The report raises serious questions about the Home Office’s ability to implement the systems and argues that delays to the government’s Immigration white paper, and its lack of clarity over on its post-Brexit immigration position, are creating anxiety for EU citizens in the UK.
Late last year a document was leaked to the press regarding the government’s plans for a future immigration system post-Brexit, which aims to be “digital, flexible and frictionless” for individuals and employers.
It said “a secure digital portal will enable employers and public service providers quickly to check the immigration status of an individual and take action if necessary.”
However, limited information has been provided since then about the plans as negotiations with the EU stumble along.
MPs on the Committee heard that Brexit will place increased demand on existing Home Office IT systems and new systems will need to be developed, including for the registration of EU nationals already in the UK and for those who arrive during transition.
The Home Office is already in the process of overhauling many of its digital platforms and existing paper-based processes.
Previous Home Office CTO, Sarah Wilkinson, told the Committee that the department was “attempting to change every system simultaneously…add Brexit on top of that, and you start to become absolutely brutal about prioritisation”. She added the Home Office will have “to let go of or postpone” some of the stuff it wanted to do in a pre-Brexit world.
Chair of the Committee, Rt Hon Yvette Cooper MP, commented on the report by saying:
We need urgent clarity about both registration and border plans for next year so that Parliament can scrutinise them and so that families, employers and officials can plan.
The lack of detail with just over a year to go is irresponsible. We recognise that the Government needs time to consider long term changes, but the Home Office urgently needs to set out its intentions for next year. Will there be one registration scheme or two? Same rules during the transition or not? Extra border checks or not?
The Government does not seem to appreciate the immense bureaucratic challenge they are facing or how much time and resources they need to plan on Brexit. The Home Office will end up in a real mess next year if there isn't enough time to sort things out.
Heading for disaster
According to government officials giving evidence to the Committee, the system for registering resident EU nationals will be based on existing structures and systems that are used by the Home Office in working with HMRC and the Department for Work and Pensions. However, a new user interface will be built.
It notes that the Home Office does not currently proactively seek data from other government departments to support visa applications as a matter of routine. As a result, for the registering of more than three million people “will rely on a strong commitment from and data capability with other departments and agencies”.
This is likely to be problematic, given the poor data infrastructure within Whitehall and departments’ lack of practice/cultural resistance to sharing data.
Furthermore, the report highlights the Home Office’s poor history in developing IT systems. It notes that the final cost of the department’s e-borders programme is expected to be over £1 billion and will be delivered at least eight years late.
In 2001 a £77 million programme with Siemens for a Casework Application system was cancelled.
In 2010 a similar scheme called Immigration Case Work (ICW) was developed. It was expected to replace both the legacy Casework Information Database (CID) and 20 different IT and some paper based systems by March 2014. The National Audit Office (NAO) reported that the ICW programme was closed in August 2013 “having achieved much less than planned, at a cost of £347m.
The Committee’s report state:
Effective IT systems need to be at the heart of improving delivery of the existing immigration system and, crucially, available to facilitate the increased workload which will inevitably arise from Brexit, whatever the precise terms of the new migration policy turn out to be.
We welcome the Government’s commitment to a smooth and streamlined online process for EU citizens who are resident in the UK, and the Minister’s indication that the IT system for registration of EU citizens will be ready for testing early this year.
However previous performance provides no assurance that the Home Office is likely to have the necessary systems developed, in place and operating efficiently by the end of March 2019. We request that the Home Office sets out in response to this report an update on the progress of major IT projects across the department and the specific steps it is taking to ensure that IT solutions are in place to accommodate the considerable challenges it will face in delivering post-Brexit immigration services.
Effective IT systems also rely on clear and early policy decisions so that they can be designed and tested to deliver effectively. In the absence of a White Paper, or a timetable for it, or answers to a series of basic delivery questions, we believe the risks of IT problems and delays are high.
History tells us that poor policy direction, a lack of leadership, strict time constraints, and a pre-requisite for cross-department collaboration, often leads to huge project failures and wasted money. All the ingredients are there.