Thousands of EU nationals have been barred from accessing government support over the past year, and the figure is likely to have increased “dramatically” in recent months amid the coronavirus crisis, according to research.
A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) think tank found large numbers of EU migrants applying for universal credit were rejected because of the government’s “flawed” habitual residence test (HRT) – which requires claimants to prove they have a settled home in the UK.
To claim universal credit, EU citizens must show they are habitually resident in Britain through the HRT, and in doing so prove their “right to reside”, which depends on factors including work history, whether they have children in school and the circumstances of any partner.
The report states the test has “considerable flaws” and imposes “unnecessary hardship” on claimants due to challenges in providing the correct documentation and proving employment in the UK is “genuine and effective”.
An analysis of Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures by the think tank showed around 45,000 universal credit claims were closed because of HRT failures in the last 12 months of available data. This accounted for about 10 per cent of all those who took the test, around half of whom are estimated to be EU citizens.
The report states the number of claims will likely have increased “dramatically” due to Covid-19, meaning thousands are likely going without government support and facing unnecessary financial hardship.
In one case, a self-employed French citizen working in the creative industries, who has lived in the UK for more than 10 years, lost work in March because of the pandemic. After applying for universal credit, she was called by the jobcentre and asked a series of questions about her work history to determine whether she passed the test.
The woman was asked to collect documentation on her income stretching back to 2009, and later told she had failed the test without explanation, only that her income may have been too low to be considered “genuine”.
“I was not even aware that it was called the ‘habitual residence test’ until I received the outcome and I was told that I failed it,” she said. “I had no idea what was going on and it wasn’t clear what they were looking for.
“When I explained to her [at the jobcentre] why my income was low, and I explained the process of having new clients and everything, she understood, but then she said to me, ‘because you’re an EU national you need to prove that you were in genuine employment.’ But what does it mean? I was working.
“I didn’t sleep for a few nights... I was having panic attacks so I had to be on medication for a few days... In normal times it would have been very difficult, but considering the context [of the coronavirus outbreak] I could not even imagine that they would make this kind of decision without any real reason.”
EU nationals who have been in the UK for five years or more can apply for EU settled status – which means they are automatically treated as having a right to reside and, therefore, would not have to pass the HRT when applying for benefits.
However, those who have been in the UK for fewer than five years receive pre-settled status, which means they will still need to prove their right to reside as before.
The IPPR report also warned that the HRT is “shrouded in secrecy” and that more transparency on the test is “urgently needed” because “very little research” has been conducted into how the test operates in universal credit claims and whether it works as intended.
The government has released no statistics on the operation of the HRT in regard to universal credit and has refused numerous requests for information from both the public and MPs on costs grounds.
“Given the straightforward nature of some of these questions, this raises serious questions about the government’s ability to monitor the operation of its own policies in this area,” states the report.
Marley Morris, the associate director for immigration at the IPPR, said Boris Johnson should “make good on” his words of praise for the contribution of EU citizens during the pandemic and suspend the test for the duration of the immediate economic crisis. This, he said, would “cut bureaucracy at the DWP, relieve the pressures on councils and provide a lifeline for EU citizens who have made the UK their home”.
“EU citizens are at the sharp end of this crisis – with many working in vulnerable sectors, such as hospitality and retail, and at serious risk of redundancy,” he added. “Yet the government’s flawed HRT risks barring many from accessing universal credit, leaving them with no safety net as the economic crisis unfolds.”
Dame Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said the charity had seen some people failing the test despite meeting all the criteria, and others struggling to meet the stringent evidence requirements, with the pandemic having made gathering and submitting this paperwork "even harder than usual".
“Suspending the HRT for the duration of the crisis is vital for people to get the support they need, especially while large numbers need to claim universal credit to afford food, rent and other essentials," she said.
Stephen Timms MP, the chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, said: “I welcome this research, which shines an invaluable light on this little known and poorly defined feature of the benefit system. I hope the research will strengthen the case to reform it.”
Maike Bohn, the co-founder of the3million, said: “EU citizens have to pass a strict, complex test in an opaque system with little or no easy-to-understand guidance. Erroneous decisions appear plenty and can take a long time to challenge, meanwhile, people are without that vital financial help they need to prevent destitution and homelessness.
“This situation has been considerably exacerbated by the pandemic as more people are losing jobs and face destitution. The challenges of isolation and limited contact with advice services also serve to make the situation worse.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “This government is committed to supporting people affected by Covid-19 and has implemented an enormous package of measures to do so such as income protection schemes, mortgage holidays and additional security for renters - which are all open to those with no recourse to public funds - as well as injecting over £6.5bn into the welfare system.
“EU citizens who are exercising a qualifying right to reside and are habitually resident in the UK will pass the HRT and can access income-related benefits. EU nationals can also apply to the Home Office EU settlement scheme to prove their right to reside.”