Support 100 years of independent journalism.

The four teeny tiny problems with Brexiteers’ immigration demands

The government currently completes on average 650 residency applications per day. This will have to increase to 3,600 applications. Every day.

By Katherine fidler

Malcolm Baker knew what he was voting for on June 23 last year. So shouted the outraged Brexiteer at Lib Dem leader Tim Farron repeatedly last week, vocalising (in a fashion) the sentiments of many Leave supporters who have felt maligned and typecast as racist or Little Englanders since the referendum.

It wasn’t all about immigration, they cry, we’re sick of EU bureaucracy and want to restore parliamentary sovereignty.

Well, I think we can all agree they’re loving that so far…

…but the irony sensor should go into overdrive following a report by the Institute for Government on implementing a new post-Brexit immigration policy. It turns out, extricating Britain from the European Economic Area’s free movement directive won’t be as simple as some Daily Mail readers would have us believe (nuking the Channel Tunnel has been mooted).

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

No, such is the scale of the operation, it is completely infeasible to deliver and implement a new immigration policy by B-day in April 2019, according to the IfG. And so not only will the government (TBC at time of writing) be unable to commit to the major Brexit policy of “taking back control of our borders” at the point we leave the European Union, the delay will have been caused because neither our Parliament nor civil service has the means to achieve this grand plan. It’s all coming up (English) roses so far, right?

Nope. Here is what the report found: 

1. Undoing decades of legislation can’t be done in a matter of months

The report recognises there is a significant “political imperative” for a change in immigration policy, but adds that so too is the administrative burden it implies – not just for the government, but employers, landlords and public services.

Developing and implementing the new policy could require up to 5,000 additional staff in order to process residency applications, while the B-day date in April 2019 leaves little time for appropriate consultation time on the plans, nor for employers to adapt. Just FYI, when the government designed the current system for non-EU migrants in 2005, it was rolled out over the space of a year from 2008 to 2009.

Today’s report reads: “Government should recognise now that a new immigration regime for post-Brexit EU migrants will not be ready by April 2019.”

It also states: “The Prime Minister has recognised that an ‘implementation phase’ will be required post-Brexit. For immigration, this will require the continuation of free movement, possibly for several years post-Brexit.”

I for one cannot wait to see that Daily Mail front page.

Irony factor: 8

2. Two-thirds of EU nationals already qualify for permanent residency

Here we go, this is what it’s all about. There are an estimated three million EU nationals already living in the UK. But an estimated two million who have been resident in Britain for at least five years qualify for permanent residency already, with that number increasing between now and April 2019…

The government currently completes (whether granting or refusing) on average 650 residency applications per day. To process applications for every eligible EU citizen before B-day would require the Home Office to up this to 3,600 applications. Every day.


Now, we know what some Leave voters’ answer may be, but the reality is (beyond the fact they have a right to stay) numerous sectors within British industry rely on low- and medium-skilled workers to survive, as many politicians have finally come to realise. There are currently 55,000 EU nationals working in the NHS – one in 10 doctors are EU nationals – while the government closed its Seasonal Agriculture Workers Scheme to non-EU nationals when it became clear the number of low-skilled workers could be met with staff from the Bloc. Not from Britain, but Europe.

The fact is British industry needs European workers – as Malcolm Baker says, Britain is a great company, but it sure needs the staff to keep it going.

And what about the estimated 1.3 million British nationals living abroad? The report doesn’t deal with them specifically, but don’t worry, I’m sure all the Britons currently enjoying their retirement on the Costa del Sol have been pining for a job in Pret, and at last, thanks to the Malcolms of this once again magnificent country, their dreams can come true.

Irony factor: 9

3. Execution could work in immigrants’ favour

No, not the type 53 per cent of Brexiteers apparently want to bring back, but the execution of this shiny new immigration policy.

At present, few EU nationals living in Britain apply for permanent residency, because there is no real need to do so. Which is lucky, because the current system has been described as a “bureaucratic nightmare of Kafkaesque proportions”.

But I thought we left the EU to escape all that bureaucratic nonsense? Well we have, and now we can make that happen. As the report states: “The administrative burden for both applicants and the Home Office has resulted in calls for the process to be simplified or the rules relaxed. Strict application of the rules means applicants who have lived and worked in the UK for more than five years fail on technicalities, increasing the likelihood of appeals and number of re-applications, and slowing the process down.

“The Exiting the EU Committee has called on the Home Office to simplify existing processes or replace the existing system with a more streamlined version.”

So, our new immigration policy could make it easier for EU nationals to secure their residency.

Irony factor: 7

4. Border checks are not how Britain defends itself against terrorism

For Brexiteers who shed the fig leaf of EU bureaucracy and declared we need to tighten our border to keep Britain safe, take a peek at page 20 of the report.

“Counter terrorism and the monitoring/management of individuals deemed to be national security threats do not take place through border checks. There is a detailed system of intelligence and specialised teams responsible for preventing incidents and stopping individuals gaining access to the UK. In comparison to tens of millions of annual visitors, the numbers receiving this detailed attention is far smaller.”

That’s all.

Irony factor: 7