Theresa May has scrapped a £65 fee for EU citizens wanting to stay in Britain after Brexit on the same day as its registration policy was rolled out.
The Prime Minister announced on Monday that the controversial settlement scheme payment was being waived as she sought to win fresh concessions from the rebel MPs she needs to get a deal though Parliament.
She said that she had listened to concerns about the fee and moved to remove the “financial barrier” facing an estimated 3.5 million EU nationals living in the UK.
It came after rights groups had earlier warned that the Home Office risked creating a new “Windrush scandal” if it got the scheme wrong.
Mrs May told MPs “The next phase of testing of the scheme for EU nationals to confirm their status has launched today.
“And having listened to concerns from members and organisations like the3million group, I can confirm today that when we roll out the scheme in full on the 30th March the Government will waive the application fee, so that there is no financial barrier for any EU nationals who wish to stay and anyone who has or will apply during the pilot fee will have their fee reimbursed.”
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 had warned that thousands could be left without legal status if applications were not processed quickly and efficiently.
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said: “This was the right thing to do. But it’s an idea that should never have seen the light of day in the first place. It’s a pity it took the Government so long to see sense.
“With all the talk of a no-deal Brexit, EU nationals have more than enough on their minds, without having to worry about coming up with the cash just so they can carry on living here.”
Welcome the announcement by @theresa_may that the UK will waive settled status fees for EU citizens, a key demand of @Europarl_EN. I hope cross-party co-operation & consultations will really start now, leading to the closest possible EU-UK future relationship. #Brexit— Guy Verhofstadt (@guyverhofstadt) January 21, 2019
The European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, welcomed the U-turn, tweeting: “I hope cross-party co-operation and consultations will really start now, leading to the closest possible EU-UK future relationship.”
People have complained of difficulties since the settled status application scheme launched on Monday morning.
The mobile app is currently only available on Android phones enabled with NFC contactless technology, so will not work on iPhones or iPads, although there other ways to apply.
French citizen Laurence Bascle, 45, who moved to the UK from France more than 20 years ago and works for a tech NGO in London, said that although she has an NFC-enabled Android phone, when she tried to download the Government’s app she was met with a message saying her device “isn’t compatible with this version”.
She said she would try to use a friend’s phone to register, but said: “How many people can actually use this app? I have no idea and people don’t have any idea until they download it.”
Pressure group the3million, which campaigned for the fees to be scrapped, 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.
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.
BREAKING: Prime Minister confirming that following our lobbying the Â£65 Settled Status fee for EU citizens will be scrapped. Any paid fees will be reimbursed! pic.twitter.com/hE9XtUGBEO— the3million (@the3million) January 21, 2019
The price of applying for settled status had been set at £65 for adults and £32.50 for children, although people already granted permanent residence face no extra charge.
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.
A Home Office spokesman said: “We are pleased with how the app has performed in the pilot phase and we are monitoring applicant feedback very closely, including reviews on the Google play store.
“We also continue to engage with Apple regarding the app functionality on iOS devices.
“Once the scheme is fully open by 30 March, alternatives to the ID Document Check app will include the applicant posting their identity document to the Home Office to be checked and returned to them quickly, or visiting a local ‘chip check’ service run by a Local Authority or other provider.”