Senior civil servant says UK immigration and visa services face cuts

One of the UK's most senior civil servants, Mark Sedwill, gave evidence to an influential committee of MPs this month about the future of the UK's immigration services. Mr Sedwill told the Home Affairs Committee that the Home Office faces a cut in its budget and that immigration staff would as a result be made redundant. The cuts will be made in 2015.

The UK's Coalition government has committed itself to cutting public spending in an attempt to cut the government's budget deficit. Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, recently announced that cabinet colleagues had agreed to £11.5bn of further cuts to their budgets to be introduced in 2015.

Mr Sedwill appeared before the Home Affairs Committee on 18th June 2013. He was questioned about many areas of the Home Office's activities but most questions were about immigration. Mr Sedwill said that recent changes to the immigration system were likely to improve the performance of the Home Office in dealing with visa applications and with removing those in the country illegally.

UKBA abolished because of poor performance

In March 2013, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced that she was going to abolish the UK Border Agency (UKBA) because it was 'not good enough'. The organisation was failing to meet its service standard targets for issuing visas. It succeeded in issuing only 21% of Tier 1 visas within the required time limit and failed to meet its targets for Tier 2 skilled worker visas and Tier 4 student visas too.

In addition, there was a backlog of some 320,000 asylum and other cases which had not been dealt with. Some of them have been in the system since 2008 and a few may be even earlier than that.

In an effort to improve the performance of the UK immigration authorities, Mrs May closed the UKBA and reorganised its staff into two new organisations within the Home Office. The first will issue visas and deal with citizenship applications. The other will police the immigration system and find and remove those with no permission to be in the country.

Progress made in improving the system

Mr Sedwill said that some progress had already been made in improving many areas of the system. He said that the immigration department was to receive new IT systems and these were being designed now. He said it was necessary to ensure that the system for dealing with customers was also improved and made simpler before the IT systems were installed. He said 'If you automate complexity you just have very expensive complexity'.

He was then questioned by the chairman of the committee, Keith Vaz, about the newly announced cuts.

Mr Sedwill said that there had been 'a very tough settlement'. The Home Office budget would be cut by 7.7% in 2015-16. He added that, within the Home Office budget, the police and counterterrorism budgets would be protected. Immigration would not be. This would mean that 'Immigration will have to take part of the cut to the central Home Office budget'.

Staff will be made redundant because of budget cuts

Asked how many staff would be made redundant he said that he could not say because, while the resource budget would be cut by 7.7%, ministers and officials had yet to negotiate a deal with the Treasury on the capital, or longer-term investment, budget. But he said that there would definitely be cuts.

He said that it was therefore vital that the immigration service was operating properly by the time the cuts are introduced in two years' time.

Heavier cuts to immigration because police budget is protected

The Home Office resource budget was £8.6bn and its capital budget was about £500m in 2012-13. The budget for the immigration section is about £2bn. The police budget is about £4.5bn. If the police budget is protected, therefore, it will mean that immigration will almost certainly face cuts of well above 7.7% in its own budget in 2015 leading to substantial cuts in UK immigration staff numbers.

Mr Sedwill became the Permanent Secretary to the Home Office early in 2013 having been the UK's Ambassador to Afghanistan. He was questioned widely about the workings of the Home Office which is responsible for the UK's immigration, passport and visa services.

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