Government is not on track to achieve the full benefits of its asylum transformation programme and it is not clear whether its efforts to clear the backlog of applications are sustainable, according to a new report by the National Audit Office (NAO).

The asylum and protection transformation programme report also found that the Home Office spent approximately £3.6 billion on asylum support costs in 2022-23, nearly double the amount in 2021-22, and £2.2 billion more than the Home Office’s funding for its Asylum and Protection Group.1

Some costs associated with supporting refugees and asylum seekers qualify as overseas development assistance (ODA). ODA is set at 0.5% of government spending. Therefore, increased spending on asylum within the UK impacts funding available for overseas aid.

One factor behind the mounting costs is delays in asylum decision-making. The percentage of asylum applications taking more than six months to process has been increasing over the past five years. At the end of March 2023 almost 75% of people who had claimed asylum waited more than six months for an initial decision – a total of 129,000 people – compared to 43% at the end of March 2017 and 61% at the end of March 2020. 

Since 2021 the Home Office has been working on an asylum and protection transformation programme, which is expected to cost around £430 million and achieve savings of £15 billion in the ten years to 2032. The NAO found the Programme’s business case is based on a range of highly uncertain assumptions.

The Programme aims to reduce costs by speeding up the decision-making process and reducing the numbers of people in hotel accommodation.2

The Home Office is focusing on clearing “legacy” claims3 by the end of 2023, which have reduced from 100,000 at the beginning of July 2022 to around 77,000 by the end of April 2023. The Home Office’s decision to prioritise its legacy claims is likely to lead to an increase in newer claims, which are estimated to rise from almost 61,000 in April 2023 to around 84,000 by December 2023.4

While the Home Office has nearly doubled the number of asylum decisions it makes each week – from around 690 in July 2022 to 1,310 in April 2023 – the NAO estimates it will need to make an average of 2,200 decisions per week from May 2023 to clear legacy claims by December 2023.5

The number of decisions that are made is dependent on the number and productivity of caseworkers, and the NAO found that only a fifth of caseworkers deciding claims are fully trained and working independently. The Home Office planned to have around 1,350 full-time equivalent caseworkers by April 2023, with 62% making decisions. By April 2023, only about 50% of its 1,270 full-time equivalent caseworkers were deciding claims, with around 140 fully trained and working independently.6

The NAO also found that the Home Office is failing to meet its targets to secure enough accommodation for people seeking asylum. In March 2022 the Home Office set an ambitious target to find 500 additional beds a week by October 2022. That was reduced to 350 beds per week between April 2023 and March 2025, but in the year to April 2023 it found fewer than 50 additional beds on average per week, and it is now looking to reduce its target again.

The Home Office plans to provide local authorities with around £283 million over the course of the Programme to incentivise them to make more accommodation available and help fund local services for asylum seekers. However, in 2022-23 it only paid out £11.4 million owing to difficulties it had in securing accommodation. The NAO found that the Home Office is failing to work effectively with local authorities, which has strained relationships and undermined work on procuring accommodation.

The Home Office’s efforts to reduce the backlog will also affect the wider asylum system including Immigration Enforcement – which returns people who don’t secure asylum – and HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS), which manages appeals.

The Home Office estimates that only 0.4% of people referred to Immigration Enforcement are immediately suitable for enforced returns, because of documentation, medical, or safeguarding issues.

Appeals are expected to rise, with the Home Office estimating the number in progress could quadruple between July 2022 and March 2025 to 75,000. The Home Office has agreed to provide funding for the first six months of 2023-24 to help HMCTS increase its capacity to hold immigration and asylum hearings by almost 50%. HMCTS expects the recruitment of judges – which takes around 12 to 18 months – to be the most significant capacity challenge.7

The Home Office has identified several risks to the Programme, and in April 2023 it gave it a delivery confidence of amber/red, meaning it was ‘in doubt, with urgent action required and possible delays to delivery’.

The NAO concludes that, to achieve value for money, the Home Office needs to better co-ordinate and manage the impacts of the full range of changes it is implementing. Otherwise it risks moving backlogs and cost pressures to other areas, rather than resolving them. 

The NAO recommends that the Home Office should build on its work to understand the wider impacts of changes to the asylum system.

“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, The Home Office has nearly doubled the number of decisions made each week, although it is unclear whether it will be enough to remove the backlog of older asylum decisions by the end of 2023. To date, the Programme is not on track to achieve the expected benefits.

“The changes the Home Office plans to implement through the Programme are necessary, but not on their own sufficient, to address the pressures in the asylum system. To achieve value for money, the Home Office needs to better co-ordinate and manage the impacts of these changes, otherwise the department risks moving backlogs and cost pressures to other parts of the system – including local authorities - rather than resolving them.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO

Read the full report

The asylum and protection transformation programme

Notes for editors

  1. In June 2022 the Home Office received £1.4 billion in funding for its Asylum and Protection Group in 2022-23, through the main estimates process. Funding to the Asylum and Protection Group includes the cost of the support provided to people who are seeking asylum as well as other items, such as staff costs.
  2. In 2022-23, the Home Office spent about £2.28 billion on hotels.
  3. The Prime Minister made a statement to Parliament in December 2022 in which he stated his ambition to “abolish the backlog of initial asylum decisions” by the end of 2023. He also said that the use of hotels to house people seeking asylum must end.
  4. To help clear the backlog the Home Office has decided to abandon its ambition to make decisions on ‘newer’ claims within six months, meaning the backlog of those claims is growing.
  5. As part of its efforts to increase decisions, the Home Office has simplified processes for specific cohorts of people seeking asylum, such as the five countries where claims are most likely to be granted. It has also developed a separate process for claims from people from Albania, as the government states it is a safe country. While these processes have assisted the Home Office to increase the number of asylum decisions, it is not clear whether these improvements will be replicable for other groups with different characteristics.
  6. It can take six months to train a caseworker to be effective in their role so retaining staff is critical. The Home Office has reduced annual turnover of caseworkers from 46% in March 2022 to 25% by April 2023, in part by introducing a retention allowance.
  7. HMCTS’s modelling suggests it will require additional capacity beyond this if the Home Office successfully meets its recruitment and productivity targets.
  8. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.

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