UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) has managed a Brexit-related surge in its workload remarkably well, increasing its level of activity without a large increase in staff numbers or a drastic drop in quality. The biggest challenges lie ahead: managing a potentially large change to the immigration system, the future shape of which remains uncertain.
UKVI’s spending rose by 24% between 2013/14 and 2016/17, but it more than covered its costs through charging.
UK Visas and Immigration is a directorate within the Home Office which processes visa and immigration applications for people wishing to stay in the UK, temporarily or permanently. It was established in March 2013, when the UK Border Agency (UKBA) was abolished.
Since then, gross expenditure by the directorate has risen by 9% in real terms, from £841m in 2013/14 to just over £1bn in 2016/17. However, this is more than covered by the charges it makes to its customers. Over the same period, UKVI’s net revenue rose by 38%, from £243m to £335m (although it dropped to £183m in 2014/15).*
This means that money is not the immediate constraint when it comes to handling the increased workload associated with Brexit, as more applications mean more revenue. Making an application for documentation certifying an EU citizen’s residency status, for example, costs £65. Charges are currently rising in parts of the service. As of June this year, the part of UKVI dealing with enquiries from overseas has been outsourced to Sitel, and a charge of £5.48 to contact UKVI by email from overseas has been introduced, reportedly to make that part of the service cost-neutral.
Staff numbers rose after the EU referendum vote.
Despite flat (then rising) spending, staff numbers at UKVI fell by 9% between September 2014 and June 2016. They then started to rise again in the aftermath of the referendum, as the department took on more staff to deal with its growing workload. As of this June, there were 6,668 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff at UKVI – 5% more than the same time last year, but still 323 lower than the start of 2014.
Over the course of 2016, the number of applications for permanent residency documentation from EU nationals tripled.
UKVI processes the whole range of visa, immigration and residency applications, from tourist visas, to work visas, to asylum applications. The number of applications received by UKVI in most of these areas has either fallen or stayed relatively flat since 2014, with the notable exception of asylum applications (see Box 6.1).
Applications made by EU nationals for documents certifying their right to reside permanently in the UK, which they have the right to do after five years of residency, followed a similar trend up to the end of 2015. Historically, few EU nationals living and working in the UK have taken this step, as it has not been necessary to do so in order to live and work in the UK under EU freedom of movement.
However, with their post-Brexit immigration status uncertain, many more decided to begin the process to acquire documentation certifying their status as permanent residents. Previously, the number of applications hovered around 24,000 each quarter. In the first quarter of 2017, applications peaked at 127,485; 200% higher than at the end of 2015.
In April, knowing that changes to the process were on the horizon, UKVI published guidance which urged EU nationals not to apply for residency immediately. The number of applications dropped significantly that quarter, but – at 61,731 – numbers still remain far higher than in previous years.
Box 6.1: UKVI application volumes
Between 2014 and 2016:
UKVI has processed more than 300,000 EU document applications since the start of 2016 – but new plans mean those people will have to re-apply.
UKVI responded to the surge in applications by ramping up the rate at which it works. Between Q4 2015 and Q1 2017, the number of permanent residency applications processed by the department quadrupled, from 26,011 to 103,242.
The paper application for permanent residency is 85 pages long, and very complex; the online version – introduced in October 2016 – runs to a more modest 16 pages. The proportion of those applications being rejected – 24% at the start of 2017 – is much higher than in the equivalent process for non-EU applicants, which is around 5%. However, although the number of applications returned ‘refused’ or ‘invalid’ is high – 24,545 at the start of 2017 – as a proportion of the total it is currently lower than at any other point since UKVI was set up.
In June, the UK Government published plans to replace the EU’s ‘permanent residency’ status, and replace it with a new legal category of ‘settled status’. Current applicants for, or holders of, ‘permanent residency’ documentation will, according to these plans, have to make a further application. Demand for the new status will therefore include those who have already applied for and been granted residency, as well as the people who have not – leaving UKVI with an even higher workload ahead.
UKVI has dealt with the Brexit surge without a notable fall in the service standards it uses to measure its performance.
UKVI has dealt with the Brexit surge in applications without a notable fall in the standards it uses to monitor the quality of its work.** Over the course of 2016, when the number of permanent residency applications processed by UKVI tripled, the proportion processed within six months – the department’s target – remained above 98%.
This does not, however, represent all applications. These numbers only cover cases deemed ‘straightforward’ by the department: where the department does not need to undertake additional investigation. In Q2 and Q3 2016, 25% of permanent residency applications – more than 33,500 in total – were labelled non-straightforward, where previously the proportion had hovered around 20%. In the final quarter of 2016, however, this fell to 17%. The Home Affairs Committee has previously raised concerns where such a high proportion of applications was not covered by the service standards. We do not know how much longer than six months those people whose applications were deemed ‘non-straightforward’ have had to wait for an answer on their status.
With those caveats in mind, the data paint a broadly positive picture of a department that has managed a substantial increase in its workload in a short period of time. But without a parallel increase in staff numbers – or a radical redesign of the process – UKVI will almost certainly not be able to keep up with the sharply increasing demand it still faces. The Institute for Government has estimated that if work were to continue at its current pace, the department would have to hire an extra 5,000 employees (almost doubling its workforce) to deal with the estimated three million potential applicants by April 2019.
The Government’s June position paper on EU citizens’ rights after Brexit promised a ‘streamlined’ application process. It has already begun this work: at the end of 2016 it introduced a local authority passport checking service, allowing applicants to keep hold of their passports while their application is being processed. A new digital platform is currently being developed in the Home Office, offering fully online application services. However, it is not expected to be ready in time to deal with the bulk of the Brexit applications.
40% of appeals against Home Office immigration decisions are granted.
In Q1 2017, 14,882 immigration and asylum appeals were decided at a first-tier tribunal, down from 20,372 in Q1 2014. This decrease was at least in part driven by legislative change: under the 2014 Immigration Act, the number of immigration decisions which could be appealed fell from 14 to 7. However, numbers of appeals have begun to creep up since the beginning of 2016, from a low of 10,408.
Around 40% of immigration appeals heard by Immigration and Asylum Tribunals are granted, meaning that the initial decision made by the Home Office is overturned. A similar proportion of appeals that fall under the category ‘EEA Free movement’, which includes appeals over EU permanent residency decisions, are granted: 40% exactly in Q1 2017. This high proportion of decisions against the Home Office raises questions about the quality of decision making in UKVI and about the potential burden which could be placed on the courts system by a large increase in the number of visa and residency applications.
These concerns are compounded by the uncertainty which still surrounds the future of the immigration system. At present, applications for permanent residency remain open, but the Government’s guidance now explicitly states that EU citizens seeking to apply for residency should not do anything at present. It is unclear when the new ‘settled’ status applications will open. Potential applicants do not yet know what form their new application will take. This uncertainty presents challenges, for the individuals concerned, for the department, and for anyone trying to track the performance of government in implementing a new immigration regime.
* In 2016/17 prices.
** The May 2017 data release contains a note clarifying that this type of application does not have a ‘service standard’ per se, but that this six month target – applied to ‘straightforward cases’ – is used to monitor performance.