Delays to the government’s white paper setting out plans for a post-Brexit immigration system are causing further anxiety for EU citizens and uncertainty for UK business, a cross-party parliamentary report has said.
The Commons home affairs committee described the lack of a timetable for critical new rules to be enacted after Britain leaves the EU in just over a year’s time as extremely regrettable and unacceptable. They found that Home Office teams were already struggling with “a lack of resources, high turnover of staff and unrealistic workloads”, and warned that inexperience and pressure to meet targets were resulting in mistakes with “life-changing consequences”.
The committee concluded it would soon be impossible for the department’s overstretched agencies covering visas, borders and immigration enforcement to do their job.
Labour’s Yvette Cooper, who chairs the committee, said: “We need urgent clarity about both registration and border plans for next year so that parliament can scrutinise them and so that families, employers and officials can plan.
“The lack of detail with just over a year to go is irresponsible. We recognise that the government needs time to consider long-term changes, but the Home Office urgently needs to set out its intentions for next year.”
The findings come after it emerged that the immigration white paper, a draft of which was leaked to the Guardian in September, was being repeatedly pushed back. The key paper was initially due to be published last summer, but will now not be released until the transition deal is completed and could still be unpublished by the end of this year.
That means the Brexit immigration bill, promised in the Queen’s speech, will not reach the statute book before the registration of 3 million EU nationals already living in Britain gets under way this autumn.
Cooper said a “litany of questions” remained that were causing needless anxiety and uncertainty for EU citizens, their families and employers. She asked whether there would be one registration system or two, given Theresa May’s recent claim that EU citizens arriving in Britain during the transition period would not have the same rights as those already here.
She also said it was critical to know if there would be more border checks or not, whether landlords and employers would be required to demand registration documents, if the same rules would apply to Norway and Iceland, and what ministers’ negotiating objectives were.
Cooper said: “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 report suggested it was not feasible for the government to set up two effective registration schemes by March 2019, and also warned that:
- Failure to set out immigration objectives will soon deny parliament and those affected the chance to debate plans before they are finalised, saying “that is unacceptable”.
- “Needless uncertainty” is preventing individuals planning for their futures, and businesses and public services, from knowing how and where they can source staff.
- The UK’s Border Force does not have the capacity to put in place additional checks after March 2019, particularly if there are also additional customs checks.
It also described the human cost of Home Office errors, blamed on a lack of resources, high pressure and inexperience. It added that people lawfully in Britain were being caught up in the “hostile environment” meant to be aimed at individuals with no right to be here.
For example, in September 2017, Haruko Tomioka, a Japanese woman lawfully in the UK, was given seven days to leave the country, it said. “This followed a two-year period during which time her driving licence had been rescinded, child benefit payments had been stopped (she had also been ordered to repay £5,000), and she was made to report to Becket House immigration office on a regular basis.”
It took repeated notifications to the Home Office that she was here legally and that her husband was an EU national in employment before the department finally accepted her rights.
The MPs said they were “very concerned” that the government would implement checks by employers, banks, landlords and others before “evidence that the policy is working fairly and effectively”.
The shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, said Amber Rudd had serious questions to answer about the “dismal failure to make robust preparations for Brexit” and said the impact on EU nationals was “cruel and unfair” and risked damaging the economy. She claimed the findings came from the chaos in the Home Office as a result of deep divisions in Theresa May’s cabinet.
“The immigration department currently does not have the resources to deal with the challenges of Brexit. Amber Rudd needs to stop battling Boris Johnson and start battling with Philip Hammond for the money she needs, if immigration and the Border Force are not to face disaster post-Brexit,” she said.
Nicolas Hatton, chair of citizens’ rights organisation The3million, said: “Today’s report confirms fears we have had for 600 days: that the British government is unwilling to find a solution to citizens’ rights. It is still using EU citizens as bargaining chips in the Brexit negotiations.”
He said there was not enough clarity around a registration system for EU citizens already in the UK. “This means total chaos next April when over 3 million people might not be able to prove their rights – with potentially devastating consequences,” he added, saying that was why his group wanted a simple process based on ID and proof of residence.