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The Home Office could need to hire an additional 5,000 staff purely to clarify the post-Brexit immigration status of non-UK European national residents, according to a report by the Institute for Government.
It said that uncertainty about EU nationals' right to remain – and any cut-off date for eligibility – meant that up to 3m permanent-right-to-remain applications may need to be processed, while it was “unfeasible” that a completely new immigration system would be in place by April 2019.
The report, Implementing Brexit: Immigration, said that it was possible the UK could be forced to keep the current free movement of people for EU nationals for several years to avoid introducing further complications to the immigration system and harming business.
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The IfG said the current system for registering EU nationals was not fit for purpose, and had seen a spike in applications for permanent residency applications – which non-UK EU national residents are entitled to make after five years of residency here – in the months since June 23’s referendum result.
IfG researcher and report author Joe Owen said the Home Office was currently deciding around 650 permanent residency applications a day, but would need increase that daily figure to 3,600 to process applications from all EU nationals currently eligible.
The report said the projection of a need for 5,000 extra staff was based on a 2014 operating model used by the Home Office.
It said cost was not a barrier, because UK Visas and Immigration “more than covered” its costs through application charges. But the report cautioned that the required step-change in processing levels could not be delivered with the application process in its current form.
The report argued ministers would likely need to maintain free movement system for EU nationals until a replacement is ready, to avoid multiple changes.
Owen said ministers had to recognise that a new post-Brexit immigration regime for EU migrants would not be ready by April 2019 because of the time required to consult on plans, to implement the system and for employers to adapt.
He said the earliest a new regime could be in place would be within a year after Brexit, but that if the details of the plan was delayed until talks concluded, implementation was likely to take several years.
“Brexit is an opportunity to design an immigration system that is more effective for the country and less burdensome for employers,” he said.
“It’s important that the government avoids making multiple changes and introducing unnecessary disruption and confusion.
“To provide stability, we should continue with the existing migration system until the new one is ready.”
The report also broached the wider implications of changes to border crossings that Brexit could entail, pointing to the Home Office’s e-Borders programme as an example of how difficult changes could be.
It said if EU citizens faced the same questioning and screening as non-EU citizens there would be a significant increase in the workload of Border Force at major ports and airports, with around 50m visitors passing through a system designed for 15m visitors a year.