The Home Office is preparing to trial the use of private contractors to interview asylum seekers to help deal with a backlog of claims, despite warnings that doing so would be "deeply concerning and wrong".
A spokesperson for the department has said it is “exploring the potential feasibility” of bringing in support from external suppliers to conduct interviews, following months of delays while coronavirus measures have been in place.
The admission came after acting head of asylum operations Dave Draper sent a letter to charities and other groups working with asylum seekers last week saying the Home Office was “scoping out and testing” the concept of using a third-party supplier to conduct interviews and gather evidence to “get the system moving again”.
The letter, seen by the Independent, said the department was preparing to run a six to eight-week pilot project in which one supplier would carry out asylum interviews.
The pilot would be used to determine whether the approach could work long term and how it could be improved, Draper said.
Several of the government’s strategic suppliers have already confirmed they have capacity to conduct interviews, he added.
A spokesperson said using private companies “temporarily” to do some of the interviews – which are now all conducted by officials – could speed up decision making.
But PCS, the civil service’s biggest trade union, said it was very concerned about the idea of “outsourcing” the work.
A union spokesperson said: "Outsourcing a key part of the asylum process to a contractor for private profit, is deeply concerning and wrong.
"We need a humane, well-resourced department rooted in a public service ethos, not private companies making money at the expense of vulnerable individuals."
And Sonia Lenegan, legal director at the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, said the idea of private companies profiting from the asylum process was “completely abhorrent”.
“While the delays in asylum casework are concerning and do need to be addressed, the answer cannot be to outsource these processes,” she told the Independent.
“The Home Office has a very poor record when it comes to outsourcing immigration activities, from G4S and immigration removal centres to the ongoing problems experienced with UK Visa and Citizenship Application Services and the ability to access free appointments,” she added.
In 2017, an undercover investigation showed staff abusing and assaulting detainees at Brook House detention centre, which was being run by G4S. An inspection carried out two years later found “no evidence” the abuse was still happening.
However, last year, parliament's Home Affairs Select Committee said the Home Office had been “shockingly cavalier” about failings in detention centres.
And earlier this year, after the Home Office handed out new contracts for asylum-seeker accommodation, the National Audit Office found some facilities had been so badly managed that it had taken months to carry out necessary maintenance, leaving asylum seekers in temporary housing and unable to register for schools or medical practices.
The Home Office spokesperson said: "We are exploring many options to reduce the number of outstanding asylum claims, and alongside seeking temporary resource from within the Home Office and other government departments, we are exploring with external suppliers whether they can deliver the support required as a short term measure.
"Asylum interviews have not been outsourced, and at this stage we are only exploring the potential feasibility.
"Anyone who conducts asylum interviews receives thorough and bespoke training to ensure they are fully equipped for the role and any supplier providing support would have to meet our rigorous standards."