Immigration enforcement Contents

1Understanding the scale of the problem

1.On the basis of a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, we took evidence from the Home Office (the Department) about immigration enforcement activities in the UK.1

2.The Department is responsible for preventing abuse of immigration rules, tracking those who abuse immigration rules and increasing compliance with immigration law. Immigration Enforcement is the directorate within the Department responsible for preventing abuse of the immigration system, dealing with the threats associated with immigration offending and encouraging and enforcing the departure of immigration offenders and foreign national offenders from the UK. Its vision is “to reduce the size of the illegal population and the harm it causes”. It employs about 5,000 staff and received approximately £392 million in 2019–20. It has faced an 11% real-terms reduction in its resource budget since 2015–16.2

3.Immigration Enforcement conducts a wide range of activities. It aims to increase compliance with immigration laws by working with international partners to prevent illegal entry and with other government departments to limit unlawful access to government-funded services. It tackles the threats associated with immigration offending by disrupting criminal gangs and performing enforcement visits to businesses and homes around the UK. It also returns those with no permission to be in the UK or foreign nationals who have committed serious crimes in the UK to their country of origin.3

Recognising the scale of immigration offending and the harm it causes

4.We heard that the Department does not know how many people are living or working in the UK without permission, and the Department admitted its frustration at not knowing this figure. The NAO reported that the Department has not updated its 2005 estimate of 430,000 people, and the Department claimed this situation reflected the extreme difficulty of producing such an estimate. However, it recognised the importance of having a baseline against which to assess progress, and is developing an approach to define the level of demand on its Immigration Enforcement services.4 It estimates this demand at between 240,000 and 320,000 people per year, but explained that this estimate does not demonstrate how many people may be in the country illegally. Instead, it reflects the number of people Immigration Enforcement has some contact with. The Department also explained that it was in discussion with the Office for National Statistics about creating a clearer baseline to measure future progress against its vision.5

5.When asked about the possible scale of illegal migration, the Department was unable to tell us how many people came to the UK legally and did not renew their visa, and how many deliberately came illegally. We heard that it largely knew how many people come into the country and, to a degree, how many leave, but it was not yet able to assess the status of everybody that enters the country. The Department recognised that there are significant gaps in its data, though it believes its modernisation programmes will provide digital evidence of an individual’s immigration status at the border, in country and on departure. The Department told us it is also working to clean its data and remove duplicate records to provide a “single understanding” of the people that Immigration Enforcement engages with. It was unwilling to estimate when its data would be of sufficient quality to support its activities effectively but suspected it was on a “continual journey” to improve that data.6

6.The Department recognised that the question of migration is politically sensitive and divisive.7 The Department could not explain why it had not previously attempted to understand the impact that enforcing the immigration laws has on the economy and society.8 It asserted that other organisations who create estimates for the level of illegal immigration are doing so with the “best will in the world”, but it did not respond to our concerns that potentially exaggerated figures could inflame hostility to immigrants. We also heard that, although other organisations estimate the scale of illegal immigration, the Department does not believe that these estimates are fully reliable. It told us it is willing to work with these organisations and listen to how they calculated their estimates.9

7.The Department described the different forms of harm that occur from immigration crime. These include criminal harm by foreign national offenders against their victims and society, and the harm organised crime groups commit against society and vulnerable people. It also includes the financial harm to legitimate UK employers of competitors employing people illegally and harm caused to taxpayer-funded public services by people attempting to use them illegally.10 The Department acknowledged that the vast majority of illegal immigrants do not cause direct harm to the public, but can cause harm to the wider economy.11 In response to a recommendation in the NAO’s report, the Department told us it was reviewing whether its use of the concepts of risk, threat and harm was consistent.12

8.We asked the Department about the financial impact of providing public services to people who should not be receiving them. It could not provide a figure for this.13 We heard that the Department had no data on the harm suffered by people who were victims of organised immigration crime or the distinction between those victims and other immigration offenders.14 We asked when the Department would have meaningful and reliable indicators of the scale of harm in its four categories. The Department claimed it can measure the amount of harm that it prevents, for example by removing a foreign national offender, but acknowledged that it would be a long time before it could measure the total harm that arises from immigration crime.15


1 C&AG’s Report, Immigration Enforcement, Session 2019–21, HC 110, 17 June 2020

2 C&AG’s Report, para 2

3 C&AG’s Report, paras 2.4, 2/13, 2.20

4 Qq 37, 42, 64; C&AG’s Report para 1.14

5 Qq 37, 39, 42

6 Qq 38–39, 42–43, 64

7 Q 46

8 Q 35

9 Qq 45, 46

10 Q 33

11 Q 40

12 Qq 33, 40; C&AG’s Report, para 19

13 Q 34

14 Q 36

15 Q 43




Published: 18 September 2020