Woes for Boris Johnson deepened last night as the Government suffered a heavy defeat by peers critical of a move to scrap the option of physical proof of immigration status in favour of a digital-only approach.
Members of the House of Lords voted by 159 to 96, majority 63, in a so-called Motion of Regret over new regulations surrounding proof of right to live and work in the UK.
While those with EU settled status are already using a digital-only system, the Government plans to extend this to almost all migrants and phase out physical documents by the end of 2024.
This is despite a 2020 nationwide survey on the experience of the EU Settlement Scheme by Northumbria University, which found that almost 96% were unhappy with not having a physical document.
Independent crossbench peer the Earl of Clancarty, who moved the regret motion, told the upper chamber: “I am not against a digital system; we live in a digital world.
“But a digital-only for immigration status ignores real life, it ignores real experience, it ignores real people.”
The vote came as peers discussed concerns over glitches and system errors that have reportedly caused inconvenience and distress for those requiring digital proof.
Concerns were also raised over accessibility of a digital-only approach for the most vulnerable including older people, those with disabilities and those without access to a smartphone, computer or internet.
Lord Clancarty argued that the Government pressed ahead with the legislation, despite its own 2018 pilot scheme expressly advising against it.
He added that the move also “removes dignity and independence” for survivors of human trafficking and modern slavery.
The lord concluded: “By removing the physical document, you are not just taking away something without which there are significant practical problems anyway, that in itself is insensitive.
“You are depriving citizens of that piece of card or paper that they can hold up and show to anyone ‒ the same sense that our own passport gives ‒ that allows me, a Ukrainian citizen for instance, the right to be resident in this country, the right to work here, the right to find a place to live here.
“And that piece of card or paper I am holding in my hand is a fundamental thing, it is a part of who I am at this moment in time.
“My lords, that is hugely important in itself. To deny that is surely a cruelty and for that reason alone the Government should revoke this legislation.”lancarty
Home Office minister Baroness Williams of Trafford defended the Government’s position, claiming that the digital method is “more secure” as it cannot be lost, stolen or tempered with.
She added that it was the “converse of the Windrush issue” because it is “ensuring that everyone who had a status can prove that status”, and that it will always be up to date.
Baroness Williams told peers: “I am very much a minister of the 21st century and that is the way the Government is going: digital by default.”
The minister quoted user satisfaction of the digital portal at 80%, with 84% satisfaction for landlords and tenants, arguing: “Those figures don’t give me the impression of a system difficult to use.”
However, Lord Clancarty flipped those figures on their heads.
He said: “Now 80% for right to work, 84% for right to work sounds wonderful, but 80% means that 20% of people are struggling with the system.
“And if you think about the millions who will be using the system you are talking about huge numbers of people, so looked at it that way, that is not good at all.”
Liberal Democrat peer Lord Oates accused the Government of being “determined to ignore all the warnings it has been given and all the actual cases of hardship that have been reported to it”.
He quotes multiple errors people have received when trying to access the digital system including “you’re already logged in”, “your details don’t match our records”, “service currently unavailable” and “we can’t find your status”.
This has led to problems with employment, travel, and accessing loans, among other issues.
He highlighted the case of one person who was denied boarding by an airline in Spain when trying to return to the UK, because they had a Romanian passport and were asked for additional photo ID to prove their immigration status.
He also described the case of someone who applied for a job as a carer, but due to an error on the Home Office’s side, were unable to prove their immigration status for weeks.
Lord Oates asked: “Does the Government have any understanding of how distressing these sorts of incidents are to those concerned?
“Will ministers at least try and walk at least a little distance in the shoes of others and try to understand the impact that this policy is having?”
Telling the House that it makes his “blood boil”, he asserted: “It is time, well past time, that our country’s Government stopped acting with such callous disregard for those who have chosen to make their home among us.
“It is time for them to act and reverse this policy.”
Baroness Williams told peers that a full equality impact assessment completed back in October last year will be made available on gov.uk website.