The Home Office is recruiting an extra 1,200 immigration caseworkers to help register the 3m EU nationals currently living in the UK before the Brexit deadline, Amber Rudd has revealed.
Outlining her plans for the mass registration effort, the home secretary said a new online system to confer “settled status” on EU residents would be up and running by the end of 2018. This will replace the much-criticised 85-page permanent residence application form, whichrequires documentary proof of residence and earnings over five years.
By contrast, Ms Rudd said the new form would be designed specifically for EU nationals and that the “default position” would be to accept their applications unless there were concerns over fraud or criminality. The system will automatically link up with HM Revenue & Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions to lessen the bureaucratic burden on applicants, she explained.
“It will be completely different [from the permanent residence form] in terms of its user-friendly ease,” she told the Commons home affairs committee on Tuesday. “We are in the business of making sure this is as easy and straightforward as possible. I hope people will accept that, and be able to do it without any documentation changing hands at all”.
The home secretary added that the Treasury had provided £50m over one year to help cover the extra costs of registering EU nationals who were already in the UK. She said she was negotiating with the Exchequer over next year’s allocation.
Ms Rudd was responding to concerns raised last week by two former immigration officials. They told the home affairs committee that, with current staffing levels, her department would not be able to meet the bureaucratic challenges posed by Brexit. The experts said that the 6,500-strong visa and immigration team was struggling to meet demand and that caseworkers were dealing with 40 to 60 applications per day.
When questioned, the home secretary said she had already recruited 700 extra caseworkers and would hire another 500 before April in order to be ready for the application rush. An additional 300 border staff are being hired by September to cope with potential issues around customs and border checks in the event of a no-deal.
Most of the foreign nationals who entered the UK looking for work had a definite job lined up © Bloomberg
“We are going to be testing and rolling it out in stages to make sure we get it right,” Ms Rudd told MPs. “We will be nimble on our toes . . . to make sure we recruit where necessary to keep it up.”
The Home Office’s permanent secretary, Philip Rutnam, who was also giving evidence, said he could not rule out using troops to police the borders in a no-deal scenario but stressed that the use of the army would be an “absolute last resort”.
The Institute for Government, which has raised concerns about Home Office preparedness for Brexit, calculated earlier this year that the department would need up to 5,000 additional staff just to process EU residence applications. However, this was on the proviso that the applications would be made through the current permanent residency process “under existing eligibility rules and levels of scrutiny”.
Business leaders have repeatedly called on ministers to end the anxiety facing EU nationals in Britain by making a unilateral guarantee that they will be able to stay in the country after the split with Brussels, regardless of the UK’s exit deal.
However, Ms Rudd resisted giving any such assurances. She said that while it was “unthinkable” that EU citizens would be asked to leave the UK after Brexit, she could not offer them any guarantees about their immigration status while negotiations continue.