Home Office staff are under increased pressure from heavy workloads as the department grapples with high turnover, staffing gaps and the looming Brexit challenge, trade union officials and the immigration watchdog told MPs yesterday.
David Bolt, independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, said that immigration caseworkers will have to take 100 decisions a day to register the three million EU nationals living in Britain before it leaves the EU, even with the Home Office’s projected staffing increases.
Asked by Home Affairs Committee chair Yvette Cooper whether this was realistic, Bolt replied: “I would not want to be doing it myself.”
His comments came a day after the publication of his report on the department’s asylum intake and casework in 2016-17, which warned of the rise in the number of claims awaiting an initial decision and problems caused by “high staff turnover, prolonged staffing gaps and inexperience”.
The Home Office has said it plans to recruit 500 new immigration caseworkers by April next year to deal with the increased Brexit workload. It has also stated it has hired 700 people already – a figure that PCS union has refused to recognise, claiming just 240 staff have been recruited so far.
It said: “Because of high turnover the extra staff are in effect just filling existing vacancies”.
The Home Office has also pledged to hire 300 additional Border Force staff – a number both the Home Affairs Committee and PCS have dismissed as “unconvincing”. The union was also concerned about “inadequate staffing” at the Northern Ireland border, where it said there were 57 border officers and just six more planned recruitments.
The PCS group secretary of the Home Office group, Mike Jones, told the committee yesterday that the department struggled to hold onto staff and employees in Border Force, Immigration Enforcement, UK Visas and Immigration, the Disclosure and Barring Service, HM Passport Office and those working on policy were overstretched and facing massive uncertainty.
During a committee hearing on Home Office capacity to meet post-Brexit immigration challenges, he said: “Senior managers at the Home Office have been left completely in the lurch by a government that has got no clue of the way forward.
“They’ve got themselves into real difficulty and it’s an absolute shambles because no one in the Home Office has been told what they need to do prepare for Brexit.”
Helen Kenny, who represents Home Office professionals at the FDA, the union for senior civil servants, told MPs that staff were frustrated at how long it took the department, which has lengthy security clearance procedures, to fill vacancies.
“The biggest concern, the biggest problem, is the lack of clarity – not knowing what things will look like the day after we leave the European Union,” she added. “The closer we get to that date the more likely it is that Home Office will not have the time or the resources or the ability to put the relevant processes in place.
“There’s a real concern that the government will expect the impossible [and] that unrealistic expectation of how quickly a system can be put in place is causing real concern for our members.”
Recent FDA surveys found that almost three-quarters of Home Office respondents believed the department had a problem with excessive working hours, and 87% said they didn’t think the Home Office was properly resourced for the year ahead.
Bolt’s report on asylum casework, which was sent to the home secretary on 25 November, made seven recommendations including ensuring there are enough staff to clear the backlog and reviewing how well staff are trained. The Home Office has accepted six of the recommendations, and partially accepted one.
It has plans to reform the asylum system, including establishing a new asylum casework office.
Bolt said in his report: “My message to the Home Office is that it needs to accelerate its transformation plans and to ensure it has asylum processing and decision making under control as soon as possible.
“Otherwise, the next peak in asylum intake, or trough in staffing levels, will see it fall further behind.”
The Home Office has previously promised to keep staffing levels under review as Brexit negotiations progress.