Sunak being 'transparent' about asylum backlog numbers, No.10 insists

No.10 defends PM's claim despite accusations it was "misleading", with thousands of decisions remaining
Photo: Imageplotter/Alamy Live News

By Alain Tolhurst

03 Jan 2024

Rishi Sunak is being "transparent" about the government's progress in reducing the asylum backlog, his spokesperson has insisted, following accusations that ministers are being misleading about the number of cases dealt with by the Home Office.

Yesterday morning, the prime minister posted on social media that his government had successfully cleared the backlog of asylum claims awaiting decisions from Home Office officials. "I said that this government would clear the backlog of asylum decisions by the end of 2023. That’s exactly what we’ve done," his account tweeted.

However, the Home Office has confirmed that Sunak was referring to asylum claims made before the end of June 2022, or what the government refers to as "legacy" cases, and that the overall number of cases waiting to be dealt with stands at over 98,000.

The department, led by home secretary James Cleverly, also said there were 4,500 "complex" cases dating back to pre-June 2022 which needed further work by officials, prompting accusations that the government has in fact not cleared the "legacy" backlog. 

Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said it was "misleading" for Sunak and his ministers to claim that the backlog has been cleared as "thousands are still waiting for a decision".

Speaking to reporters yesterday, the PM's official spokesperson insisted that Sunak and the government were being "transparent" about the asylum figures. 

"We committed to clearing the backlog. That is what the government has done.

"We are being very transparent about what that entails," they said.

"We have processed all of those cases and have gone further than the orginal commitment to 112,000 decisions made overall.

"As a result of that process, there are a small minority of cases which are complex and which because of our rigorous standards require further work. But nonetheless, it is a significant piece of work by Home Office officials to process such huge numbers in a short period of time while retaining our rigorous safety standards."

Sunak's official spokesperson did not, however, repeat Cleverly's claim that his target is to reduce small boats crossings to zero this calendar year. They said the prime minister wanted to stop crossings "as soon as possible", but did not set out a specific timetable.

Asked yesterday by LBC presenter Nick Ferrari whether he wanted to reduce the number of Channel crossings to zero in 2024, Cleverly said: "That is my target. My target to reduce it to zero, to stop the boats. I'm unambigious about that."

Stopping small boats crossings was one of the five pledges which Sunak made to the country when he entered Downing Street in late 2022.

Government figures published on Monday showed the provisional total number of crossings in 2023 was down by around a third compared with 2022, which ministers claim is proof that their approach to curbing illegal migration is working.

However, with nearly 30,000 small boat crossings having taken place last year, Sunak has his work cut reducing the number to zero before the country next goes to the polls for the general election. The PM recently told journalists that the election would happen in 2024, with opinion in Westminster split on whether Sunak will decide to go hold it in Spring or Autumn. 

A major part of Sunak's plan to tackle small boats crossings is the Rwanda bill, which the government could bring back to parliament as soon as next week.

It is unclear whether the legislation will make it through parliament in its current form, with MPs on different wings of the Conservative Party preparing to wrestle over amendments. There is also significant opposition in the House of Lords, including among some Tory peers, to Sunak's plan to disapply human rights law in a bid to deport people to Rwanda.

Alain Tolhurst is chief reporter for CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where this story first appeared.

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