The Home Office has started the New Year proudly trumpeting its progress in dealing with the huge number of outstanding asylum cases – claiming in a press release issued last night to have “cleared” the legacy backlog as promised by the prime minister in December 2022.
The whole premise of the “legacy backlog” is a rather arbitrary term invented by the Home Office by which they mean claims made before June 2022.
It was only set out after Rishi Sunak made a much broader-sounding promise to MPs to “abolish the backlog of initial asylum decisions by the end of next year”.
This focused the target on a fixed number of 92,601 outstanding older cases, rather than all the additional claims made since that date.
But last night’s bold headline that the government has cleared that so-called legacy backlog was itself immediately attacked by Labour as “false” and by the Refugee Council as “misleading”.
The government’s own statistics published this morning make it clear this boast just isn’t true. The legacy backlog hasn’t been cleared – there are still 4,537 cases remaining on it.
The Home Office says these are “complex cases” which require “additional checks or investigations” before a final decision can be made – due to the applicants presenting as children but needing age verification for example, or suffering serious medical issues.
But while the cases have been “reviewed” – they’re not yet resolved.
What’s more, we know that at least 17,000 cases were “withdrawn” by the Home Office last year.
This morning the home secretary was forced to admit to Kay Burley that many of these individuals had “slipped out” of the system and might be working illegally, although he argued others would have chosen to go home and that enforcement activity against dodgy employers is on the increase too.
All of this obfuscation means that the headlines this morning have focused on the misleading nature of the legacy backlog claim – rather than the underlying fact the Home Office has successfully sped up its decision-making process by hiring an extra 1,200 staff, setting targets and changing its systems.
Last year 112,000 claims were dealt with – including nearly 87,000 of those legacy cases, as well as some of the more recent applications. This is the highest number in 20 years.
The overall backlog now stands at 98,000, down a third from this time last year – and it suggests that if the rate of asylum claims stays the same, or even reduces, the Home Office would finally be on track to get on top of incoming cases.
Of course the government’s trying to discourage people from coming to the UK to claim asylum at all, by banning people from doing so if they’ve arrived by illegal routes and packing them off back home, to Rwanda or a safe third country.
Getting the emergency legislation needed to override the Supreme Court’s objections through parliament to finally deliver the controversial policy is going to be the PM’s biggest challenge for the new year.
But it feels like the government has rather shot itself in the foot in its efforts to highlight progress in reducing the asylum backlog by misleadingly focusing on a specific promise made by the PM which hasn’t quite been met – rather than the bigger picture.