Thousands of EU looked-after children and care leavers face ‘legal limbo’ without extension to settlement deadline, charities warn

Boris Johnson urged to drop 30 June deadline to avoid children in care being left undocumented and without access to services

Image of teenager looking sadly towards window (credit: fizkes / Adobe Stock)
(credit: fizkes / Adobe Stock)

By Nicole Weinstein

Thousands of looked-after children and care leavers risk being left “undocumented” and in “legal limbo” unless the government lifts the 30 June deadline for European Union (EU) citizens to apply for settled status, charities have warned.

In a letter to prime minister Boris Johnson, 45 organisations funded by the Home Office to support marginalised EU nationals make applications to the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS), have warned of the potentially “catastrophic consequences” of the 30 June cut-off on vulnerable people.

The Children’s Society raised similar concerns, saying that looked-after children and care leavers could become the next “Windrush generation”, losing their right to live and work in the UK, enter further or higher education or apply for state support.

About the EUSS

Applications for the EUSS are open to citizens of EU or European Economic Area (Liechtenstein, Iceland and Norway) countries or Switzerland who started living in the UK before the end of 2020, and their family members. Those EU, EEA or Swiss citizens who have lived continuously in the UK for five years can acquire settled status for themselves and family members, enabling them to stay in the UK indefinitely.

Those with less than five years’ continuous residence can acquire pre-settled status, enabling them to stay in the UK, and would then need to apply for settled status when they reach the five-year threshold. Councils and health and social care trusts in Northern Ireland are required to identify eligible looked-after children, care leavers and other children in receipt of support and either make the application on their behalf, support them to do so or signpost them to the scheme.

Out of an estimated 3,660 looked-after children and care leavers eligible to apply in the UK, 2,440 had applied as of 23 April, of whom 1,365 had been granted settled status and 235 pre-settled status,  found a survey of councils by the Home Office.

However, Coram Children’s Legal Centre, one of the charities in the coalition, warned that the number identified was likely to be a “significant underestimate”.

‘Potentially catastrophic implications’

Policy manager Marianne Lagrue said: “The implications for looked-after children and care leavers are potentially catastrophic. Looking at the latest statistics from the Home Office, an alarmingly high proportion of the children identified in the care system have not yet been supported to apply.

“The figure of 3,360 children relates to those who have already been identified, but we believe this is a significant underestimate and that there are potentially thousands of identified and unidentified looked-after children, including some whom the local authority assume are British, who have not yet applied.

She added: “If the government hasn’t yet managed to get settled status for the children for whom it has direct responsibility, what hope do other children have, who aren’t in the care system?”

‘Next Windrush generation’

The Children’s Society, which was not one of the letter’s signatories but has campaigned on the issue, said that services were being overwhelmed with requests for support in completing applications and the pandemic had caused delays as professionals tried to support children virtually.

Azmina Siddique, the charity’s policy manager, said: “There is a real risk that hundreds of children in care and care leavers could be left undocumented through no fault of their own.

“These children could become the next Windrush generation, losing their right to live and work in the UK, enter further or higher education and apply for state support.

“Many are in care due to neglect or abuse and may already face significant challenges in their lives. To be left undocumented and in legal limbo on top of this could have a devastating impact on their health, well-being and life chances.”

Problems sourcing documents

The key barriers to successful applications were sourcing the correct identity documents and providing evidence of UK residency.

Siddique said: “This can be tricky if the child is in care due to difficult family circumstances. When the child doesn’t have all the necessary evidence, time-consuming paper applications are required.

“Given the disruption caused by Covid, the government should consider extending the deadline and ensure there is continued outreach, support and monitoring to ensure applications are made by councils for children in their care. It’s absolutely vital that those children who apply late through no fault of their own are protected and not penalised and have the same access to the opportunities in life all young people deserve.”

Late applications

The Home Office said it was continuing to work closely with local authorities to ensure that applications from looked after children or care leavers not made by 30 June could be done afterwards where there are “reasonable grounds” to make a late application under  guidance updated on 21 May 2021.

A spokesperson said: “A late application to the EU Settlement Scheme may be made by the child themselves, whether or not they are now an adult, or (where they are not an adult) by a parent, guardian or (where they remain a ‘looked after’ child) local authority on their behalf or (where they are now an adult) by an appropriate third party on their behalf.”

Kevin Foster, future borders and immigration minister, said that the Home Office had a dedicated team of more than 1,500 people working to process applications and it had also provided £22m to organisations that support vulnerable people.

He added: “This funding is available up until the end of September to help our grant funded network continue their vital work. We have published guidance on grounds for making a late application and we will take a pragmatic and flexible approach when considering these applications.”

The coalition of organisations said it welcomed the recently published guidance on late applications to the EUSS and the fact the Home Office planned to take a “benefit of the doubt” approach to many of the marginalised communities that they have supported.

‘Serious safeguarding issue’

But Lagrue argued: “It’s a serious safeguarding issue for a child to be undocumented, even for a short time. And allowing late applications doesn’t prevent that from happening.”

In the letter to Johnson, the coalition said: “The guidance states for most of the groups listed as examples that late application will ‘normally’ but not ‘always’ be accepted.

“Historically the Home Office has taken a very stringent approach towards “reasonable grounds” and outlines in this guidance that the approach towards late applications will become stricter with time, which raises serious concerns about how this ‘benefit of the doubt’ will actually be applied to vulnerable people.”

Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said: “Councils continue to support children who are in or leaving care through the EU Settlement Scheme where appropriate through a potentially lengthy process, working with children and young people in a way that meet their needs. However, the impact of the current pandemic on capacity across councils, the legal system, embassies and the organisations providing outreach support needs to be considered.

“It is positive that vulnerable groups unable to complete the EU Settlement Scheme will be able to apply after the deadline, including children in care and care leavers. We wish to work with government to build an understanding of the barriers to making an application and who may need support to access to the scheme after the deadline.”

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