AlgoRail: Staying in the UK despite Brexit – with the help of a mobile App

EU citizens can obtain permissions to stay in the UK via a mobile app. The partly automated checking has allowed for quick processing of the first 3 million applications. At the fourth stop of our AlgoRail through Europe, Hugo Barbieux explains the app’s functionality and the reasons why both some young and old users’ despair over the app.

Pablo Duro is a PhD student at Manchester Metropolitan University. A few months ago, he received the “Pre-Settled” status, which he will have to renew in five years. To obtain “Settled Status”, which would allow him to remain in the UK for good, he would need five years of continuous residency on the island. 

He said that remaining a European citizen in the UK was not a concern even though Brexit preparations were already in full swing. He heard about the settlement procedure and the mobile app it involves during a chat with another Spanish citizen. 

He visited the Home Office’s website and simply followed the steps. He had to complete a form and download a mobile application in order to verify his identity. A scan of his passport and a picture of his face were the only required documents. He received within five days a notification confirming he was granted the Pre-Settled status. Mr Duro said the process was clear and concise, adding that he considered sharing personal data through this app was safe, as it had been created by official institutions. 

Failed attempts

The Tilbrook family, in Newcastle, would certainly envy such an experience. The family’s grandmother went through a distressing settlement process. After a first failed attempt during which her obviously legitimate settled status was refused, she received a temporary status only. After they uploaded additional documents, she was granted settled status. 

Highly dissatisfied with the process, Mr Tilbrook, 60, said his mother-in-law was tech savvy for her age – she owns and uses a smartphone – but this operation was “way beyond her”. When he helped her with the application form, the first run took him two hours. The second was even longer. 

His mother-in-law very reluctantly shared private information, and like a lot of women of her age, most of the required documents were written in her husband’s name. Additionally, she understandably wanted a written document confirming her status, but the app only provided an electronic confirmation. 

The Tilbrook family’s case is not isolated. Similar examples can be found on Twitter, for instance. The account EU Settled Status Horror Stories lists tweets from EU nationals who complained about the process. 

Beta tests

The British Home Office said that on 30 March 2019 they launched a simple and free system, following multiple tests. The Home Office justifies the data sharing process and automated checks they use in a “Processing Level Memorandum of Understanding”. It states that the algorithm in use was developed to support the EU Settlement Scheme and manage the influx of applications as the UK leaves the EU. According to the document, that approach reduces the Home Office’s reliance on paper documentation, reduces processing time per case, reduces fraud and errors and improves the user experience. 

Applicants who downloaded the EU Exit: ID document check app are required to complete five steps including taking photos of an identity card and your face as well as answering an online questionnaire. Additional documentation may be required along the process. Applicants are also invited to provide their National Insurance number to verify their residence history in the UKThis step uses an algorithm-based verification. 

Automated processing of tax and other benefits records are only carried out in the situation where applicants provide their National Insurance number. This automated check is done against records held by the tax authority (HMRC) and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). If the automated check finds evidence of UK employment or some benefits in a month, it counts as a month of continuous residence. However, not everyone has a National Insurance number.  

Lastly, Home Office documentation states that applicants can also post their identity documents to be checked and returned to them by post or go in person to a local authority to have their passport or biometric residence card checked manually. Generally, every application is reviewed by a caseworker who makes the final decision.


 Not so simple

“Settled” is a charity dedicated to guide, inform and assist those vulnerable and hard-to-reach EU citizens who may be at risk of not having the authorization to remain in the UK by the time the EU Settlement Scheme ends. They blame the EU Settlement Scheme to be not as “simple and straightforward” as the government stated it was. Applicants with atypical profiles may find challenging to obtain the right status and should therefore apply well before the application period ends on 30 June 2021.  

Incompatible devices

Lady-Gené Waszkewitz’s story also defuses the theory of the age gap between young tech savvy students who can easily deal with apps, and elderly people confused with smartphones. The 28-year-old German moved to the UK in 2011 as a pupil barrister. In total, she studied for five years in the UK. But she, too, struggled to obtain her Settled Status. 

She said the app was not compatible with all devices, which caused her to photograph and upload all relevant documents. 

 “I did not feel particularly overwhelmed by the process but rather annoyed at having to obtain this information which should be readily in the Government’s hands through my National Insurance number, for example”, she said. 

Possible discrimination

Lawyers instructed by The Legal Education Foundation (TLEF) wrote in a public opinion that the Settled Status process did not look at data concerning child benefits or child tax credits, and thus could be discriminatory towards women. According to their report, 87% of child benefit recipients were female. 

Furthermore, the lawyers pointed out that the process of proving documentary evidence is far from easy and that the Home Office gave very few clues on what type of document better supports one’s application.  

Despite these woes, the Home Office published satisfactory figures. Public data released puts the total number of applications received up to 31 January 2020 at more than 3.1 million. 88% of applications received have been processed: 58% were granted settled status, 41% were granted pre-settled status, and seven applications were refused on suitability grounds. However, given that no precise estimate exists of the number of EU citizens in the UK, it is too early to call the scheme a success. 

That’s it for this forth stop of our AlgoRail through Europe, on which we want to learn more about how algorithmic systems are used in our European neighborhood. Next week we will be back on the continent – we are going to France next!

This story was shortened by Julia Gundlach. The unabridged story was published on the AlgorithmWatch website.

The blog series AlgoRail is part of the Automating Society Report 2020 by Bertelsmann Stiftung and AlgorithmWatch, which will be published this fall and is coordinated by Dr. Sarah Fischer. In addition to journalistic stories like this one, the report gives an overview of various examples of algorithmic systems as well as current debates, policy responses and key players in 15 countries. A first issue of the report was published in January 2019.

This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License