Summary: Managing migration after Brexit

Leaving the European Union (EU) will allow the UK to ‘take back control’ of aspects of migration policy previously determined by EU law. The Government will be able to restrict EU immigration in a way that has not been possible for decades. But the Government and, in particular, the Home Office must transform if they are to rise to the challenge.

‘Taking back control’ of immigration is about much more than just designing and implementing a new immigration system. Over the past 15 years, the UK has come to depend on the free movement of workers from the EU to meet skills gaps and labour shortages. Large numbers have moved to the UK from the EU without coming into contact with the UK immigration system.

The task of managing immigration completely changes in both scale and strategic importance once free movement ends. Government policy decisions – which will need to balance the concerns of voters with the demands of businesses – will be even more significant for the economy. This new challenge comes at a time when, because of high-profile failures, public confidence in the Home Office is low.

Problems that must be addressed

Problems in the UK immigration system must be fixed if the Government is to have any chance of meeting the Brexit challenge. These problems, outlined below, have driven the major crises in the Home Office in recent decades.

  • Unrealistic targets and the lack of a clear strategy. Ministers have relied on high-level political rhetoric about migration. Beyond that, the Government has not put forward a detailed or coherent account of what it wants from immigration; instead, it has set blunt numerical targets that cannot be met. The failure to make trade-offs, decide priorities and articulate objectives has damaged public confidence and made it impossible for government to run the system effectively.
  • The way the Home Office is set up makes it less effective. The structure of the Home Office has been changed repeatedly, each time a reaction to the previous crisis in the immigration system. The system depends on charging applicants high fees and shifting problems elsewhere in government. Ministers are regularly asked to act as caseworkers, making specific operational decisions in a way that bears no comparison to other departments.
  • Disconnection between policy and operations. Despite ministers' involvement in some specific immigration cases, there is a big gap between what politicians and policy officials think happens in the system and what actually happens on the front line more generally. In 2018 alone, one Home Secretary lost her job and another had to apologise to Parliament because they had misled the House of Commons about what was happening on the ground.
  • Poor data and old systems. The Home Office is run on decades-old information technology (IT) systems and paper files. The single-minded political focus on the net migration target obscures the availability of other data which might help to provide a more transparent picture of the immigration system.
  • Weak evidence and evaluation. Key policies – such as the creation of a ‘hostile environment’ for illegal immigrants – are built more on politics than evidence. Policy makers need to make better use of cross-government information and should be routinely evaluating their policies in order to learn and improve.
  • A lack of effective scrutiny. There are many mechanisms for scrutinising the Home Office, but they rarely help prevent crises. Legislative scrutiny is weak because the Government has relied on changes to immigration rules that only require the minimum level of parliamentary scrutiny; the volume of secondary legislation and the length of the immigration rulebook have ballooned in recent years. At the same time, the Home Office has used its powers to limit the effectiveness of scrutiny bodies, holding back reports and publishing them at times least likely to get attention.

Is the Home Office the right department to run the immigration system?

There is rarely a good time to make ‘machinery-of-government’ changes – that is, abolishing or changing the structure of departments. Such decisions are often politically motivated, poorly thought through, expensive and fail to deliver desired benefits. In the current context, given that the immigration system is facing a dramatic change in a short time due to Brexit, there might seem to be good reason to avoid any big changes to departmental responsibilities.

The Home Office has already geared up for Brexit and was one of the quickest departments off the blocks in putting in place new systems and processes. But the analysis in this report reveals some uncomfortable truths.

First, the strategic importance of immigration policy will change significantly after Brexit. The link between immigration and the economy will become even more vital. In short, the question will change from ‘who should we keep out?’ to ‘who does the UK need to come in?’. At the moment the Home Office is a ‘control’ not a ‘facilitate’ department.

Second, a big expansion of the immigration system will be necessary. The Home Office must either scale up or do things very differently.

Third, migration policy needs to be collectively developed and owned across government. The Home Secretary is often characterised as stubbornly refusing requests from colleagues around the Cabinet table to liberalise migration policy. A new approach to migration should take account of labour market priorities, and balance them against the need to maintain public support for the system. Rather than be seen as the sole department of control, the Home Office should be able to play the honest broker between competing concerns.

Finally, the Home Office has seen a number of high-profile failures. A legitimate question is whether the department commands confidence domestically and internationally – even if important parts of the operation are considered world-leading.

As things stand, the Home Office is not ready or able to meet the Brexit challenge on immigration. The Government must now look at alternatives, including whether Whitehall needs a separate immigration department or whether a public body should be created to manage specific elements of the system – keeping the front line at arm’s length from ministers.

Our recommendations

As part of his planned wider review of the machinery of government after Brexit, the Cabinet Secretary should assess whether the Home Office is still the right place to locate immigration policy. The Cabinet Secretary should provide the Prime Minister with an assessment that includes an analysis of the costs and benefits of alternatives, including an arm’s-length body (or a number of them) responsible for operational delivery and a separate immigration department.

But wherever immigration sits in government, the problems highlighted in this report must be fixed. There are a number of things that the Home Secretary and the Government should do.

The Government should collectively agree and communicate clear objectives for the immigration system. These should be translated into an annual migration plan presented to Parliament to show how the Government intends to achieve those objectives, and how it proposes to measure its success in achieving them. The Home Secretary should set out how far those objectives are being achieved and any changes needed. The plan should avoid arbitrary targets, such as the net migration target, and instead be informed by forecasts of likely movement through different visa routes. Publishing an annual plan would provide an opportunity for ministers to articulate their strategy to Parliament and to hold those running the system day-to-day to account for their delivery of its objectives.

The Home Secretary should commit to introducing a simplification bill, which should take account of the current Law Commission review of immigration rules. This should simplify the thousands of pages of immigration rules that have become unwieldy and in some places unworkable. The new bill should address the weak scrutiny that most immigration legislation receives, ensuring that any significant changes to the immigration system can only be implemented using primary legislation.

Senior officials should address the structural and process flaws in the immigration system. At a minimum they should review the policy-making process and structural divides between policy and operations, which have led to ministers and senior officials fundamentally misunderstanding what is happening on the front line. The Home Secretary should also set out the details of a more independent Migration Advisory Committee and Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration.

The Home Secretary must publish a comprehensive data strategy, to ensure that its immigration policy is based on a detailed understanding of the role that migrants play in the UK. This should set out both how the Home Office will use data that is currently available across government to inform immigration policy, and how front-line staff will be supported by information and technology – for example to improve individual decisions on applications and to reduce the high number of Home Office decisions that are overturned.

Our full six-point plan for managing migration after Brexit can be found in Chapter 5.