Confusion over scale of Sunak’s vow to ‘abolish’ backlog of asylum claims

Labour claimed Rishi Sunak’s vow was “already falling apart”.

Flora Thompson
Tuesday 13 December 2022 20:29 GMT
Rishi Sunak told the Commons of Conservative plans to tackle the backlog in asylum claims (Alastair Grant/PA)
Rishi Sunak told the Commons of Conservative plans to tackle the backlog in asylum claims (Alastair Grant/PA) (PA Wire)

The Prime Minister’s pledge to “abolish” the backlog of asylum claims by the end of 2023 has been called into question after officials admitted only a portion of applications would be cleared.

Labour claimed Rishi Sunak’s vow was “already falling apart” amid confusion over the scale of his ambition.

Setting out a five-point plan in a bid to grip the migrant crisis in the Commons on Tuesday, Rishi 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 within hours Downing Street appeared to downgrade the target, insisting the Prime Minister had only committed to clearing the backlog of claims made before June.

The latest published Home Office figures show in the year to September there were more than 143,000 asylum seekers waiting for a decision on their claims, with nearly 100,000 waiting more than six months.

Facing questions from MPs, Mr Sunak told the Commons: “Our plan is to clear the initial asylum backlog by the end of next year. It’s about 117,000 currently on published statistics.”

Later, his official spokesman told reporters the Prime Minister was committing only to getting rid of clearing a backlog of 92,601 initial asylum claims made before June, when the Nationality and Borders Act came into force.

“It wouldn’t be right to prioritise those more recent claims, it would be right to focus on the legacy claims that predate the introduction of the Act,” he added.

The spokesman could not give a deadline to tackle all the claims, nor could he give a figure for a planned quota for asylum seekers.

A Government spokesperson later said the plans to clear the “initial asylum decision backlog of legacy cases” involves “making an initial decision in all cases that have been outstanding since before June 28 2022, which is when we changed the system through the Nationality and Borders Act to reform how we process cases.

“This allows us to differentiate claims for the first time depending on whether people come to the UK through legal or illegal routes.”

Labour’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: “The Prime Minister doesn’t even know what he’s promised today.

“This claim to be able to tackle the backlog by the end of the year is already falling apart just hours after he made it.

“No one trusts the Conservatives to fix the asylum system they’ve broken over the last 12 years.”

More than 44,000 people have crossed the Channel to the UK this year, Government figures show.

Mr Sunak told MPs “enough is enough” and “I am prepared to do what must be done” as he announced measures including reforms to modern slavery laws and a new agreement with the Albanian government to tackle the number of people from the Balkan state crossings the Channel.

A new unit to monitor Channel crossings will bring together military, civilian staff and the National Crime Agency (NCA), with 700 staff.

There are plans to house 10,000 asylum seekers in disused holiday parks, former student halls and surplus military sites instead of using hotels.

The number of asylum caseworkers who assess claims will double, there will be more funding for the NCA to tackle organised immigration crime in Europe and plans to ramp up immigration raids on illegal workers.

Parliament will set an “annual quota” of the number of asylum seekers and refugees allowed to come to the UK and new laws will be introduced next year to make it “unambiguously clear that if you enter the UK illegally, you should not be able to remain here”, Mr Sunak said, adding that he will also restart flights to send migrants to Rwanda.

He insisted this was the “fair way to address this global challenge”, warning: “Tackling this problem will not be quick. It will not be easy. But it is the right thing to do.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer dismissed the proposals as “unworkable gimmicks”, instead arguing that his party would offer “serious solutions”.

Human rights campaigners branded the plans “deeply disturbing” and accused the Government of treating asylum seekers like criminals.

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