LONDON — EU nationals rejected for government support after the coronavirus hit say the U.K. government isn’t playing fair.
The coronavirus means an increasing number of EU citizens living in Britain are applying for British benefits for the first time, as many find themselves out of work or with a drastically reduced income. Under the Withdrawal Agreement signed with the European Union as part of the Brexit process, the U.K. government committed to preserving the rights of any EU citizen in Britain when the country left the bloc at the end of January 2020, promising to treat them equally to Brits.
But those who have lived in Britain less than five years — and have been granted pre-settled status under the government’s EU Settlement Scheme — are discovering that they are not automatically entitled to Universal Credit, a means-tested benefit for those out of work or in low-paid jobs. Many are also being rejected despite apparently meeting the criteria, said Maurizzio Rodorigo, managing director at the Italian Advice Centre in Islington, London.
The issue, according to Rodorigo, is the so-called right to reside requirement. This stipulates EU migrants who have lived in the U.K. less than five years must prove they are looking for work, are self-employed, a jobseeker or a student, or have sufficient resources to support themselves and their families.
As of the end of March, nearly 1.3 million Europeans had been granted pre-settled status by the U.K. government and so could be at risk of not qualifying for support during the pandemic. EU nationals with settled status — those who can prove they have been in the U.K. for more than five years — are not subject to that requirement and so would be entitled to government support.
The British government introduced the “right to reside” requirement in 2004, the same year in which 10 European countries joined the EU.
“People with pre-settled status are not automatically entitled to get work benefits,” Rodorigo said. “These days we have many Italians calling us because they have lost their jobs or they were on zero-hour contracts and are not working and do not have any income. They meet the income requirements to apply for benefits but many of these applications are being rejected.”
In April, The3million, a group that campaigns for the rights of EU citizens in Britain, wrote a letter to Home Secretary Priti Patel and the Pensions Secretary Thérèse Coffey saying those with pre-settled status are not receiving equal treatment to U.K. nationals and EU citizens with settled status, and accusing the U.K. of failing to implement the Withdrawal Agreement.
However, the government insists they are protecting the rights of all EU citizens and that the additional requirement for EU citizens who have only recently come to Britain has always been in the rules.
“By applying to the EU Settlement Scheme, EU citizens living in the U.K. will be able to work, study and access benefits and services in the U.K. on at least the same basis as they do now,” a spokesperson said.
The pandemic, however, has shone a light on this difference since so many now worry about their jobs.
The different treatment is legal, experts say, because the Brexit deal relies on pre-existing EU legislation. Specifically, the EU Free Movement Directive 2004 leaves it to member countries to design their own social security systems.
The British government introduced the “right to reside” requirement in 2004, the same year in which 10 European countries joined the EU, as it worried that the EU’s enlargement would prompt people to attempt to cash in on U.K. benefits.
The European Commission later challenged the U.K. requirement on the basis that it is discriminatory because British people are not subject to it. But in 2016, in a case concerning family benefits, the Court of Justice of the EU ruled it was lawful for the U.K. to withhold benefits to EU migrants who do not have the “right to reside” in the U.K.
During Brexit negotiations, Theresa May agreed that EU citizens who had been in the country longer than five years would not be subject to the “right to reside” requirement, as they were equivalent to permanent residents, but it continued to apply to more recent arrivals.
This difference wasn’t much noticed at the time because the majority of these new arrivals has jobs. Now that the pandemic has put their employment at risk, this inconsistency feels unfair to many.
Daniela Tasco, who came to the U.K. in 2015, has worked as a shopkeeper, cleaner, waiter and a nanny. Her last job finished on January 15 and she was about to start a new one as a barista when the lockdown forced the closure of coffee shops, just before she could sign her new contract.
Tasco holds pre-settled status, is registered as a jobseeker and applied for Universal Credit in March, but the Department of Work and Pensions rejected her application saying she had “failed the habitual residence test” — which includes the “right to reside” requirement. The DWP told her the status of “jobseeker” does not qualify her for Universal Credit.
“I’m a bit worried,” she said. “I was thinking of going back to Italy. I don’t want to be doing nothing and be receiving money. But neither do I want to leave the U.K.”
Przemyslaw Kwiatkowski, a self-employed Pole with pre-settled status, also had his application for Universal Credit rejected on the basis he did not meet the “right to reside” requirement, but challenged the DWP decision and managed to get the decision reversed.
Meanwhile, those with the poorest English are struggling to navigate the DWP website, particularly problematic since job centers have closed during lockdown and so applicants can no longer prove they are economically active by showing officials relevant documents rather than answering an online questionnaire.
“As was the case before we left the EU, those who do not have settled status … or the equivalent right of permanent residence here under EU law, do not have full access to the benefits system on the same basis as a U.K. national,” Minister for Future Borders and Immigration Kevin Foster wrote in a letter to Here for Good, an organization that offers free post-Brexit immigration advice, written this month and seen by POLITICO.
Maike Bohn, co-founder of The3million, urged the British government “to remove all bureaucratic hurdles for EU citizens.”
“People aren’t able to get the help they need, including benefits. That is so important in times of crisis like COVID-19 where families are facing great hardship,” she said.
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