“I am thrilled that we have had two million applications to the EU Settlement Scheme so that EU citizens can secure their immigration status under UK law,” Home Secretary Priti Patel said on Wednesday morning. Her gushing remarks were in response to the latest statistics on EU nationals applying for post-Brexit status. They show a surge in applications for September, marking by far the highest monthly figure since the scheme opened.

The fact that more EU citizens living in Britain are applying to secure their status is of course a good thing. There has been widespread concern about the fact that anyone who hasn’t applied once the UK leaves the bloc – either June 2021 or December 2020 – will be left with no rights and at the mercy of the government’s hostile environment policies. 

But what Ms Patel refrained from addressing is the proportion of applicants who are still waiting for decisions. Yes, two million have applied; yes, only two have been refused on “suitability grounds”. But take a closer look into the statistics and 335,700 – or 18 per cent – have not yet been concluded. For a process that is supposed to take five days, this seems a lot.

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The Independent reported last month that spouses of EU nationals who are not themselves European – and whose cases are therefore inevitably more complex – have been waiting months for a response to their applications. While simple cases are being streamlined through, the more complicated ones – it appears – are becoming stalled.

Maybe there is sense in this. Get the straightforward ones out of the way then focus on the more knotty cases. But there are a lot of them – and not a lot of time. Plus, based on the Home Office’s track record, delays in getting through complex immigration cases are commonplace. The proportion of leave to remain applications taking more than six months to resolve almost doubled between 2014 and 2017, while the number of asylum seekers forced to wait more than the target time hit a record high this year.

Add to this the fact that also hidden in the EU settlement figures are more than 7,600 applicants who were given “other outcomes” – a dubious term which can mean a number of things, including the application being deemed invalid due to incorrect evidence or void because the applicant was “ineligible” – and Ms Patel’s celebratory remarks seem misplaced.

The Home Office can continue to hark on about the number of EU nationals who have applied to the scheme. But it’s no good having millions of people apply if hundreds of thousands are left waiting, stalled, left in excruciating limbo, while simple cases are sped through. As long as this backlog continues to grow, claims of success in the scheme should be treated with caution. There could be serious problems on the horizon.

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