The Home Office is neither ready nor able to implement a new immigration system after Brexit, the Institute for Government has said in a damning report.
The department may not even be the right part of Whitehall to deal with ending freedom of movement after the UK leaves the UK, given that “the task of managing immigration completely changes in both scale and strategic importance once free movement ends”, the think tank said.
The change will make policy decisions “even more significant for the economy… at a time when, because of high-profile failures, public confidence in the Home Office is low”, the IfG added.
The department is still reeling from the Windrush scandal and was last year also forced to set up a taskforce to investigate its handling of cases in which immigration applicants had been wrongly compelled to undergo DNA testing – and had visa applications illegally rejected when they did not.
More recently, a House of Lords committee said an over-reliance on digital platforms in the Home Office’s settlement scheme for EU nationals could pose problems in future, in a report that warned of “clear parallels with Windrush”.
In its latest report, published today, the Institute for Government points to a litany of failings at the Home Office including poor decision-making, unrealistic targets and policies driven by politics rather than evidence – such as the so-called “hostile environment”. More than half of the immigration appeals lodged against the Home Office are successful, the report noted.
Repeated restructuring in response to political crises has also made the Home Office “less effective”, it said.
According to the report: “The system depends on charging applicants high fees and shifting problems elsewhere in government. Ministers are regularly asked to act as caseworkers, making specific operational decisions in a way that bears no comparison to other departments.”
Other weaknesses that would make it difficult to deliver the new immigration system include the Home Office’s ageing IT systems and poor data, according to the report. It said a “single-minded political focus on the net migration target obscures the availability of other data which might help to provide a more transparent picture of the immigration system”.
Another of the department’s weaknesses was a disconnect between policy and operations the think tank said, illustrated by instances in which ministers misled parliament about what was happening on the ground. Then home secretary Amber Rudd resigned last year after telling the Home Affairs Select Committee that her department had no targets for removing people who were in the UK illegally.
If it were to manage the post-Brexit immigration system, the Home Office would need to “either scale up or do things very differently”, the report said.
The report also called for immigration policy to be developed as a cross-government effort, rather than within one department. For this to work, it said, “rather than be seen as the sole department of control, the Home Office should be able to play the honest broker between competing concerns”.
In a statement accompanying the report, IfG associate director Joe Owen said: “As we end free movement from the EU, our migration policy must address the needs of the country but also the public confidence challenge.
“Ministers need to consider whether the Home Office is the right permanent home for a migration policy that needs to serve labour market needs, be fair and efficient in dealing with applicants, and provide the necessary degree of assurance to the wider public.”
The report called on cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill to assess whether the Home Office is the right department to handle immigration policy, as part of a wider review he is planning of the machinery of government after Brexit.
Sedwill should put forward an assessment including a cost-benefit analysis of alternatives, including one or more arm’s-length bodies responsible for operational delivery, and a separate immigration department, the IfG said.
Whatever the outcome of this assessment, the IfG said, the government must act to address the failings raised in the report.
It called on top civil servants to address the flaws in the existing immigration system. “At a minimum they should review the policy-making process and structural divides between policy and operations, which have led to ministers and senior officials fundamentally misunderstanding what is happening on the front line,” it said.
The home secretary should meanwhile set up a more independent Migration Advisory Committee and independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, the IfG added.
It also urged the government to agree and communicate “clear objectives” for the immigration system, underpinning an annual migration plan showing how it would achieve them. This plan should eschew “arbitrary” targets such as the net migration target, it said, “and instead be informed by forecasts of likely movement through different visa routes”.
A comprehensive data strategy would also be needed to ensure immigration policy was based on evidence, it said.
The Home Office said the IfG paper appeared to cover a range of issues that were already addressed by last year’s immigration white paper, and that it had already committed to a review of the structures and processes in the immigration and borders system to ensure it was fair and humane.
“This report calls on the government to publish a clear vision for immigration, which the government has done through the white paper on the UK’s future skills-based immigration system, published last year,” a spokesperson said.
“Our proposals would mean we have a single, skills-based immigration system that will allow us to attract the talented workers so that the UK prospers, but also delivers on the referendum result, ends free movement and improves border security.
“We are engaging extensively throughout 2019 across the UK, including with business, and we have already asked the Law Commission to review our Immigration Rules to see how they can be simplified and made more accessible.
“We are resolute in our determination to right the wrongs experienced by the Windrush generation and have commissioned a lessons learned review with independent oversight and scrutiny to establish what went wrong and prevent it happening again.”
It said the Migration Advisory Committee was already an independent body commissioned to provide impartial, evidence-based advice.