Home Office recruitment plans are not even sufficient enough to address current understaffing at the UK border “never mind cope with the substantial additional Brexit workload”, MPs have warned.
The Home Affairs Select Committee sounded the alarm over staffing levels ahead of Britain’s exit from the European Union in March 2019, when government is likely to need to increase border checks and implement a new registration scheme for EU citizens entering the UK.
In a report published today MPs outlined concerns that the government’s failure to set out its priorities for a post-Brexit immigration system have left that the Home Office with “barely any time left to recruit or plan” for it.
The report follows claims published in The Times that the department had “barely begun” work on a system to register EU migrants who come to the UK after March 2019.
The committee criticised the government for delays to its white paper on the post-Brexit immigration system, and said questions remain over the nature of registration systems and border checks required post-Brexit and during any transition period. Home Office-affiliated organisations are already struggling at the border, it said.
The report stated: “Government agencies tasked with delivering the Brexit immigration settlement, UK Visas and Immigration, Immigration Enforcement and Border Force, are likely to face a substantial increase in the volume and complexity of work they undertake, with barely any time left to recruit or plan.”
Committee chair Yvette Cooper complained of “irresponsible” and persistent delays to announcements and decisions by the government, which have left crucial details still lacking.
“There aren’t enough resources and staff in place,” she added. “Our inquiry found that the immigration and border system is already understaffed with significant problems and it will not cope with last minute and under-resourced Brexit changes.”
Cooper also said the unanswered questions were causing “needless anxiety and uncertainty” among EU citizens, their families and employers.
She added: “The government does not seem to appreciate the immense bureaucratic challenge they are facing or how much time and resources they need to plan on Brexit. The Home Office will end up in a real mess next year if there isn't enough time to sort things out.”
The committee conducted an inquiry into Home Office capacity to deliver Brexit, and found that initial plans announced by the government – including extra staffing for European casework, data sharing with other government departments and new IT systems – were insufficient. It also found plans to hire more staff at UKVI not enough, while planned increases in people at Border Force “are not even sufficient to backfill existing vacancies”.
The problems are likely to be even worse, and could undermine border security, if border guards are also expected to deliver extra customs checks, said the committee, calling on government to keep customs arrangements the same during any transition period.
It also said it was no longer feasible, given the time left, for the government to consider establishing a second registration scheme for EU citizens arriving after March 2019 that is different from the one that exists for EU citizens who are currently resident in the UK.
FDA trade union national officer Helen Kenny welcomed the report, adding that ministers must clarify their intentions so that civil servants can deliver the best possible Brexit.
“The scale of the challenge on borders and immigration is laid bare in this report, as is the picture of a system already creaking under the weight of increased demands with fewer resources. The security of our borders and the running of an effective and efficient immigration system are critical to our national interest – these cannot be delivered on the cheap or materialise overnight.
“As the committee makes clear, the government needs to urgently resolve the outstanding issues on customs, citizenship and immigration to give clearer direction to those tasked with designing and delivering our border security. Only then can a realistic assessment be made of the resources required and ministers be tested on whether they are prepared to fully fund any new system.”
PCS union general secretary Mark Serwotka said the lack of organisation was “staggering” and that understaffing required urgent attention. He pointed to the Home Office proposal for volunteer border guards, the equivalent of police special constables.
“This suggestion of a ‘Dad’s Army’ type force shows how out of touch the government is,” said Serwotka. “We need properly trained and resourced professionals in place.”
But the Home Office said it was “ridiculous to suggest that we are not preparing sufficiently for leaving the EU”.
Responding to the committee report on their blog they said the department had invested £60m in 2017-18, was recruiting 1,500 staff across the immigration and border system, and was well advanced in developing a scheme to give EU citizens currently in Britain the right to stay. Staffing will be kept under review as negotiations progress, it said.
A Home Office spokesperson said the government’s priority now was to agree detail of the two-year implementation period, during which EU citizens will be allowed to move to the UK but there will be a registration scheme in preparation for the future immigration system.
“We are considering a range of options for the future immigration system that will ensure that we are in control of our borders and managing migration at a sustainable level in the national interest, while continuing to attract the brightest and best,” they added. “We will set out initial plans in the coming months.”