The Home Office will need “a considerable increase in resources” to cope with Brexit, former senior immigration officials warned yesterday ahead of chancellor Philip Hammond’s pledge today that the UK customs system would have “necessary minimum structures” in place by March 2019.
David Wood, who was Home Office head of immigration enforcement until 2015, said he feared it will be “near impossible” for Britain to be prepared for Brexit by 2019.
He said additional Border Force staff would need to be hired 12 months before Britain leaves the EU to make sure they are properly vetted and trained.
Wood told MPs of the Home Affairs Select Committee on Tuesday: “I don’t think under current resources the challenge of Brexit can be met – and certainly not smoothly.”
He added: “With Brexit the EU essentially becomes the rest of the world. That places additional pressure on the borders given the time taken to process each individual – considerable pressure.”
He said putting in place customs arrangement presented the biggest challenge, particularly if the UK leaves the EU without a deal in 2019.
“If that had to be up and running for March 2019, I suspect that’s near impossible,” he said.
But Hammond, appearing at the Treasury Select Committee on Wednesday, said the UK customs system would be ready to leave the single market and customs union in March 2019 - although it may not be ready for whatever future arrangements will come into force.
He said: “We will be ready with the necessary minimum structures to operate the system on day one.
“Will everything that we will ever need be in place on day one? Definitely it won’t.
“We will build over time a more and more refined infrastructure to deal with the situation we are facing once we know what that situation is. But can’t start building it now because we don’t know what it is.”
The UK Visas and Immigration agency has 6,500 staff who currently deal with three million applications a year.
But prime minister Theresa May has assured the 3.6 million EU residents in the UK that they will be able to apply for residency status within two years of Brexit.
Wood said there isn’t yet capacity to deal with the additional workload.
“The Home Office can cope with that but of course there aren’t staff there to do that, so they’re going to be taken from other things and that creates backlogs,” he said.
The former chief inspector of Borders and Immigration John Vine told MPs that the EU citizens already in the UK were creating an “unprecedented bureaucratic challenge”.
He agreed that “there’d have to be a considerable increase” in Home Office immigration staff to cope with the additional workload, and said that new technology may also ease the pressure on the department.
Commenting on high-profile Home Office mistakes such as the letter mistakenly sent to more than 100 people telling them they would be deported, Wood conceded that errors occur under pressure.
There is a risk that such errors can be compounded if more pressure is put on the system without additional resources to be able to cope with it,” he said.
Border Force numbers fell from 7,911 to 7,670 in 2016-2017, according to the Home Office.
Earlier this year, the general secretary of the Borders, Immigration and Customs Union Lucy Moreton revealed London City Airport is the only place in the UK that does not have any Border Force vacancies.
She said: “Britain’s borders aren’t secure."