Experts said Whitehall has been so decimated by years of austerity that it not longer has the manpower to create and implement the complex system of border controls that will be required to monitor the movements of EU citizens.
Numbers of civil servants have been slashed by more than 100,000 since 2010 to their lowest numbers since the Second World War, with morale said to be “low” at a time when Britain is facing its biggest bureaucratic challenge in generations.
Theresa May has promised to reduced net migration to the “tens of thousands” to respect the public’s wishes expressed in referendum vote, but tellingly ministers have put no timetable on when they think that level will be achieved.
Theresa May has pledged to end freedom of movement
And today leading academics warned the PM will have to continue running the current immigration model for Europeans for the foreseeable future even if the Brexit talks collapse, because there is no structure in place to start limiting their movements.
Professor Jonathan Portes, a respected economist and expert on immigration, accused ministers of using promises to end free movement as a “fig leaf” with voters and predicted they would have to square with the public soon on the realities of border control.
But academics have said Whitehall does not have the resources to implement such a policy
The number of civil servants has been slashed
He said: “There simply is no way the UK Government is going to be in a position administratively to introduce the new post-Brexit immigration system, whatever it is, in 2019 and so we will have to continue free movement even if there is no deal.
“Even if the negotiations end up failing to reach a deal we will have to extend free movement for some period at least.
“For us to imagine on our side that this is a bargaining chip we have to play of offering to allow free movement to continue post-Brexit, we’re not physically going to be able to stop it.”
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Professor Portes, from King’s College London, made the remarks at an event in Brussels organised by the neutral think-tank UK in a Changing Europe, of which he is a senior fellow.
Summing up the three main parties’ positions on immigration he pointed out the lack of detail being offered to voters, saying: “The Conservatives are vague, Labour is contradictory and the Lib Dems are impossible.”
The Tory manifesto pledges to bring immigration down below 100,000 – the same promise disastrously made by David Cameron – but sets no date, something which “leaves open the possibility free movement might continue in some form at least for a lengthy transitional period”.
Even if the negotiations end up failing to reach a deal we will have to extend free movement for some period at least
Professor Jonathan Portes
Labour’s position is to leave the single market and take back control of Britain’s border but shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer has also said the party will not accept any economic deal with Brussels worse than the UK’s current access, which is an impossible contradiction.
The Lib Dems, meanwhile, have pledged to keep Britain in the single market and maintain freedom of movement, something Professor Portes said was “clearly not where the political debate is or where the electorate is”.
He accused politicians from all the major parties of “dodging confrontation” with vague promises “despite the fact immigration was a central point in the referendum campaign and despite the fact we will, in the next few years as we negotiate Brexit, have far more flexibility over immigration than at any point in recent memory”.
Speaking at the same event Professor Anand Menon, director of UK in a Changing Europe, said it was bizarre the Government was celebrating a recent fall in net migration despite the fact it has not taken any action to bring numbers down yet.
He added: “The Civil Service challenge is absolutely fundamental. This is happening at a time when the Civil Service is at an historic low in terms of resources.
“Some of our ministries are also, from scratch, going to have to develop whole new policies. We need an agricultural policy, an immigration one, and no new resources have been given to those departments.
“And they’re doing it in a system where if you want to draw up a policy you have to talk to Number 10. The British political system at the moment is so centralised around Downing Street.”
Brexit day: images from around the country as Britain invokes Article 50 Mon, April 3, 2017
The country reacts as Theresa May officially invokes Article 50, and begins the process of Britain leaving the European Union
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Pro-EU demonstrators protest outside Parliament
Professor Catherine Barnard, a senior fellow with the think tank, also warned: “The British civil service is at its smallest size since the Second World War, so just delivering Brexit is a gargantuan exercise for the British Civil Service.”
She predicted it will require 1,000 “executive acts” just to carry out the divorce part of the proceedings, equivalent to an entire year’s normal workload, and said the need to prepare for both a deal and no deal scenario meant demands on Civil Servants would likely treble.
The Government has not yet set out how it intends to police migration of EU citizens after the country has left the EU, leading to confusion amongst officials in both Britain and Brussels over how the future relationship will work.
The Vote Leave campaign fought the referendum on the basis of introducing an Australian style points based system, where visas are granted based on specific criteria such as the country’s employment needs, but Mrs May ruled such an approach out last Autumn.