The Government had admitted that plans to make the asylum system more efficient are “in doubt” as a report by the UK’s independent public spending watchdog, the National Audit Office (NAO) revealed that urgent action is needed to reach targets.
The Home Office plans to pay local authorities £283m by 2024-25 to free up accommodation & fund local services for asylum seekers, but last year it paid just £11.4m due to difficulties it had in finding accommodation.
The NAO warned that the cost of Britain’s asylum system hit £3.6bn in 2022-23 and could rise further, despite the introduction of new laws the Government “believes will improve the cost and fairness of the asylum system”.
The Home Office is responsible for asylum seeker protection in the UK, including ensuring compliance with the UK’s legal commitments. It is responsible for processing claims and supporting people seeking asylum who are destitute, by providing financial support and accommodation.
At the end of March 2023, around 173,000 people (relating to about 134,000 asylum claims) were awaiting an initial decision, with the Home Office providing accommodation for around 109,000 of them.
Alongside wider policy changes, the Home Office started developing the asylum and protection transformation programme in 2021. The programme’s vision is to create a system “that is fair, supportive and efficient, where decisions made are right first time and customers in need of protection receive it quickly, and all are treated with dignity and respect.”
It has four core objectives: improving the customer journey; improving working experience; improving public and partner trust; and creating a flexible, sustainable and efficient asylum system.
The Home Office intends to achieve these objectives in part by increasing the speed of processing asylum claims and the quality of decisions, and increasing the supply of dispersal accommodation.
The Home Office expects the programme to cost around £430 million and achieve savings of £15 billion in the 10 years to 2032.
Asylum seekers: what does the report say?
This report examines the Home Office’s progress in delivering the asylum and protection transformation programme. The report does not evaluate the wider policy changes, but it does discuss the potential impact of the programme on parts of the wider asylum system. This is considered to include all parts of the Home Office and other government organisations that a person who has applied for asylum may need to interact with.
The Home Office expects the asylum and protection transformation programme to reduce its costs by making asylum decisions more quickly, so it supports people seeking asylum for a shorter time; and by increasing its supply of dispersal accommodation, to reduce its reliance on costly hotels.
The NAO argues that the Government is making some progress, but it is a long way from meeting its ambitions. While the Home Office has nearly doubled the number of decisions made each week, the data does not clarify whether this is sustainable, or whether it will be enough to clear the backlog of older asylum decisions by the end of 2023.
For example, data shows that The Home Office spent £3.6bn on supporting people awaiting asylum decisions last year but the majority have still waited more than six months.
According to the report, the Government is also failing to meet its targets for securing accommodation in local authorities which is regarded as a safeguarding concern. The Home Office has only found 48 beds each week for people seeking asylum — far from its target of 350.
The NAO argues that the Home Office’s plans set out in the asylum and protection transformation programme is necessary, but not sufficient alone to address the pressures in the asylum system. The report contends that changes will only work if all parts of the end-to-end asylum system can effectively manage the demands placed on them.
To achieve value for money, the NAO believes the Home Office needs to better coordinate and manage the impacts of the full range of changes it is implementing as failing to do this risks moving backlogs and cost pressures to other areas, rather than resolving them.
NAO head Gareth Davies said: “Despite recent progress, the asylum and protection transformation programme is a long way from meeting government’s ambitions to reduce the cost and improve the quality of the service”.
Oliver Lodge, director of the spending watchdog, said it was going to be “very challenging” for the Government to hit targets. He said the Home Office was making 1,300 asylum claim decisions a week in April but that this needs to increase to 2,200. However, if claims are refused quickly, other teams “will have to increase their capacity” and shoulder the costs and increase their staffing levels.
A Home Office spokesman said it was working “non-stop” to reduce the backlog. “We know more must be done to bring the asylum system back into balance” he said, and argued that The Illegal Migration Bill “will stop the boats by detaining those who come to the UK illegally, and swiftly returning them to their home country or a safe third country.”
However, the Labour Party’s shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock said the Conservatives had “lost control” of the backlog. “The prime minister has admitted that the asylum system is broken,” he said.
The NAO has assessed the asylum and protection transformation programme and concludes that it is not on track to achieve the full benefits it expects. The Government’s furthering of the culture war through the discourse of “Stop the Boats” and the promotion of the illegal migration bill is therefore proving unhelpful, as the NAO finds targets are far from being met which is resulting in safeguarding issues.
To deal with asylum seekers effectively, the Government must carry out coordinated efforts and provide support to the entire system to avoid backlogs and overwhelming local authorities.