UK businesses looking abroad to fill staffing shortages have been left in the lurch by an immigration backlog described by a leading lawyer as amongst the worst he has ever seen.

Matthew Davies, partner and head of Business Immigration at Leamington-based Wright Hassall, said parts of the system on which businesses depend have been left under-resourced during the war in Ukraine.

The situation is especially acute for entry clearance applications, which are visa applications made by applicants who are outside the UK and need permission to enter for a particular purpose, often work or business.

It comes at a time the British Chambers of Commerce has said recruitment problems are at record levels as three out of four companies struggle to hire staff.

He said: “It is the news story that hasn’t broken.

“Many of the frontline staff have been moved to deal with humanitarian applications from Ukraine, but there has not been enough investment to keep the rest of the system running.”

The UK’s response to helping displaced Ukrainian citizens find safe haven has been criticised in the media for being too slow, with the Government reacting by diverting frontline Home Office staff to deal with their applications.

In doing so, it suspended most pay-for priority services so that decisions which employers assume would take days suddenly began taking weeks or months – and Mr Davies said politicians need to start talking about the problem.

“Businesses are being affected at a time when there is a very tight labour market in recruitment, particularly for highly-skilled roles where it is very difficult to find candidates,” he added.

“I have worked in business immigration for more than 25 years but this is the most challenging time I have known, with Brexit, the pandemic and now the war in Ukraine having a successive knock-on effect.

“Backlogs in various types of application have featured over the years but taken together these are the biggest I have seen.

“It’s almost across the board in entry clearance, and extension and change of status applications within the UK are increasingly affected, too. Many businesses I work with are immensely frustrated at the delays as there are no signs of improvement.”

The Home Office has just published details of a new plan for immigration which includes a contactless digital border and permission to travel scheme to make travel more efficient.

But Mr Davies said: “For things to work better we need to learn to walk before we can run.

“In most respects the digitisation of immigration applications is a good thing, but there are concerns about how well what we have already got is working, and how well what is being proposed is going to work.

“Also, is it secure? Can we be certain that a hostile foreign government or organisation isn’t going to be able to break into our system? One would have a higher degree of confidence in the Government’s ability to counter that risk if there weren’t so many problems in the current system.

“Ultimately this is not the answer to the immediate issue we have got. The big thing is we need right now is more specialist staff, more funding, and more training for frontline immigration officers.

“Businesses have been left in the lurch, particularly since the war in Ukraine, and it is frustrating that they are not being heard.”