The EU Settlement Scheme has been open to the public since 29 March 2019 yet Polish people have been particularly slow to register.  Here, I consider why this is and why this could become a problem.

Recent figures show that over 1 million individuals have applied to register on the Scheme so far.  However, Polish people have the lowest rates of registration of all EU countries.

Although early days, this is a worrying trend and if this were to persist could lead to a large population losing any legal right to remain in the UK after Brexit and being forced into the margins of society and the Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’.

The EU Settlement Scheme

The EU Settlement Scheme is a mandatory system of registration for all EU citizens and their family members living in the UK.  Applicants with at least five years’ residence in the UK are granted ‘settled status’, which means indefinite leave to remain.

Those with fewer than five years’ residence will be granted ‘pre-settled status’.  Pre-settled status grants the individual permission to reside in the UK for a further five years after which the individual can apply for settled status upon reaching five years’ residence.

EU nationals who are already here prior to ‘exit day’ will have the same residency rights under the Scheme, regardless of whether or not there is a deal – although there are tighter restrictions on family members which can be brought to the UK under no-deal.

polish flag

The Polish in the UK

Over 154,400 Polish nationals had applied to the Scheme by the end of June 2019, the highest of any EU nationality.  However, there is estimated to be up to one million Polish living in the UK which means that, as a proportion, the number of Polish applicants who have registered is in fact exceptionally small.

As a proportion, only 17% of all Polish people had applied to the Scheme by late June.  This stands in marked contrast to most other countries, including the nationals with the highest number of applicants: Bulgarians at 47%.

It is not clear why the Polish are lagging in this respect.  Poland joined the EU on 1 May 2004 as part of what were known as the ‘A8’.  Most other EU member states restricted the ability of A8 nationals to take employment in the host country.  The UK, on the other hand, had no such level of restriction with A8 nationals only having to apply to the Workers Registration Scheme before taking employment: a mere formality (incidentally the Workers Registration Scheme was recently found to be unlawful all along).

This relatively relaxed approach of the UK Government resulted in large numbers of Polish nationals coming to the UK to take employment from 2004 onwards.

A tougher position was taken when Romanians and Bulgarians, the so-called ‘A2’, joined the EU.  The A2 joined the EU on 1 January 2007, however, unlike the Polish their free movement was heavily restricted meaning that most could only work here on a self-employed basis.  It was not until 1 January 2014, seven years after joining, that A2 nationals had the same free movement rights as other EU citizens.

It might be the case that Polish people tend to have been resident in the UK for longer and perhaps feel more secure in their residence in the UK.  However, Hungary joined at the same time as Poland yet they have registered in far higher numbers as a proportion (36%).

Polish people in particular are perhaps more (understandably) resentful to the idea that they should suddenly be asked to register on to the Scheme, as were the group of Polish people who launched a petition on the UK Government and Parliament website to challenge the Scheme.

Miroslaw Ksizarek (Mirek), personal injury and employment specialist at Truth Legal has concerns that there could be a language barrier particularly affecting Polish people and that employers may not be doing enough to raise awareness of the Scheme with their Polish employees.Mirek further highlights what could be another important factor: the change in the relative performance of the UK and Polish economies.

“In recent years Poland has become a ‘European Tiger’ of the EU with no lack of jobs and a standard of living increasingly comparable to the UK.  Many EU citizens may be considering a return home and so not see registration as worthwhile”.

Furthermore, the relative attractiveness of Poland comes a time when many Polish citizens, along with other EU migrants in the UK, are feeling unsettled by Brexit.

Why Polish people should apply!

As has already been noted, the EU Settlement Scheme has the potential to leave a ‘Windrush’ style catastrophe. Although in a sense it will be worse given that the Windrush generation had a right to be here, they just found it difficult to prove this right.

Polish citizens, like other EU citizens, however, do not have the right to stay in the UK if they fail to register by the registration deadline.  People who fail to register will be required to leave the UK.

If a deal is agreed then the deadline to register on the Scheme is 29 June 2021, so no need for an immediate panic.  However, if there is no-deal then the deadline to register is brought forward to 31 December 2020, which is not so far off and increasingly likely.

All EU citizens, and their family members, should understand that if they fail to register by this deadline then they will be committing both immigration and criminal offences.  They would be treated as an ‘overstayer’ and lose any right to work and claim benefits.

As I have already written about here, non-EU family members who are ‘unmarried partners’ or other extended family members are in a particularly vulnerable position.  These people need to make two applications.  First they must apply for residence documentation under the ‘old’ system.  Only then can they apply to register under the EU Settlement Scheme.

And once the transition period ends, or if the UK leaves without a deal then from this date forward (currently 31 October 2019), then the ‘old system’ shuts to new applicants, potentially barring unmarried partners and other extended family members from being eligible for the Scheme.

The problem is not so much the Scheme itself, but a lack of awareness of its importance amongst EU citizens and Polish people in particular.  The Scheme is now free of charge, relatively quick and easy to use for most people and can be done with a smart phone by clicking here.  What are you waiting for?

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Catherine Reynolds
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