EU CITIZENS were left struggling to work, rent homes, open bank accounts and access benefits because the UK Government failed to comply with its post-Brexit obligations, a watchdog has found.

An estimated 1.7 million digital applications by EU citizens for certificates confirming their rights in the UK were delayed over a four-year period, the Independent Monitoring Authority for the Citizens’ Rights Agreements (IMA) said.

Insufficient numbers of available caseworkers at the Home Office amid high demand meant large numbers who applied to the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) were not issued with certificates straight away.

Under the Withdrawal Agreement and the EEA EFTA Separation Agreement, the Home Office is obligated to immediately issue Certificates of Application (CoAs) to applicants.

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The certificate is used to evidence rights including the right to work, rent or access benefits, while the application is being considered.

For digital applications that required caseworker intervention, the inquiry identified delays due to an insufficient number of available caseworkers relative to demand.

There were also delays in issuing certificates for applications made via paper forms – caused by an insufficient number of available caseworkers as well as an insufficient number of caseworkers specifically trained to issue certificates for paper applications.

The report stated that while the digital nature of the EUSS was designed to ensure that the process for validating applications was “swift and smooth”, the IMA deemed it “plausible that 1,720,714 EUSS digital applications (28%) required some level of caseworker involvement before a CoA was issued” in the period between August 2018 and October 2022.

At the peak in December 2021, the IMA said there were approximately 87,960 applications without a CoA.

Some of those affected told the watchdog they had been left “in a legal limbo” for months, unable to work, leave the UK due to concern they would not be able to return, open a bank account or access Universal Credit.

Among its recommendations to the Home Office, the IMA urged it to collecting meaningful data to monitor the time taken to validate applications to better manage the system of issuing certificates, and to adopt a service standard of five working days for certificates to be issued, monitoring performance against this target.

It has asked the Home Office to publish its response to the IMA’s recommendations within three months.

IMA chief executive Dr Kathryn Chamberlain said: “While we recognise that millions of people have applied to the EU Settlement Scheme, many of whom without issues, we realised that this issue had the potential to severely impact people’s lives and their rights.

“That’s why we used our powers to conduct an inquiry as we had reasonable grounds to believe that the UK may have failed to comply with the agreements.

“We will now work with the Home Office to ensure our recommendations are accepted and implemented in full so that citizens can be assured that they will receive a certificate following a valid application to the scheme in a timely manner.”

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The UK Government has hailed the EUSS as a “great success”, stating that more than 7.2 million applications have been made and 5.6 million people granted status as of March 31.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We take our Withdrawal Agreement obligations to EU citizens very seriously, with the great majority of applicants having their Certificate of Application issued immediately following submission of a valid application.

“We have already made substantial changes to the pace and process of issuing Certificates of Application since the Inquiry took place.

“We will consider the IMA’s recommendations and respond in due course.”