Theresa May’s Brexit plan to register millions of EU citizens risks descending into ‘chaos’

Protesters wave the EU and Union flags outside the Palace of Westminster, London, December 20, 2017

Protesters wave the EU and Union flags outside the Palace of Westminster, London, December 20, 2017
Reuters / Peter Nicholls

  • Experts have voiced fears that the UK’s planned registration of 3 million EU nationals ahead of Brexit will descend into “chaos.”
  • The concerns echo criticism from MPs that the Home Office is under-prepared and understaffed for the massive logistical operation.
  • The Home Office said it was “ridiculous to suggest that we are not preparing sufficiently for leaving the EU.”

LONDON – Theresa May’s plan to register 3 million EU nationals ahead of Brexit risks failure due to under-investment and government fears of a backlash by the Daily Mail, a senior former Home Office official has told Business Insider.

David Wood, who was director-general of immigration enforcement at the Home Office until 2015, described a culture of stretched resources and politically-motivated decisions designed to appease anti-immigration sentiment in the British press.

“Political decisions have to be made and I’m not sure they have been.” David Wood, who was director-general of immigration enforcement at the Home Office until 2015, told BI.

“Are we just going to irrespectively grant settled status to every European that was here before the cut-off date? Suppose you grant someone settled status: If that person had six convictions for assault in the UK, and they killed someone the next week, that’s a Daily Mail headline. That’s the way ministers think.”

Wood warned that the task of registering million of European nationals risked being hamstrung by staffing shortages and political indecision from ministers.

“There have never, ever been enough resources in the immigration system,” Wood told BI.

“It’s always been very difficult to manage these huge caseloads.”

“It’s not easy recruiting staff, and immigration officers require a lot of training,” said Wood. He said an attempt to hire and train hundreds of immigration officers – which takes at least six months – would have a “massive impact” on the Home Office’s ability to function.

“Of course, if you try and recruit hundreds and hundreds of people at the same time, you have to train them and mentor them, and use current staff to do that. That has a massive impact on your current business,” he said.

“Ideally, the Home Office would start thinking about that now: Start recruiting, and building up staff, so you avoid a cliff-edge.”

BI spoke to the official after a damning cross-party report on government preparations for Brexit warned of “serious problems for immigration service delivery and border security as a result of lack of decisions, proper planning or sufficient resources.”


Wood’s concerns were echoed by a leading immigration lawyer, who told BI that here was “no way” the Home Office would be able to document all EU citizens by the end of the two-year withdrawal period the UK is seeking before it leaves the EU.

“It’s almost like they’re planning in chaos for the end of that period,” Adrian Berry, a barrister and chair of the Immigration Law Practitioners Association (ILPA), said.

“The difficulty is when a case gets a bit complicated,” he said. “The moment you have to slow down to look at somebody’s life, that can become a one or a one-and-a-half hour decision. The paperwork may not be there for every bit of a citizen’s time in the UK. Suddenly, the number of hours involved starts to grow.

“The Home Office’s projections [for staffing] are based on the idea it’s all easy-peasy, but that’s just not the experience of Home Office caseworkers or of immigration lawyers. There’s no example they can point to of that being true,” he said.

The Home Office plans to roll out a new “digital system” in September to register European nationals and allow them to apply easily for settled status once Britain leaves the EU, provided they have been resident for in the country for five years.

The Home Secretary Amber Rudd has insisted that the new system will be “completely different” from the troubled permanent residency system which it currently operates, and said there will be a “presumption in favour of granting status” which will allow caseworkers to speedily process large numbers of applications. But lawyers have cast doubt on that idea.

“You’re talking about changing the culture of an institution,” Berry said.

“They have no institutional culture of a presumption of innocence. It doesn’t happen,” he said. “That’s not being cynical, that’s just years of experience in dealing with them.

Lawyers say delays and uncertainty surrounding the rights of EU citizens have already had an impact on preparations. A Brexit white paper on immigration – which will lay out the legal details of citizens’ rights in much greater detail – was originally due for publication last summer, but it has now been delayed until at least Autumn this year.

The secrecy and the mystery around it are troubling

“We still don’t have sufficient details about what the scheme is going to look like, how it’s going to work, and how it’s going to be implemented,” Luke Piper, a Bristol-based solicitor specialising in immigration issues, told BI.

“The UK government keep pushing the deadlines further and further back, and the anxiety associated with that is becoming a bit of a joke.

“It’s all very troubling, and the secrecy and the mystery around it are equally troubling. We’re talking about human beings here. At the end of the day what they want is certainty.”

Under the plans, applicants will need to prove through an online app that they have been resident in the UK for at least five years. While most applicants will be able to do so, the process will be complicated by those who are unable to prove their citizenship as easily.

“I’d be very surprised if the Home Office could come up with an ‘app’ through all the different routes of EU law to make a workable piece of software that would allow people to accurately capture their residency rights,” Berry said.

“It’s easy for the easy people – five years’ work, fine. What about the person who’s got divorced, or the person who comes in and out of the country, and may not have been here the whole time?

“EU citizens haven’t had to prove their status here, and so they don’t necessarily have very good records in the way that an Algerian or a Chinese national would have because they haven’t had to have them,” he said.

A Home Office spokesperson told Business Insider that it was “ridiculous to suggest that we are not preparing sufficiently for leaving the EU.”

“It is precisely for this reason that we have already invested £60 million in 2017/18, are planning to recruit an additional 1,500 staff across the immigration, borders and citizenship system and are well advanced in the development of a new scheme to give EU citizens currently here, the right to stay after Brexit,” said the statement.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd said in November that the Home Office had hired an extra 700 UK Visas & Immigration (UKVI) staff to deal with the anticipated wave of applications, and planned to hire another 500 by April, as well as an additional 300 border officers – a total of 1,500.

But the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which represents immigration officers, said only 240 staff had been recruited – not the 700 that was claimed, with most of that number assigned to manage existing casework from EU nationals rather than the registration scheme.

That led MPs to suggest that “the Home Office is planning moderate adjustments for an immense bureaucratic challenge.”

“We do not believe sufficient staff and systems are yet in place to operate a smooth and effective registration system for EU citizens currently resident here,” warned MPs.