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Rishi Sunak under fire over ‘misleading’ claim to have cleared asylum backlog

Rishi Sunak has been accused of a “barefaced lie” over his claim to have met a pledge to clear the backlog of so-called legacy asylum claims.

The prime minister credited “relentless action” as the government announced on Monday that it had met a target to clear a backlog of asylum claims - despite the fact thousands are still awaiting a decision.

The Home Office said it had processed more than 112,000 asylum cases overall in 2023, but Labour accused the government of making false claims about meeting the target, with figures showing the department had fallen short of the number it initially set to reach.

The government said all cases in the legacy backlog have now been reviewed, with 86,800 decisions made, but “4,500 complex cases have been highlighted that require additional checks or investigation for a final decision to be made”.

Such cases typically involve “asylum seekers presenting as children – where age verification is taking place; those with serious medical issues; or those with suspected past convictions, where checks may reveal criminality that would bar asylum”, the department added.

Rishi Sunak made his pledge to ‘stop the boats’ one of his five priorities for last year (PA Wire)
Rishi Sunak made his pledge to ‘stop the boats’ one of his five priorities for last year (PA Wire)

Shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock said Mr Sunak’s claim to have cleared the asylum backlog was a “barefaced lie” and attacked the government for withdrawing the claims of 17,000 asylum seekers.

He said: “The PM's barefaced lie that he has cleared the asylum backlog would be laughable if it wasn't such an insult to the public's intelligence.

“Statistics published this morning by his own Govt show there are still around 100,000 cases languishing in the Tories' never-ending backlog..”

And he accused the PM of “disastrously” breaking a promise to end the use of costly hotels for asylum seekers, with the number housed in hotels in use up by a fifth to 56,000.

Figures released on Tuesday showed that there were still 4,537 asylum cases in the legacy backlog by 28 December last year. The government also processed around 25,300 newer asylum claims last year, in addition to legacy cases.

The total asylum backlog now stands at 98,599. This is a decrease on the record high levels in early 2023, when the backlog stood at nearly 140,000, but it is still historically high. In March 2020, the backlog stood at 40,000 and in 2013 it was down at 9,500.

James Cleverly on Tuesday refused to commit to clearing the remainder of the backlog by the end of 2024, suggesting the rate at which cases are processed could slow down.

The home secretary was quizzed about when the remaining 98,599 cases would be processed, but said it was “impossible to say” and he did not want to “make predictions”.

Charity the Refugee Council said it is “misleading” for the government to have claimed to have cleared the so-called legacy backlog.

Chief executive Enver Solomon said: “After mismanaging the asylum system for so many years the government was right to clear the backlog but was wrong to do it in a way that has failed to see the face behind the case and instead has treated people simply as statistics rather than with the care and compassion they deserve."

And Yvette Cooper slammed Mr Sunak and the home secretary’s claims to have cleared the backlog of asylum seekers.

The shadow home secretary said the PM and Mr Cleverly have not even cleared the so-called “legacy” backlog of older asylum cases.

And she pointed to the total backlog of asylum seekers, which now stands at 98,599.

In a series of posts on X, Ms Cooper said: “It’s one of five Sunak broken promises on asylum & small boats this year - yet another year of Tory asylum chaos, of gimmicks instead of grip.”

But the PM doubled down, posting on X that he had “cleared the backlog of asylum decisions”, despite the 98,599 awaiting decisions. His post attracted a so-called community note of clarification, which said “the backlog has not been cleared”.

Mr Cleverly said on Tuesday that the number of claims processed was the highest for 20 years, while fewer claims were accepted as a proportion of the total.

The home secretary told Sky News: “As we move forward with this process, we will have a tighter set of criteria than we had in the past, we should see that proportion of grants coming down and we are taking action to secure our borders and stop the boats.”

And, quizzed about the 17,000 asylum seekers whose cases have been withdrawn, Mr Cleverly said “some of them will have left” while others will have “slipped out of the system” to work illegally in the UK.

A report in the i newspaper said the Home Office was cancelling asylum claims by mistake under pressure to meet Mr Sunak’s target to clear the backlog.

Mr Sunak told the Daily Express: “The progress is the result of relentless action to tackle illegal migration over the past year.

“When I set out my blueprint to stop the boats, abolishing the legacy backlog was a key part of it.”

Mr Sunak previously pledged to remove the older asylum applications by the end of 2023, tasking the Home Office with tackling the number of so-called “legacy” claims.

Officials say as many decisions as possible were made in the legacy backlog, and outstanding cases were because the department would not compromise on security and needed to make sure additional checks were carried out. They believe efforts to also clear a chunk of newer cases at the same time points towards the commitment to tackling the overall asylum backlog.

In one four-week period from November 20 to December 17, there were 20,481 initial asylum decisions made – more than the number of asylum decisions made in the entirety of 2021, the Home Office said.

The grant rate for final asylum decisions on fully completed cases in 2023 stood at 67 per cent, lower than in 2022 and 2021 (76 per cent and 72 per cent).

Setting out a five-point plan in a bid to grip the migrant crisis in the Commons in December 2022, Mr Sunak said “unless we act now, and decisively, this will only get worse”.

Among a raft of new measures unveiled to curb Channel crossings, he told MPs “we expect to abolish the backlog of initial asylum decisions by the end of next year” after hiring more caseworkers and overhauling the system for processing applications.

But his vow was almost immediately called into question by Labour amid confusion over the scale of his ambition.

Within hours of the announcement, Downing Street appeared to downgrade the target to say only a portion of outstanding applications would be cleared, insisting the Prime Minister had only committed to addressing the backlog of 92,601 initial asylum claims made before June 2022, when the Nationality and Borders Act came into force.

In February last year, the Home Office said thousands of asylum seekers would be sent questionnaires which could be used to decide their claims, as part of efforts to cut the soaring backlog of cases and speed up the processing of applications.

About 12,000 people from Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea, Libya and Yemen, who had applied for asylum in the UK and were waiting for a decision, were understood to be eligible under the policy which would see them being asked to fill out the form instead of being automatically interviewed.

Whitehall’s spending watchdog said in June that efforts to clear the asylum backlog needed to significantly increase to meet Mr Sunak’s target and questioned whether the plans were sustainable.

The National Audit Office also estimated £3.6 billion was spent on asylum support in 2022-23, almost double the amount in the previous year.

MPs later asked senior Home Office officials how the target was being met, as figures showed 17,316 asylum applications were withdrawn in the year to September 2023 – a sharp rise which was more than four times the number for the previous year when there were 4,260. They also expressed surprise when the officials suggested the department did not know the whereabouts of these asylum seekers.

The Commons Home Affairs Committee heard in November that claims were withdrawn when asylum seekers did not turn up for interviews or complete questionnaires and were “not engaging with the system that leads to a decision”.

Other reasons included when someone had already left the UK before their claim was considered, or if they chose to pursue another application for permission to stay in the country, according to the department.

The Home Office said more caseworkers had been tasked with processing applications, which was “tripling productivity to ensure more illegal migrants are returned to their country of origin, quicker”.

But last month the department’s top civil servant, permanent secretary Sir Matthew Rycroft, revealed in a letter to MPs that since 2020, just 1,182 migrants who had crossed the Channel had been returned to their home country out of a total of more than 111,800 who arrived in that time period.

The majority of those were Albanian – a country with which the UK has a returns agreement – and there were only 420 who were sent back to other countries.

Asked if that was an “acceptable figure” by the Home Affairs Committee, illegal migration minister Michael Tomlinson replied: “As far as I’m concerned the numbers need to be significantly higher than they are.”

Mr Sunak said he was “determined to end the burden of illegal migration on the British people”, adding: “By clearing the legacy asylum backlog, deciding more than 112,000 cases, we are saving the taxpayer millions of pounds in expensive hotel costs, reducing strain on public services and ensuring the most vulnerable receive the right support.

“But we cannot be complacent, which is why I am focused on delivering on my commitment to stop the boats and get flights off the ground to Rwanda.”

Mr Kinnock said no “slicing or renaming the figures can disguise” that the asylum backlog had “rocketed under the Tories”.