The number one issue for pro-Brexit voters was immigration. Vote Leave’s campaign slogan of “take back control” came with a promise of stronger border controls, including an end to free movement of people and starting a points-based immigration system.
Since the 2016 referendum, the government has made more problems than progress. This has damaged public confidence in the immigration system further: Brexit was supposed to improve things, but it’s only making them much worse.
There are already serious concerns about a Windrush-like scandal engulfing some of the 3 million EU citizens living in the UK. Most have not yet registered to continue their residency post-Brexit. While home secretary Priti Patel has promised an end to free movement on 31 October if there is a no deal, this opens a Pandora’s Box as the Home Office has no system in place for any such an eventuality – nor can one possibly be created within eight weeks.
10 Downing Street’s plans to launch a points-based immigration system, focused on skills and not nationality, have been widely criticised for three reasons. First, the policy makes little mention of the "skills" at the system’s heart, instead proposing a minimum income threshold of £30,000 or more. There are many high skilled employees, including scientists and technicians, earning below this amount who are missed out. Second, the policy states that nationality does matter because new trade deals may come with different immigration agreements – the new system will be more nationality-sensitive than ever before. Finally, the government seems unaware it’s reinventing the wheel as the UK has had a points-based system in place for non-EU systems for over a decade. I should know – I immigrated to the UK using the points-based system.
Brexit was supposed to help reduce net migration. Yet this figure remains at historic highs, exceeding any year under New Labour. While EU citizens continue to have free movement, their overall numbers have been decreasing year on year; it is non-EU migration that has been pushing these figures up – despite the fact that non-EU citizens are entirely under the Home Office’s control.
Then there are the profits. In an exclusive report, The Independent found the Home Office earned £438.1m last year on visa operations after outsourcing them to a Dubai-based firm. Average profits per application rose from £28.73 to £122.56 in a single year. This extra funding has not gone to create a world-class service, hire extra border agents, or improve operational effectiveness. Instead, the cash is spent outside the system on non-immigration matters.
It is disappointing to see the Home Office prioritising profits over people – running a system that cares more for taking payments than supporting integration. So it's time to put this right.
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Yes, the government should "take back control" of our immigration system. It can start by making the system self-funded on a sustainable basis. Immigration fees raise far more than the cost of operating the overall system. The immigration system is for immigrants and can be paid for entirely by immigrants. Taxpayers won’t be able to see migrants as draining the public purse when no tax income is used to support the immigration system.
The fees are also excessive. Slashing average profits from £122.56 back to £28.73 can decrease the way in which the system exploits the vulnerable while still raising additional income to support hiring more staff and providing a more effective service.
If there is any extra income leftover, this might be spent in other governmental departments like education, health, housing or transport – but only with a big sign that a project was funded by immigration fees. This could show people how their neighbourhoods have been improved through immigration-related contributions.
The government has made a mess of the immigration system. Now is an opportunity for a rethink. Ending the shameless profiteering by the Home Office is a first step in the right direction.
Thom Brooks is Dean of Durham Law School and Professor of Law and Government