Immigration solicitor Anne Morris questions how the Home Office will deliver complete UK immigration reform when it is already struggling under the current status quo
By January 2021, the UK will have a new immigration system in place. New rules, different rights, revised processes. It will be the biggest shake-up in our immigration regime since joining the European Union.
But how will the Home Office, with its difficult and flawed track record in visa processing and decision-making, cope with developing and implementing the infrastructure critical to the new system?
Mounting caseload ahead
Reform will follow outline proposals made by the Government in its 2018 White Paper on immigration. Fundamentally, preferences on the basis of nationality will be removed and replaced with a skills-based approach.
The end of EU free movement will see EU citizens become subject to the full reach and force of the UK immigration rules. Any EEA nationals wanting to come to the UK under the new regime will have to apply for and secure the relevant permission.
The operational implications for the Home Office cannot be understated. Not only will it be responsible for handling and issuing all visas to EU citizens entering the UK, immigration enforcement and border control will also need to be adapted to meet an expanded remit.
The Home Office is also responsible for ensuring that all 3 million EU citizens already in the UK have registered for the new settlement scheme by 30 June 2021 if we leave the EU with a deal, or 31 December 2020 in the increasingly likely event of a no deal Brexit.
Fewer than 700,000 applications for settled status have so far been made, indicating there is some way to go. The problem this raises for the Home Office is that those who don’t register their status will be left undocumented and illegal after Brexit, risking yet another Windrush scandal.
Fit to burst
How will the already-overstretched Home Office cope with this growth in demand?
Under-resourced, mounting application backlogs, flawed decision-making, technical deficiencies, outright negligence and the increasingly vivid spectre of a no deal Brexit – the Home Office is not in great shape to deliver a whole new immigration system.
Decision-making is inefficient and slow. Applications across all classifications are taking longer to process. Citizenship applications are taking over 6 months to decide and the Home Office has abandoned its target for processing asylum claims.
Confidence in decision-making has also been decimated by allegations of unlawful practices and abuse of power. Most recently, thousands of international students have been caught up with unlawful allegations of cheating at English exams, casting a spotlight on a ‘deport now, check later’ culture.
With rights to appeal all but eroded, visa applicants are now routinely turning to the press in the hope of shaming the department into responding to their case.
In a hugely concerning development, the Home Office is increasingly relying on secretive algorithms to decide application outcomes, raising concerns about discrimination against visa applicants.
The Government is currently engaged in extensive stakeholder consultations on the detail of the new rules and work has already started on a new system for sponsored non-UK workers that will rely on data sharing, but the Home Office’s track record in digitisation of services doesn’t inspire confidence.
Systems integration and data-sharing with other departments such as HMRC, DWP and DVLA have been blighted by issues with data management, privacy and a temporary suspension during the Windrush scandal.
The Home Office is demonstrably overstretched and under-resourced. It is struggling to recruit and retain caseworkers and enforcement and border officials.
To date, efforts to manage workload, ease backlogs and improve ‘customer experience’, despite investment, have disappointed.
Spend on agency workers and consultants rocketed to £120.1million in 2018-19, an increase of more than a quarter in 12 months, according to the Home Office’s annual report.
The department has also turned to outsourcing to alleviate pressures, launching a visa processing service in November 2018 under a £91 million contract.
Far from the silver bullet that was promised, a catalogue of issues has plagued the service since launching, with persistent shortages of appointments for applicants at a limited number of processing centres and staff unable to give advice.
In response, there have recently been calls from cross-party politicians, the Law Society and the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association for an investigation into the partnership.
While the Home Office appears fully at ease with delegating visa processing to the private sector, its responsibility in this area has not been absolved and should an outsourced approach form the basis of the new system, there will be some way to go for smooth and fair implementation.
Brace for change
The Government’s proposals undoubtedly hit on a number of fundamental flaws in the current regime. Reform is needed.
But any good intentions to create a more effective immigration system are in danger of being lost in the implementation due to Home Office failings.
Founder and Managing Director, Immigration Solicitor
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