Settled status – ashamed of Britain

Around our kitchen table in Edinburgh this week some friends with EU passports discussed “settled status”, the application they have to make to remain in the UK, since Brexit removed the freedom of movement which exists within the EU. The deadline was at the end of June. None of them got to vote in the Brexit referendum despite making their lives here, running businesses, paying taxes and pouring their hard work and creativity into the UK. 

One has built a destination restaurant in an abandoned schoolhouse in the Highlands, bringing life to a fragile community dominated by empty holiday homes. Another is working his socks off to bring beautiful Italian produce to Scotland. “We are so sorry,” we told them. “We are so ashamed of the way you are being treated by this country.” 

Aart Lastdrager, who co-founded the award-winning Gille Brighde restaurant in Diabaig with his Scottish wife Amanda, used our son’s phone to apply for settled status. The Home Office encouraged applicants who didn’t have the type of smartphone that could handle the software required, to “use a friend or neighbour’s phone”. Aart gave his own contact details but recently our son received a phone call from the Home Office. They passed on a message – “tell Aart he is not getting settled status”. This disregard of basic courtesy and privacy compounded our feeling that he is being disrespected.

Aart was told with a few days to go before the arbitrary hard deadline imposed by the UK government, that he had to re-apply because he had not adequately proved that he has been continuously in the UK. Acceptable ‘evidence’ is very limited, so it can be hard for a self-employed person with a seasonal business to prove this. 

After repeated attempts to contact the Home Office, finally Aart got a missed call – phone signal and wifi are unreliable in the area – and the caller left a number. Full of hope he might be able to speak to someone, he dialled – but it was not a cellphone but a generic information line. Every time he called a computer voice said: ‘due to the high volume of calls we closed the queue’.

When I contacted the Home Office to ask about Aart’s case, they told me they had attempted to contact Aart several times – but he had no missed calls, and no emails from them except for the one failed call after I contacted the press office. 

Another friend around the table that evening, Marina Tsilkovskaya, had her own story to tell – an  Italian passport-holder, she and her partner applied for settled status which they received. But shortly before the deadline Marina was contacted by her daughter’s school. They alerted her to the fact she had to apply for settled status for her child – a child who was born in Scotland and has grown up exclusively here.

If Marina had missed the June 30 deadline as many people surely have, the child would have lost her right to live and work in the UK. What if the teacher had been caught up dealing with Covid and hadn’t made that call? What would have happened then? Would there be a knock at the door one night and the Border Force would come to take her away? The application has not yet been dealt with, and like any parents would, they worry. 

In this week’s Financial Times, Robin Wright reported concerns over how “fairly and sensibly” the UK is “managing the complex challenge of upending its pre-Brexit immigration system, while still grappling with the complications of a global pandemic.” Rules are being applied in a “harsh and inflexible way” and the Home Office is “excessively suspicious”.  

That seems accurate  – surely the Government could have presumed that children born in the UK and who have been educated continuously here are in fact ”settled”? Why not confer automatic residence rights on them?

 “I came here because I thought this country was great, but since Brexit, I don’t think it is great any more,” Marina’s partner Francesco Cosetino of award-winning greengrocers Il Fruttivendolo said. 

Scots didn’t vote for Brexit – we voted overwhelmingly against it. Edinburgh was the most ‘remain’ city in the UK with 75% in favour of EU membership. No compromise position which recognised that the four constituent countries of the UK voted differently was offered by the Government in London.

However the UK Government has the right to treat our EU citizens in this way. Among Scottish MPs in Westminster and the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, the majority are independence supporting MPs who oppose Brexit, but their protests and concerns carry no weight with the UK Government. Many EU citizens have left, others are contemplating it, due to a combination of Brexit, the pandemic and perhaps a better quality of life elsewhere. 

We already miss our EU citizens here in Scotland. If you drive along the great northern arteries of the A9, the A82, you will pass innumerable hotels, cafes and souvenir shops displaying ‘help wanted’ signs. Absent truck drivers mean empty shelves in supermarkets. People in all walks of life were from the EU. 

What can we do? Aart was pleased that he got a personally-addressed “courage, mon brave!” style note from Nicola Sturgeon – around the time of the Scottish elections. We fall back, as often, on the Scottish independence supporters’ mantra, popularised by the late artist and writer Alasdair Gray: “work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.’ 

How will this play out? Time will tell – but mine won’t be the only kitchen table at which these matters are being raised. Feeling ashamed of Britain definitely makes an independent Scotland more appealing. 

Jackie Kemp

First published in the author’s A Letter from Scotland on Substack and republished with the author’s permission