The Home Office has admitted a policy campaigners warn could cause thousands of people, including the vulnerable, to lose their jobs or homes risks comparisons with the Windrush scandal.
The government requires employers and private landlords to check the immigration status of potential tenants and workers before offering them housing or employment.
But changes to the rules, introduced in April, outlaw the use of paper documents – even those dated until 2030 – held by many people eligible to stay in the UK after Brexit.
The Home Office was heavily criticised in 2018 in what became known as the Windrush scandal, after it emerged that hundreds of people welcomed to the UK decades before had been denied access to basic rights such as housing and work, with some even deported, due to a lack of official documentation.
The government had destroyed thousands of paper landing cards recording the dates Windrush immigrants arrived in the UK, despite warnings the move would make it difficult for older Caribbean nationals to prove how long they had been in the country.
Ministers subsequently apologised and pledged to “learn lessons” from what had happened to ensure that the problems would not repeat themselves.
Four years on, in its own equality impact assessment for the new rules to digitalise rent and work checks, quietly published only after pressure from peers, the Home Office admits vulnerable people who are eligible for EU settled status but do not realise they have to apply risk being affected.
The document states that some individuals wrongly believe they can rely on Home Office-issued documents that don’t expire until well into the future.
“There may be vulnerable people in this cohort,” it warns, “and whilst these individuals do not have lawful status, unlike the Windrush generation who were in the UK lawfully, comparisons might be drawn by the media if they are denied access to work and accommodation”.
Yvette Cooper, Labour’s shadow home secretary, said: “The Home Office has totally failed to learn the lessons of the Windrush scandal. Once again they are putting people’s homes, jobs and livelihoods at risk.
“Requiring landlords and employers only to do online checks when many of them either can’t or won’t will create even more risk of unfair discrimination and hostile treatment. This is the opposite of the approach Wendy Williams recommended in the Windrush Review.
“It is shocking that Home Office ministers have done this and is a betrayal of the commitments made both to EU citizens who have lived here for years and to the Windrush generation.”
Luke Piper, legal director at charity the3million, said thousands of people eligible for EU settlement but who do not realise they need to apply will be affected by the move.
“They had legal status before Brexit happened, then Brexit happened and took their rights away,” he added. “The Home Office said they had to apply and were saying at that time, very loudly, that not everybody is going to apply in time and they will feel the consequences of it. This is exactly that cohort.”
“These people were living here lawfully, they had a legitimate expectation that they were allowed to stay, they didn’t follow an administrative process, and they’re now losing out on work, rent and other things that they would otherwise be entitled to. That’s pretty much identical to Windrush.”
The assessment, written last October before the policy came into force, but only published last week, also admits that some people have not applied for EU settlement because they believe they can rely on physical documents, such as a biometric residence card (BRC), to prove their leave to remain.
Employers or landlords can now be liable for a civil penalty if they accept the card as proof.
“Some individuals believe they can rely on Home Office-issued documents that don’t expire until well into the future, such as an unexpired BRC (up to 2030) as evidence of lawful status,” the document states.
“Posts on the Home Office Facebook page prior to the end of the grace period confirmed some believe they do not need to make an application until their BRC expires.”
The assessment warns that by last June, 51,000 eligible people had not yet applied. The Home Office has declined to provide an updated figure.
The ban on physical documents has come about because ministers want to make the entire border and immigration system “digital by default” by 2024.
Zehrah Hasan, advocacy director at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said: “Instead of learning lessons from Windrush, this government has decided to entrench and expand the hostile environment which was at the root of the scandal.
“We warned them that keeping this dangerous set of policies would push thousands more people into destitution and risk of deportation, including many EU nationals post-Brexit. Sadly for many, those fears are now becoming a reality.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “There have already been more than 5.8 million grants of status under the hugely successful EU Settlement Scheme, which we developed to ensure our EU citizen friends and neighbours could secure the status they need to stay here, rent and work.
“Extensive information has been published to advise non-EU citizen family members of the need to apply to the scheme and we have put support in place for those who need help applying.”