[see important Update at bottom]
Settling the position of EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU is at the top of the agenda for the Brexit talks that have just started. Good.
Let’s assume, as everyone seems to be saying, that a generous settlement is reached which allows all of them to stay where they are now if they want to.
If that does happen then the UK would need to come up with a process to grant them the right to remain and documents – preferably simple – that would show they had such a right.
It needs to do it quickly – assuming this part of the negotiations is settled by say October that will give the UK about 18 months to process this. Remember, as soon as we withdraw from the EU in April 2019 three million EU27 residents of the UK would legally have no right to be here.
So how could it be done?
I have had a fair bit of experience working in and around the Home Office and one thing is absolutely clear to me – I would not give the job to the immigration function. They have a long culture of putting up barriers to granting residency and creating labyrinthine processes – the current “leave to remain” form is 85-pages long.
It will also be important that EU27 nationals have a simple document they can carry around to demonstrate they have a right to be here – something like a driving license or a passport.
A ‘passport’ type document would be the most obvious and secure and the Passport function is good at processing large numbers – it usually issues around 7 million documents a year.
OK, so the Passports Office – now absorbed back into the Home Office after a couple of decades as an ‘arms-length’ agency – gets the job. What next?
Well first they have to come up with a system to process the 3 million, keep records and design a suitable (probably bio-metric and photo ID) document. This could alone take a year or two (and that’s probably being optimistic). Of course some preparatory work can start now, but until the negotiations are done no-one would want to spend too much on developing something that could, in theory, never be used.
Second they then have to process the 3 million – assuming they all, or nearly all, want to stay.
At the moment the Passports Office employs 4,200 staff to process 7 million documents a year at a cost of about £410m a year. Staff costs are about £121m of that. But the service charges for Passports and brings in about £475m so it actually makes a “profit” for HM Treasury.
So, to process 3 million EU27 residents in a reasonable time – issuing them with a new ‘passport’ style “right to remain” document would need to roughly double the current annual budget and staffing: so an additional 2,100 staff and £200m staffing per annum.
Assuming in reality the process would take a couple of years we’re talking about a processing cost of around £400m, including the extra staff.
That does not include the cost of developing the process, records system and ‘passport’ that could easily be in excess of £100m.
So let’s say a nice round figure of £500m – half a billion. (My guess is it will end being more, but let’s be generous for now)
If the Government wanted to recover that in fees then a new right to remain passport would cost about £166.
All of which assumes it can be done in time (highly unlikely), involves no complications (impossible) and is implemented smoothly (we all know how good Whitehall is with projects like this).
Even this highly simplified account shows just how hard it is going to be.
The chances of doing it for all 3 million by April 2019 is a big fat zero.
————UPDATE 21 June 2017 ————-
The Guardian reports today that the Government is going to ask EU27 citizens to ‘register their interest’ in remaining in the UK via the local Registrars service.
My sources tell me that the Government is considering using the local Registrars service to actually process applications to remain, rather than the Immigration service (or the Passport service as I suggest above)..
This would be a very bad idea. The local registrars have nothing like the capacity to deal with this and a decentralised system would take much longer to put in place and ensure consistency in the way applications are dealt with.