A “huge challenge” remains for the Home Office to clear backlogs in the asylum system, and attempts to do so risk creating new backlogs in the courts, according to a damning MPs report.
It also said there are insufficient safeguards to protect vulnerable people from harm.
The government's current business case for asylum reform is “flawed and unrealistic”, according to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
The cross-party panel raised concerns that the department's method of increasing the number of asylum decisions it makes is by “presenting poorly designed questionnaires and assuming claims are withdrawn” and suggested this approach risks seeing people in genuine need not considered their application correctly.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has pledged to clear by the end of 2023 the backlog of past cases that have been in the asylum system since late June last year.
By the end of June this year, there were 67,870 so-called legacy asylum cases pending a decision.
The PAC report said the Home Office's own analysis suggests that even if the backlog is cleared by the end of the year, there will still be a further backlog of around 84,000 new asylum applications – those made after June 2022.
The commission said: “Despite claiming to have increased the number of asylum decisions it makes through the Asylum and Protection Transformation Programme, the Home Office still faces a huge challenge in clearing 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has increased the number of decisions it makes, by introducing poorly designed questionnaires and assuming claims are withdrawn, may mean that people in genuine need of asylum will not have their application properly considered.”
The report says the Home Office “does not appear to understand the implications of more asylum decisions on the wider asylum system”.
He says that while the department has acknowledged that the courts will hear “significantly more appeals and Immigration Enforcement will need to arrest and remove many more failed asylum seekers”, the consequences will not be exposed to a proper business case until next year – after the default – liquidation deadline.
The report said: “By this point it will be too late for the courts and the Immigration Enforcement Agency, 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 quickly across the system, asylum seekers may simply move from one backlog at the Home Office to another backlog elsewhere in the system.”
On room-sharing schemes for asylum seekers, MPs said they were “concerned” that the Home Office “has not put in place a robust process to ensure sharing arrangements are safe” and warned that “without appropriate safeguards there could be serious consequences.”
The report also accused the ministry of lacking a “credible plan” to end the use of hotels to host asylum seekers, saying the target of finding 500 new beds each week in a bid to reduce reliance on hotels had not been met. just 48 new beds a week on average in the year to April.
The report, published on Friday, was completed ahead of 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 installments to follow soon”.
The PAC has asked the government to specify when it intends to stop using the 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 already faced by local authorities”.
Among its recommendations, the panel urged the Home Office to set out how it will give local authorities a “meaningful say” about the use of accommodation in their areas, to publish an updated business case showing the impact of its reform program and to explain how it plans to reduce the backlog of newer claims “that it has allowed to accumulate.”
PAC chair Dame Meg Hillier said “the compromises being made by the Home Office to meet its commitments (to clear the backlog) are worrying and some could have serious consequences”.
Calling for a “realistic and detailed plan to transform the asylum system”, he added: “Tackling backlogs is of course desirable, but not if the government's approach is to do so by simply shifting pressures to other parts of the system. risking more erroneous decisions or genuine asylum applications being withdrawn or more seriously jeopardizing the safety of vulnerable people'.
A Home Office spokesman said: “The Government is working to end the unacceptable use of hotels by moving asylum seekers to alternative, cheaper accommodation and clearing the backlog.
“We have taken immediate action to speed up asylum processing while maintaining the integrity of the system. This includes simplifying coaching, streamlining processes and introducing shorter, focused interviews.
“Between the end of November 2022 and the end of August 2023, the backlog of asylum cases fell by more than 35,000 and we are confident that with increased capacity and improved efficiency, this will help deliver further significant performance in the coming months.”
The ministry said provisional data from late August indicated the backlog had fallen to 55,477 initial asylum decisions.