The 1.3m European citizens waiting for the permanent right to settle in the UK risk being refused the main unemployment benefit during the coronavirus outbreak, the government was warned on Monday.
The 3million campaign group, which represents EU citizens living in the UK, has written to Thérèse Coffey, work and pensions secretary, and Priti Patel, home secretary, to complain that some of its members had applications for universal credit refused.
In the letter, the group said the failure to treat holders of “pre-settled status” the same way as UK citizens breached Britain’s obligations under its withdrawal agreement with the EU.
But the Department for Work and Pensions said on Monday it fully recognised the rights of those with pre-settled status and that anyone who had lost out could appeal.
The stand-off came as the EU and UK resumed talks on their future relationship — delayed by the pandemic — via video link.
Home Office data show 1.3m citizens of the EU and the wider European Economic Area had attained “pre-settled status” by the end of March. The interim arrangement covers those people that have either not been continuously resident in the UK for five years or lacked evidence to prove they had. So far, 1.8m have secured the permanent right to remain in the UK, known as settled status.
The EEA consists of the 27 EU states, together with Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.
Those with pre-settled status can continue to live and work in the UK for five years, after which they will be eligible for settled status.
Rights to benefits have become a far more sensitive subject, with applications running at record levels as job losses mount during the coronavirus lockdown. There were an unprecedented 1.4m claims for UC in the four weeks since March 16.
The DWP accepts that people with settled status are UK residents but subjects holders of pre-settled status to a “habitual residence test”. The complex test demands applicants produce evidence such as payslips or a tenancy agreement for their UK residence.
The 3million said that some of its members had been refused UC after failing the habitual residence test. It insisted that the EU withdrawal agreement obliged the UK to treat holders of both settled and pre-settled status the same as it would treat a UK citizen.
“Citizens with pre-settled status — who have been granted the legal right to reside in the UK — are being discriminated against compared to British citizens,” the letter said. “This appears to be in contravention of the UK’s obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement.”
The 3million cited as an example of the problems facing applicants an EU-citizen musician who lost his job at the end of January but had not been able to find new work because of the lockdown. The man, who was not named, said the DWP had closed his account and he could not appeal, according to the letter.
“I literally don’t know how I am going to manage paying the rent at the end of the month,” he was quoted as saying.
There are no public figures for the number of EEA citizens rejected for benefits over the habitual residence test.
The DWP insisted that anyone granted either settled or pre-settled status had secured their rights under UK law. An official indicated that those refused benefits could seek to overturn the ruling.
“If someone has been turned down for benefits after failing the [habitual residence test], they can appeal the decision and provide new evidence,” the official said.
Stephen Timms, the Labour MP who chairs the Commons work and pensions select committee, criticised the use of the test to exclude holders of pre-settled status. He said anyone who had been in the UK more than three months with pre-settled status should be accepted.
The UK-EU talks will involve detailed discussions on issues such as trade in goods, access to fishing waters and the preservation of a regulatory level playing field.
“We must advance across all areas; it is our objective to make tangible progress by June, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, wrote in a tweet. He said he would give a press conference on Friday after assessing progress with David Frost, head of the UK negotiating team.