The new Labour government inherits a daunting in-tray on immigration and asylum policy, where the problems are acute, complex, and contentious.

The asylum system is in crisis, costing billions of pounds a year in accommodation and support; small boat crossings are at a record high; there is growing evidence of widespread exploitation of migrant care workers; Home Office reforms following the Windrush scandal have stalled; and morale in the department is low after a long succession of legislative changes and U-turns.

By the same token, the scope for improvement is vast. While it will likely take years to deliver comprehensively on an ambitious reform agenda, there are some urgent initial steps that can and should be taken in the first 100 days of the new government. In this post we set out some suggestions.

Small boat crossings

The government will inevitably come under early pressure to set out its plans for addressing the arrival of people in small boats across the Channel. Labour has made a clear commitment to scrapping the Rwanda plan – which it should do immediately, ending the wasteful diversion of Home Office time and resources on an unfeasible, costly scheme.

Labour has made a clear commitment to scrapping the Rwanda plan – which it should do immediately

Labour has also pledged to set up a new Border Security Command to tackle people smuggling gangs, resourced with the funds which would otherwise be used for the Rwanda plan. The idea behind the Border Security Command is that it will bring together the different agencies working on organised immigration crime to coordinate a joint plan of action. But for it to work effectively, the Command will need to take a holistic approach to the small boat crossings, looking at the issue not simply from an enforcement and security perspective, but also at the wider system and policy context. This means bringing together Home Office staff working across the asylum system and FCDO staff specialising in relevant countries of origin, alongside Border Force, the Crown Prosecution Service and the different security agencies, to share intelligence and coordinate activities.

Perhaps most crucially of all, the new government should take the opportunity of hosting the upcoming European Political Community meeting on 18 July to discuss with European neighbours a new plan for cooperation on tackling people smuggling and managing asylum. The EU has recently agreed a pact on migration and asylum, which includes a new asylum and migration management regulation (AMMR) designed to determine which member country is responsible for processing an asylum application. The government should actively seek to negotiate to join the AMMR, which would, in broad terms, open up ways to transfer asylum applicants to other EU countries while accepting the claims of those with family ties to the UK.

The asylum system

Just as the government is getting to grips with its response to small boat crossings, it will face an urgent and related challenge: the developing crisis in the UK’s asylum system. The previous government has in effect stopped processing most claims made by people arriving irregularly since 7 March 2023, leading to a growing ‘perma-backlog’ of people trapped in limbo. Moreover, under the Illegal Migration Act, there are barriers to granting leave to remain or settlement to this cohort. Without urgent action, the numbers trapped indefinitely in asylum accommodation will grow, costing millions per day in hotel bills.

The government should therefore swiftly start processing these claims, using powers under section 30(4) of the Illegal Migration Act to grant temporary leave to remain to those who receive positive decisions. In the long run, primary legislation will likely be needed to repeal elements of the Illegal Migration Act, but these powers would be a sensible option in the short term to deal quickly with the ‘perma-backlog’ of claims.

To ramp up asylum processing, the government should learn from the previous efforts to clear the ‘legacy’ backlog of asylum claims last year, including the use of Streamlined Asylum Processing (SAP) to expedite decision-making for people from high-grant countries. Early triage should identify manifestly well-founded and manifestly unfounded cases so decision-making can be accelerated in these circumstances.

At the same time, speed should not sacrifice quality – the recent inspection of asylum casework from the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration highlighted how quality control had slipped in the recent rush to clear the legacy backlog. The Home Office should make sure asylum decision-making meets high standards of quality assurance – including more second pair of eyes checks for refusal decisions, a tighter process for new decision-makers to be signed off as fully competent, and adequate quality assurance checks for implicitly withdrawn claims.

Urgent action is also needed on the growing asylum appeals backlog, which has been the inevitable consequence of recent efforts to clear the legacy backlog, and which is set to increase further if the government once again ramps up processing of initial decisions. Labour has said it will invest in additional caseworkers to get the backlog down and reduce accommodation costs; but in reality, given Home Office asylum case-working staff numbers have already doubled since the end of 2022, some of this money is likely better off being diverted to increase capacity at the first-tier tribunal immigration and asylum chamber. This would ultimately serve the same purpose of reducing the need for asylum accommodation, saving considerable sums in the long run.

The points-based immigration system

Labour has said in its manifesto that it wants to reform the points-based system – in particular, by coordinating immigration policy with efforts to invest in domestic skills and improve working conditions. To kick off this reform programme, we suggest that the government launches a review of the points-based system, consulting businesses, trade unions, and civil society on the most effective options to ensure that sponsors uphold high employment standards and invest in training the domestic workforce. This could involve proposals for new conditions (eg on pay, conditions or apprenticeship starts) for employers to meet in order to secure or renew their employer license.

As part of the consultation, it would be sensible to reconsider the current policy on shortage occupations, which are lacking in clarity after a series of recent reforms. The Home Office should swiftly convene a cross-government working group on shortage occupations, made up of representatives from the Migration Advisory Committee, the Industrial Strategy Council, and departments including the Treasury, DWP, BEIS, DEFRA and DHSC. This group should be tasked with developing a clear rationale and process for placing jobs on the Immigration Salary List – which allows employers to sponsor workers at a discounted salary rate – and for how this should be coordinated with wider efforts to address domestic skills shortages.

The government should also act early to tackle exploitation in the points-based system, particularly among care workers

The government should also act early to tackle exploitation in the points-based system, particularly among care workers. Labour has already committed to an investigation of exploitation in the care sector. Moreover, the government should also begin to develop a strategy for tackling migrant exploitation with the newly proposed Single Enforcement Body.

Learning the lessons of the Windrush scandal

Cutting across each of these individual policies, the new government should also look to begin a programme of cultural and institutional reform at the Home Office, which has been beset by low morale, system pressures, and a lack of strategic direction. The first step should be to make good on Labour’s commitment on reinstating the Windrush transformation team to implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learned Review. This should include establishing a new independent Windrush Commissioner with a remit to assess the potential risks of Home Office policy and practice resulting in another Windrush scandal and to put forward proposals to protect against them.

Of course, this should not be the limits of the government’s ambitions. There are a number of areas – not least on routes to settlement, asylum accommodation, and integration policy – where long-term reform is essential. But the government will need to prioritise the most urgent challenges in its first months in office. These initial steps will help to chart an early course towards a fair and well-functioning immigration and asylum system.