Authors:Joe Tomlinson and Alice Welsh
Last updated:2023-09-18
Data and the EU Settlement Scheme
Marc Bloomfield
One of the potential advantages of the wider use of digital technology in public administration is the opportunity for more granular data to be assimilated more quickly. In turn, this data can assist in improving understanding of systems, learning lessons and making government better. The EU Settlement Scheme, which has been established to allow EU citizens resident in the UK to apply to remain after Brexit, is built around a system of automated checks where inputted personal data is used to cross-check information held by the Home Office, HM Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions to confirm residence. It represents a new model of immigration administrative justice for the UK and, as many are keen to understand how it is operating and to ensure it is working fairly, the promise of more data resulting from the use of digital systems is one many are eager to see realised. The reality so far, however, falls far short of the promise.
On a routine basis, the Home Office is only publishing a very limited set of statistics, which it describes as ‘high-level’ information. This data, provided through monthly releases and quarterly statistics, only tells us:
the number of applications received and the number concluded, which are broken down by UK nation (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland);
the nationality of applicants; and
whether an application was granted settled status or pre-settled status, or led to some ‘other outcome’.
While additional data was promised in the form of quarterly statistical releases, the first of these (EU Settlement Scheme quarterly statistics, June 2019, 22 August 2019) only adds a breakdown of applications by local authority area, applications and awards for settled status, pre-settled status and ‘other outcome’ by some age groups (under 16, 16–64 and 65 or over), the 10 most common EEA nationalities, and non-EEA nationalities.
This is the bare minimum data that could have been published. It allows the public to understand general grant rates and macro-level trends, but little more. There is also a possibility of observing whether any regional or national group seems to be facing particular difficulties in making applications, but the absence of baseline data makes any such exercise largely guesswork.
There are also unhelpful ambiguities in the data. Notably, the ‘other outcome’ category is so broadly defined it could represent nothing to worry about or serve to conceal problems: ‘any outcome that did not result in a grant of leave because the application was withdrawn by the applicant, was invalid as it did not include the required proof of identity and nationality or other mandatory information, or was void because the applicant was ineligible to apply'. There are 5,755 applications in this category so far. Additionally, 188,600 applications have yet to be concluded without any further detail on how long a decision has been pending or for what reasons they are currently left undecided.
Further data has been squeezed out of the Home Office in multiple ways. One example is that, in the course of an Advertising Standards Authority determination on a misleading settled status advert (Complaint Ref A19-567176, 28 August 2019), it was revealed that ’73 per cent of applicants did not have to submit any documents as evidence of their residence’. In other words, 73 per cent of decisions at the point of the ASA determination were essentially automated decisions.
Other data has emerged through the questioning of Home Office ministers in parliament. Given the limited data released as part of the standard statistics from the Home Office, multiple Freedom of Information Act requests have been lodged. These are yielding some data too. For instance, statistics concerning how administrative review in the system is working have been published through this method. This data is, of course, welcome once it is made available, but this method essentially provides a drip-feed, with the data released quickly becoming out of date.
All of this is far from dreams of big data and transparent government. It is clear that the Home Office is collecting much more than it is sharing. As a result, it is making the EU Settlement Scheme a site of data asymmetry, where technology has improved the knowledge of administrators but not those seeking to engage with administration.