A “huge challenge” remains for the Home Office to clear the backlog in the asylum system and efforts to do so risk creating new backlogs in the courts, according to a damning report from MPs.
It also said adequate safeguards are not in place to protect against the risks to vulnerable people.
The Government’s current business case for reform of the asylum system is “incomplete and unrealistic”, according to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
The cross-party committee raised concerns that the department’s method to increase the number of asylum decisions it makes is by “introducing poorly designed questionnaires and assuming claims are withdrawn” and suggested this approach risks seeing people in genuine need not having their application properly considered.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has pledged to clear by the end of 2023 the backlog of older cases which had been in the asylum system as of the end of June last year.
By the end of June this year, there were 67,870 so-called legacy asylum cases awaiting a decision.
The PAC report said the Home Office’s own analysis has suggested that even if the legacy backlog is cleared by the end of the year, there will still be another backlog of around 84,000 new asylum claims – those made after June 2022.
The committee said: “Despite claiming to have increased the number of asylum decisions it makes through its asylum and protection transformation programme, the Home Office still faces a huge challenge to clear the backlog it has allowed to build up.
“We are concerned that the way the Home Office has increased the number of decisions it makes, by introducing poorly designed questionnaires and assuming claims are withdrawn, may mean that people with a genuine need for asylum will not have their application properly considered.”
The report suggested the Home Office does “not seem to understand the implications of making more asylum decisions on the wider asylum system”.
It says that while the department has acknowledged courts will hear “significantly more appeals and Immigration Enforcement will need to detain and remove many more failed asylum seekers”, the implications will not be set out in a proper business case until next year – after the backlog-clearing deadline.
The report said: “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.
“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.”
Regarding room-sharing plans for asylum seekers, the MPs said they are “concerned” the Home Office “does not have a robust process in place to make sure sharing arrangements will be safe”, and warned that “without proper safeguards there could be serious consequences”.
The report also accused the department of lacking a “credible plan” to end the use of hotels to accommodate asylum seekers, saying that a target of finding 500 new beds every week in an effort to reduce reliance on hotels had not been met, instead with just 48 new beds a week on average in the year to April.
The report, while published on Friday, was completed before an announcement in Parliament this week to cut the number of hotels used to house migrants by 50 over the next three months, “with more tranches to follow shortly”.
The PAC has asked the Government to set out when it intends to stop using hotels altogether.
The report said a lack of co-ordination between the Home Office and local government means the department is “competing with councils and their partners to secure accommodation, driving up prices and exacerbating the homelessness challenges that local authorities already face”.
Among its recommendations the committee urged the Home Office to set out how it will give local authorities a “meaningful say” on the use of accommodation in their areas, publish an updated business case showing the impacts of its programme of reforms, and to explain how it intends to reduce the backlog of newer claims “that it has allowed to build up”.
PAC chairwoman, Dame Meg Hillier, said the “compromises being made by the Home Office to meet its commitments (to clear the backlog) are alarming, and some could have grave consequences”.
Calling for a “realistic and detailed plan for transforming the asylum system”, she added: “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.”
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, focused interviews.
“Between the end of November 2022 and the end of August 2023, the asylum backlog of legacy cases had fallen by over 35,000 and we are confident that with increased capacity and improved efficiency this will help deliver further significant output over the coming months.”
The department said provisional data as of the end of August indicates the legacy backlog had reduced to 55,477 initial asylum decisions.