Home Office asylum caseworkers are being offered thousands of pounds in bonuses to stay in their jobs as part of efforts to get a grip on a backlog of more than 127,000 cases, the Home Office has revealed.
Matthew Rycroft, the Home Office permanent secretary, said the allowance – £1,500 if staff stay for one year and £2,500 if they remain for two – is “doubling” asylum caseworker retention rates.
However, the backlog of unprocessed asylum applications has continued to grow despite the efforts to retain staff and recruit of hundreds of new caseworkers, as productivity levels have slumped.
According to Newsnight and the Observer, the department has been recruiting inexperienced people, who are not given enough support, earn low wages, are asked to make difficult decisions and do not stay in their roles for long.
Rycroft and home secretary Suella Braverman outlined the department’s efforts to tackle the huge backlog at a Home Affairs Select Committee session yesterday, including efforts to improve productivity levels of existing staff, recruit more and address concerns about the competency of new recruits.
Staffing levels up but productivity down
Braverman told the committee that the number of asylum caseworkers has been increased by 80% from 597 in 2019-20 to more than a thousand today to address the backlog. The department expects to recruit 500 more by March, although around 200 staff are expected to leave.
Despite almost doubling staff numbers in the last two years, productivity levels have sunk and the average asylum application currently takes 450 days to process.
Caseworkers are now making just one decision per week, compared to three in 2011-12. Only 4% of asylum claims from people arriving by boat to claim asylum last year have been processed, HASC revealed last month.
Braverman said she could not put a date on when the backlog would be resolved but said the Home Office is aiming for caseworkers to reach three decisions per week by May 2023 and four decisions per week at some point.
To do this, the Home Office is digitising and simplifying the process and has trialled a new programme in Leeds, which has doubled caseworkers’ decision-making rate from 1.3 cases per week to 2.7.
Committee member James Daly said the current levels of productivity are "the height of rank incompetence or bad management". But Rycroft said the Conservative MP's suggestion that 15 decisions per caseworker per week would be the right target was "unreasonable", given the complexity of the cases.
He said the department's target productivity levels would be “high enough to clear the backlog and deal with the incoming flow” of new cases.
As of last month, 96% of the 26,526 claims filed by Channel-crossing asylum seekers in 2021 were yet to be processed, according to Abi Tierney, director general for customer services at the Home Office.
The department has been struggling to deal with the large numbers of migrants entering the UK, with a record 40,000 arriving by small boat so far this year.
But while the number of annual asylum applications has risen by 130% between 2017 and 2022 (from 27,428 to 63,089), in the same period the backlog has quadrupled in size.
Asked if the Home Office had considered bringing in staff from other parts of the department to help with the backlog., Rycroft said this would not be a simple solution.
“The training investment is quite significant. It is not as simple as just moving people from one scheme onto this. It is important that people have the full training to get up to speed. Which is why overall we have dealt with the bulk of this through recruitment,” he said.
But Braverman said she is “still very keen to explore all options”.
An inspection of asylum casework by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration said the reasons for poor processing reasons included the use of Excel spreadsheets to track a large number of cases; a shortage of technical specialist staff; inadequate training; low morale; and high turnover.
Home Office chiefs respond to concerns about new employees
Amid the recruitment drive, concerns have been raised about the skill and capability of new employees.
Inexperienced, low paid staff are being hired to handle applications, with many leaving quickly under the pressure, according to the BBC and Observer.
New recruits, coming from customer services sales positions at McDonald’s, Tesco and Aldi, were being given two days training and had been using Lonely Planet guides to get information on countries before making decisions, the Observer reported earlier this month.
A whistleblower with almost 20 years’ experience in asylum decision-making who is currently training new staff to carry out interviews, told the newspaper: “They’re getting in far too many inexperienced people, with no understanding of the asylum system, and they just don’t have the support they need so they leave. It’s a total disaster.”
Asked about the claim, Braverman told MPs the report was “concerning” but she was “not familiar with it”.
She added: “Ultimately these are really important decisions that people are making. It’s important that they receive sufficient training, and that they are using the appropriate guidance issued by government and verified by independent expertise when these decisions are being made.”
Rycroft denied the claim that travel guides were being used to make decisions. “There is country guidance on every country and that is the basis of the decision making,” he said.
He confirmed Newsnight’s reports that these staff are not well paid, however, stating that asylum caseworkers are “amongst the lowest paid civil servants in the civil service” when mentioning the retention allowance.
Braverman added that the department wants “to ensure that our case workers are properly remunerated and that they have the proper resources to work productively”