a network of 57 organisations, funded by the Home Office, helping vulnerable people such as those who have mental health problems. Those organisations can be found simply by entering the post code of the home/work address.
- HR teams should review their internal communications and intranet to publicise the assistance they can provide regarding the Scheme and ensure that awareness about it is maintained. They could, for example, run workshops about the Scheme and publicise the Government guidance on their intranet.
- HR teams could offer drop in sessions to provide assistance on a one-to-one basis to talk through an individual’s plans or help to collate the relevant paperwork.
- HR teams should of course continue to publicise the no deal application deadline of 31 December 2020 (even though the Benn Act prohibits no deal) so that EU nationals are fully aware of the need to make their application under the Scheme in plenty of time.
All of these steps will hopefully reassure EU nationals that their employers and HR teams are there to assist them in what could be confusing and anxious months ahead.
The potential risk in failing to reassure such staff is that they may decide to leave their employment (and the UK) which could exacerbate any skills shortage and problems in finding new staff.
Finally, if EU national staff are concerned about an increase in workplace tensions in the lead up to Brexit, HR teams should remind all staff about the standards of behaviour expected of them. They should reiterate that while everyone is entitled to express opinions and discuss their views on current affairs, this cannot be done in a way that may be regarded as bullying or harassment. All employees should be reminded that failure to comply with such standards will be treated as a disciplinary matter.
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