Downing Street insists legacy asylum claims cleared – despite thousands remaining

Downing Street has insisted that the prime minister has achieved his target of clearing the legacy backlog of asylum claims, despite the government’s own data showing that 4,537 remain.

Rishi Sunak pledged in December 2022 that he would “abolish” the legacy backlog of asylum claims made before 28 June of that year, with the Home Office being given the target of the end of 2023.

On Monday, the department said the pledge had been “delivered”, having processed more than 112,000 asylum claims overall in 2023.

There were more than 92,000 asylum claims made before 28 June 2022 requiring a decision, but 4,537 remain, according to the government’s official data.

Analysis: Sunak's asylum backlog claim isn't true - according to the government's own statistics

Analysis: Sunak’s asylum backlog claim isn’t true – according to the government’s own statistics

It seems the government has shot itself in the foot by misleadingly focusing on a specific promise made by the PM which hasn’t quite been met.

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Speaking to journalists this morning, the prime minister’s spokesperson said the legacy backlog of asylum claims has, in fact, been cleared as promised because all cases have been reviewed, and the remaining ones simply “require additional work”.

The spokesperson said: “We committed to clearing the backlog, that is what the government has done. We are being very transparent about what that entails.

“We have processed all of those cases and indeed gone further than the original commitment. We’re up 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 standard.”

The government has said that the remaining 4,537 more complex 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”.

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Home Secretary discusses government’s work to process asylum claims

However, the CEO of the Refugee Council, Enver Solomon, said it is “misleading for the government to claim that the legacy backlog has been cleared as there are thousands still waiting for a decision”.

And Labour’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper labelled the claim that the backlog has been cleared “totally false”.

She told broadcasters: “They made a whole series of promises about clearing the asylum backlog and they haven’t delivered them.

“Instead, the asylum backlog is still nearly 100,000 cases, and we’ve still got thousands of people, record numbers of people in asylum hotels. So, the government’s just failing on all counts.”

The policy is central to government plans to stop small boat crossings
Rishi Sunak’s spokesperson has rejected accusations that the government has made “misleading” claims

The prime minister’s spokesperson was also asked about an apparent suggestion from Home Secretary James Cleverly on LBC radio this morning that the government’s goal is to stop small boat crossings entirely in 2024.

Downing Street said they are “not going to set out a deadline”, but said the Rwanda bill – that is due to return to the Commons “this month” – is a “key part” of stopping small boat crossings.

Mr Cleverly did not make the suggestion that boats would be stopped this year elsewhere, and a source close to him said: “Tackling illegal migration is by virtue of what it is, a product of criminal people smuggling gangs, should always be a mission to zero, and as quickly as possible.

“We’ll do what it takes, using a whole range of tactics to get to zero to break the business model of these ruthless smugglers who don’t care if people live or die, just as long as they pay.”

It comes after Mr Sunak admitted to parliament’s Liaison Committee just before Christmas there is no “firm date” to stop small boat crossings entirely.

Up until today, there had been fears for months that the prime minister’s target would not be achieved, and in an appearance before the Commons Liaison Committee in December, the prime minister was unable to say when the remaining overall backlog of asylum claims would be cleared.

In February last year, the Home Office said thousands of asylum seekers would be sent questionnaires which could be used to speed up a decision on their claims, and 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.

In June, the National Audit Office (NAO) said efforts to clear the backlog needed to significantly increase to clear the backlog and questioned whether the plans were sustainable.

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The spending watchdog also estimated £3.6bn was spent on asylum support in 2022-23, which amounted to almost double the previous year.

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

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

The majority of those returned were from Albania, with whom the UK has a returns agreement.

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