Closing long term cases would allow a short-staffed Home Office to focus on higher risk areas and improve post-Brexit border control
The next five years will see considerable work for Home Office staff managing our border, immigration and passport systems.
Knowing that change is impending for EU nationals, the UK will see additional applications for visas, citizenship and passports from people already living here or hoping to live here. For example, the complex rules on marriage between EU and non-EU partners will be on the minds of many couples, who may now marry sooner rather than later. This will need additional staff and ongoing policy changes for any unintended consequences as a post-Brexit settlement beds down.
But its doubtful the Home Office, even with more staff, will easily cope with the new workload unless a line is drawn on much of the historic caseload, often going back for many years.
There are no official figures on UK illegal migration. Some academic studies estimate there may be as many as 500,000 people while Migration Watch thinks it could be more than 1 million people. I think the latter is more likely and that the number will continue to grow as the total of people overstaying visas, being concealed through ports, entering on forged documents or absconding from contact will exceed the number leaving voluntarily or deported.
Tackling this caseload is massive. Scant resources are rightly focused on higher risk individuals, such as foreign-national offenders who are deported on expiry of their sentence. Over the past six years, the government has made real progress on reducing abuse, including closing the loophole of bogus colleges that saw thousands admitted without really studying. But better control now cannot reverse the fact that the system has been abused and some people are still here after many years. The vast majority of cases of illegal migration are not active and staff resources could not cope if they were.
An appropriate amnesty would make our post-Brexit system manageable, optimise resources to focus on new cases and also strengthen border control around our lengthy coastline. Replacing antiquated systems is also best achieved by closing legacy cases.
As we have seen in the US, this type of amnesty is controversial. Arguments against include that it may send the wrong signal to future would-be illegal entrants, and regularising through visas many people here may lead to their dependents overseas then applying too, if the rules allow, thus increasing net migration. And where is a line drawn to allow many to remain and the remainder to still face potential deportation?
But the prize of taking a bold step will be considerable. It could shift the public mood, with people here because they are allowed to be here, and would enable the government to tackle higher risk cases and improve its post-Brexit border operations.
An amnesty for appropriate cases would also end uncertainty for many hundreds of thousands of people in limbo, who are neither allowed to stay but likely to never leave or be deported. I believe the public is ready for a mature debate where the outcome is a country that, post-Brexit, is more comfortable about the role of immigration in our economy and society.
Rob Whiteman, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, was chief executive of the Border Agency from September 2011 to September 2013 and is a former chief executive of the London borough of Barking & Dagenham.