Think tank warns that Home Office systems are a “long way from a fully digital service” that is needed to deal with the surge of permanent residency applications from EU nationals as the UK leaves the union
The Home Office’s systems are under pressure ahead of the UK’s departure from the European Union – Photo credit: PA
The Home Office should redesign its permanent residency application process – and hire around 5,000 more staff – to deal with the influx of requests it will face as the UK exits the European Union, a think tank has said.
In the first of its reports on how the government should implement Brexit, the Institute for Government said that it is “unfeasible” that the government will be able to implement a new immigration regime by April 2019.
It said that, although the UK and EU want to provide certainty for the three million EU nationals in the UK and the one million UK nationals living in the EU, there will be a huge administrative task in processing applications and issuing documentation.
“The challenge for government is processing a possible three million applications with a system designed to manage a fraction of that,” the report stated.
“To process all EU nationals currently eligible for permanent residence by March 2019, the Home Office would need to make roughly 3,600 decisions per day; it is currently making about 650 decisions per day.”
To deal with this, the report said, the Home Office “needs either significant numbers of additional staff or a redesign of the process, or, better still, both”.
Based on a Home Office operating model from 2014, the IfG said that to deal with the influx of applications, the government would need to hire around 5,000 additional staff – so far the Home Office has hired 240 in Liverpool.
However, the issue is not the cost of bringing in new staff – the charges to applicants will more than cover the hires, the IfG said – but with the application process itself.
“The step change in processing speed is unfeasible with the application in its current form,” the report said, adding that the high number of refusals and appeals further complicates the task.
The current system has been widely criticised, with a hard copy for applicants to fill in that runs to 85 pages. And, although the IfG acknowledged that the Home Office was working on a better system with a more user-friendly online form, it was “a long way from a fully digital service”. For instance, applicants still have to print off their forms to post, and processing takes place in much the same way.
There is also another online service, which will use information from the UK’s tax authority, under development that will reduce processing times, but the IfG said “it is not expected to be ready in time to deal with the bulk of the Brexit-related applications”.
The IfG also noted that the impact of Brexit on the Home Office’s ability to deliver its complex and ambitious IT projects was “unknown” and warned the government not to underestimate the scale of the challenge.
As an example of “how difficult changes at the border can be”, the report cited the e-Borders programme, which was launched in 2007 and cost £600m.
This aimed to collect passenger information in advance to compare it with passenger warning indexes, but ran into difficulties and its successor programme, Digital Services at the Border, is not due to be completed until March 2019, at a total cost of more than £1bn.
The IfG said that it “remains unclear if outstanding IT projects will be able to deliver by April 2019, or if they require major changes in the light of Brexit, which will delay delivery further”.
In addition, the IfG noted the impact on employers, saying that big changes to systems and processes would usually need to be phased in over a period of years – those that didn’t, including HMRC’s delayed digital tax reforms, risked running into difficulties.
‘Use electronic checks to avoid short-term disruption’
To avoid short-term disruptions, the report said that the government should increase its use of electronic checks that can be done in advance, and minimise changes to the way EU nationals are treated at the border.
“The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration has supported the use of e-passport gates to manage queues and improve processing times,” the report said.
“If the 35 million EU nationals who cross the UK border each year continue to be permitted to use e-passport gates, a great deal of the pressure on Border Force could be alleviated, avoiding lengthy queues and delays for passengers.”
HMRC is facing similar issues in dealing with Brexit, as it is rushing to replace its outdated – customs IT system, which records and automatically checks declarations to customs of goods by land, air and sea electronically.
The system, known as CHIEF, is the main declaration processing service for a total of 57 border systems and deals with more than 60 million declarations a year.
These are expected to increase by 90 million to 390 million a year when the UK leaves the EU, but the project to build the new system, Customs Delivery Service, was recently rated ‘amber-red’, which means that delivery is “in doubt”.
Although HMRC’s director general Jim Harra has moved to allay fears over the implementation process saying that it was “challenging” but deliverable, the outgoing chairman of the Treasury Committee last month voiced concerns about the status of the project.
“The CDS is needed in order to handle a possible five-fold increase in declarations that could occur when the UK leaves the EU,” Tyrie said. “The consequences of this project failing, or even being delayed, could be serious. Much trade could be lost.”