Home Office plan to clear asylum backlog risks shifting problems elsewhere, MPs warn

Public Accounts Committee says Home Office “does not understand” impact its reforms will have on the wider system
Asylum seekers arriving in Dover. Photo: Jeff Gilbert/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

27 Oct 2023

The Home Office’s plan to improve the asylum system by rapidly clearing the backlog in legacy cases “risks simply transferring backlogs to elsewhere in the system”, MPs have warned.

The Public Accounts Committee cautions in a report published today that the Home Office “does not understand” the impact its asylum transformation programme will have on the wider asylum system.

It said the department’s “incomplete and unrealistic business case” for the programme “ignores the impact of a rapid clearing of the asylum backlog on immigration enforcement and the courts”. The programme is also expected to impact on the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education, according to the report.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak has committed to clear a backlog of 91,000 “legacy” asylum decisions by the end of 2023, which represent 52% of the total backlog of people awaiting a decision as of June 2023. Around 2,600 decisions a week need to be made between July and December 2023 to meet this commitment. This is 900 more than the 1,700 decisions that were made in the first week of July. Even if the department successfully clears the legacy cases, it would leave more than 80,000 non-legacy claims waiting for a decision.

More decisions will mean courts hear significantly more appeals and Immigration Enforcement will need to detain and remove more failed asylum seekers, the PAC report says. But the Home Office has said it will not set out the implications of this in a proper business case until 2024, after the deadline for clearing the backlog of older cases.

“By this point, it will be too late for the courts and Immigration Enforcement, as well as local authorities and the Department for Work and Pensions, to make informed preparations”, the report warns.

“Unless the Home Office improves its understanding and communicates this across the system quickly, people seeking refuge may just be passed from one backlog in the Home Office to another backlog elsewhere in the system,” MPs added.

The committee said the Home Office has acknowledged it has not looked broadly enough at the impact of rapidly clearing its asylum backlog, and that its business case ignores the challenges and costs that other bodies will need to overcome to avoid creating new backlogs.

The Home Office previously told the National Audit Office it would update the business case in summer 2023. PAC has asked the department to set a firm deadline to publish a new business case.

The committee also warned that the department’s decision to streamline decision-making – by collecting more information via questionnaires –  "may inadvertently lead to more flawed decisions, or the withdrawal of genuine asylum claims".

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has raised concerns that the poor design of the new questionnaire may affect caseworkers’ ability to make correct decisions, while Amnesty International has warned the 20-day limit to complete the questionnaire or risk having the application withdrawn could have a "devastating" impact.

Hotel plan ‘could have serious consequences’

The report also warns of the safeguarding risks in the Home Office’s plans to double the number of asylum seekers staying in hotels, which it plans to achieve by making them share rooms.

The committee said the Home Office “does not have adequate safeguards to protect against the risks of vulnerable people having to share accommodation with strangers”. It said the Home Office “struggled to explain to the PAC how people would be assessed for suitability for room-sharing, or how past trauma or risk would be considered”.

The Home Office had only said that an assessment would be carried out before people are moved into shared rooms which would take into account language, nationality and health records, the report said.

PAC warned failure to put in place “robust process” to make sure sharing arrangements will be safe could have “serious consequences”.

The committee also criticised the “unacceptable” costs that have come from the Home Office’s “failure to process asylum claims efficiently” and said the department has “no credible plan” to end the use of hotels to accommodate people waiting for a decision, which cost £2.3bn in 2022-23.

“The backlog of people waiting for a decision on their asylum claim is leaving tens of thousands of people in limbo at an unacceptable cost of billions to the taxpayer," PAC chair Dame Meg Hillier said. 

"But the compromises being made by the Home Office to meet its commitments are alarming, and some could have grave consequences.

“Addressing the backlog at pace is of course desirable, but not if the government’s approach is to do so by simply shifting pressures onto other parts of the system, by risking more flawed decisions or genuine asylum claims being withdrawn, or most seriously by putting the safety of vulnerable people at risk. The government must lay out a realistic and detailed plan for transforming the asylum system in its updated business case, or risk making a bad situation worse.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The government is working to end the unacceptable use of hotels by moving asylum seekers into alternative, cheaper accommodation and clearing the legacy backlog.

“We have taken immediate action to speed up asylum processing whilst maintaining the integrity of the system. This includes simplifying guidance, streamlining processes and introducing shorter, focussed interviews.”

The Home Office confirmed it had met its target to increase the number of asylum caseworkers to 2,500, with 2,510 decision makers in post as of the end of August.

The department said backlog cases have fallen by more than 35,000 from November 2022 to the end of August 2023, adding that it is “confident that with increased capacity and improved efficiency this will help deliver further significant output over the coming months”.

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