A no-deal Brexit is becoming an increasingly vivid prospect as 31 October creeps closer.
Whether it comes to pass through Boris Johnson’s let’s-just-get-on-with-it-Brexit or Jeremy Hunt’s battle-seasoned negotiation toolkit, the impact of crashing out without a deal will be the same. Utter chaos.
One bastion of government expected to help lead the country through the no-deal minefield is the Home Office. But for the department charged with administering the UK immigration system to the tune of government policy, the timing couldn’t be worse.
Under-resourced, mounting application backlogs, flawed decision-making, technical deficiencies and a whole new immigration system to build, the Home Office is not in great shape to deliver a no-deal exit.
It’s already flailing under the current status quo. Decision-making is inefficient and slow. Applications across all classifications are taking longer to process. Citizenship applications are taking over six months to decide and the Home Office has abandoned its target for processing asylum claims.
When case files are picked up, confidence in decision-making has been decimated by allegations of unlawful practices and abuse of power. Most recently, thousands of international students have been caught up with unlawful allegations of cheating at English exams, casting a spotlight on a ‘deport now, check later’ culture.
With rights to appeal all but eroded, visa applicants are now routinely turning to the press in the hope of shaming the department into responding to their case.
The Home Office is demonstrably overstretched and under-resourced. It is struggling to recruit and retain caseworkers and enforcement and border officials, and spend on agency workers and consultants rocketed to £120.1million in 2018-19, an increase of more than a quarter in 12 months, according to the Home Office’s annual report.
It has also turned to outsourcing to alleviate pressures, launching a visa processing service in November 2018 under a £91million contract. Far from the silver bullet that was promised, a catalogue of issues has plagued the service since launching, with persistent shortages of appointments for applicants at a limited number of processing centres and staff unable to give advice.
Under the Government’s no deal arrangements for EU migration, the Home Office’s list of things to do will swell exponentially.
It will become responsible for processing and issuing a new type of temporary visa to all EU citizens coming to the UK.
It will also be responsible for ensuring that by December 2020, all EU citizens already in the UK have applied to remain under the new settlement scheme. Leave with a deal, the deadline is a later date of 30 June 2021 - the Home Office will have six months less under the no deal scenario to make sure all 3 million plus EU citizens in the UK are registered.
Less than 700,000 applications for settled status have so far been made, so there is some way to go. The problem this raises for the Home Office is that those who don’t register their status will be left undocumented and illegal after Brexit, risking yet another Windrush scandal.
Technology and digitisation of services should offer a long-term solution to the department’s capacity and capability issues, but to date the Home Office’s foray into tech has been tepid. The settled status app is only available on certain Android operating systems and there have been technical glitches.
Systems integration and data-sharing with other departments such as HMRC, DWP and DVLA have been blighted by issues with data management, privacy and a temporary suspension during the Windrush scandal.
If we leave the EU without a deal, all of this will get worse. It will be an unwelcome drain and distraction at a time when Home Office attention and resources should be on reform of the UK immigration system in light of the Government’s White Paper. The recommendations recognise critical flaws in the current immigration rules and a fundamental need to open up UK visas to those with the skills the economy needs.
Any good intentions to create a more effective immigration system are in danger of being lost in the trauma of no deal Brexit.
It’s hard to see how the Home Office will cope with the added workload and the impact will be felt most by people and businesses who just want to get on with their lives with a reasonable expectation of certainty and fairness from our immigration system.
Immigration solicitor Anne Morris is the founder and Managing Director at UK immigration law firm DavidsonMorris