Rishi Sunak claims to have cleared asylum backlog branded 'false' by Labour

The Home Office says it has exceeded its target of processing the 92,000 "legacy" asylum applications, but Labour has said the claim misleading

The government claimed it had processed more legacy asylum claims in 2023 than in any other year since 2002, but critics accused it of manipulating figures.

Rishi Sunak announced the government has cleared 112,000 asylum claims made before June 2022, known as 'legacy claims' and so has met its target of clearing 92,000 claims.

Labour accused the government of making "false" claims about meeting the target, with figures suggesting the department had fallen short of the number initially set.

Despite the home secretary, James Cleverly, claiming "every single one" of the backlog claims have been processed, some 4,500 complex cases still under review.

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.

Ahead of official figures being published on Tuesday, it is understood the Home Office has processed around 25,200 newer asylum claims, in addition to 86,800 decisions in legacy cases, taking the provisional number of total decisions made overall in the year to 112,000.

'We have processed them all': Home Secretary James Cleverly denied that the figures were misleading and that the governments commitment to reducing legacy cases had been met

Mr Cleverly said: "We made a commitment to clear that legacy backlog, those applications that were made before June 28 2022. We said we would process them all, we have processed them all.

"In a small number of cases, especially where there are disputes about age or security concerns, there is further work to do. We promised to process them all, we have processed them all.

"Last year we processed more applications than any given year since 2002."

But Labour’s shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock said no “slicing or renaming the figures can disguise” that the asylum backlog had “rocketed under the Tories”.

"Even their claims to have cleared the so-called ‘legacy backlog’ are false," he said.

What is a 'legacy' asylum case?

Asylum applications made before June 28, 2022, are counted as legacy cases.

There were 4,537 asylum applications in the legacy backlog that were still “awaiting an initial decision” as of December 28 2023, provisional figures show.

The backlog of legacy applications stood at 100,548 at the end of June 2022, meaning it had been cut by 95% as of December 28 2023.

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

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.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

But his vow was 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.

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.

Small boat crossings declined in 2023, but are still a long way from stopping Credit: PA Graphics

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 last crossings of the year took place on December 16. Credit: PA

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.

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.

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: "Over 4,000 claims are unresolved and a disturbing 17,000 asylum seekers have simply been 'withdrawn' by the Tories from this legacy backlog, with ministers seeming to have no idea where they are and whether they are reapplying or disappearing into the underground economy.

 “Meanwhile Rishi Sunak’s promise made a year ago to end asylum hotel use has been disastrously broken - with a 20% increase to 56,000, costing the British taxpayer more than £2bn a year. This is yet more evidence of an asylum system broken by the Conservatives." 

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