UK’s asylum backlog has doubled since 2020 – and Home Office cannot say how many interviews it conducted last year

Information is not in a ‘reportable format’ according to immigration Kevin Foster, as other data shows more than 85,000 are now waiting for a decision – and department declines to provide an update on new casework system

Home Office headquarters in central London    Credit: Steve Cadman/CC BY-SA 2.0

The immigration minister has revealed that the Home Office cannot say how many asylum interviews took place last year.

This admission coincides not only with growing concerns about how the UK asylum system will cope with a potential influx of claimants from Ukraine, but also with the release of other departmental data that shows the number of applicants awaiting a decision has doubled since the start of 2020 to more than 85,000.

Meanwhile, the department – whose ministers still regularly claim that data cannot be collated or published as it remains recorded only on paper files or inaccessible internal notes systems – has declined to provide an update on the implementation of the new wholly digital system for immigration caseworking that was scheduled to have been fully operational months ago.

Newly released annual statistics show that 48,540 new asylum claims were made in the UK in 2021 – the highest level in almost two decades, and a massive jump when compared with recent years; in each of the last seven years, the figure has been in the range of 25,000 to 35,000.

In addition to the 48,540 main claimants, a further 7,955 close family members are included in the claims made last year.

During 2021, the number of cases awaiting decision rose by more than 30,000 to a total of 85,257. The vast majority of these – 81,978 – have not received an initial decision. The remaining 3,279 are awaiting further review. 

This means that the overall size of the backlog has doubled since the beginning of 2020, when there were 43,649 claims in the queue – and trebled when compared with three years ago, when 29,016 were awaiting a decision.

Asylum claims backlog

  • 12,435
    Start of 2012

  • 24,903
    Start of 2017

  • 29,016
    Start of 2019

  • 43,416
    Start of 2020

  • 55,133
    Start of 2021

  • 85,257
    Start of 2022

Some 48,640 applicants yet to be dealt with filed their claim more than six months ago, representing a fourfold increase since the start of 2019, when the number stood at 12,213.

Shortly before the publication of the annual statistics, the Home Office was asked via a written parliamentary question how many asylum interviews it conducted last year.

The immigration minister Kevin Foster admitted that the department is cannot say how many interviews had taken place in 2021. 

““The Home Office are unable to state the number of asylum interviews that were conducted… in total in 2021 as this information is not published because it is not held in a reportable format,” he said, in response to the question from former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron.

Paper problems
Over the last year, about 100 written parliamentary questions from MPs to the Home Office – largely concerning asylum and immigration – have met with the response that the information they are seeking “is not held in a reportable format”.

Queries from the last month alone to have been thus responded to include requests for data on: the average time it takes to process asylum claims; how many claimants from Yemen, Afghanistan, and Syria have been refused asylum on the grounds that it is safe for them  to return home; how many claims the department has processed each month in the last five years; and how many asylum applicants were last year given permission to work in the UK.

Responding to the latter query, from Labour MP Neil Coyle, Foster last week said that “this information is not published and is only held on paper case files or within the notes sections of the Home Office’s databases”.

This response could, in large part, have been copied and pasted from various prior answers provided by Home Office ministers in the last few years, including the response to a near-identical query in January 2020. 

Asked about the number of asylum-seekers granted the right to work during the prior year, the then-safeguarding minister Victoria Atkins indicated that “the data requested… is only held on paper case files or within the notes sections of the Home Office’s databases”.

At the time, PublicTechnology asked the Home Office about its plans to address the ongoing prevalence of paper documents and hard-to-access files that cannot be used to produce publishable data.

The department told us that it was “introducing a new immigration case-working system called Atlas [that] will replace old systems with a modern and sustainable digital service – creating a more streamlined case-working process, providing more reliable and easier-to-access data, improving applicants’ experience and removing the requirement for paper files”.

It is hard to find a definitive timeline for the stages of implementation of Atlas, including when the department might complete the transition of new claims – and then historical data – to the digital system. 

In summer 2021, “full implementation of the Atlas casework database by the end of 2021” was pledged by then-immigration compliance minister Chris Philp.

The most recent statistical releases published by the Home Office indicate that information is still drawn from a combination of Atlas and the system it is – at some point – replacing: the Case Information Database, which is more than 20 years old, but is still sometimes described in official documents as the UK’s “main immigration case-working system”.

“The Home Office are unable to state the number of asylum interviews that were conducted… in total in 2021 as this information is not published because it is not held in a reportable format.”
Kevin Foster, immigration minister

PublicTechnology asked the Home Office for an updated timeline on when Atlas will be fully implemented to replace CID and whether this might solve ongoing issues with the availability and reportability of immigration data, and the continued use of paper files to record information.

The department declined to provide any such information, and instead provided a quote from Foster.

“The UK’s asylum system is broken and has been unreformed for over two decades,” he said. “This government is fixing our country’s approach to illegal entry to the UK and asylum by making the tough decisions to end the overt exploitation of our laws and UK taxpayers. We know there is no simple solution to this problem, but our New Plan for Immigration will deliver the fair but firm system the British people have repeatedly voted for.”

Foster’s Conservative party have now been in power for 60% of the two-decade period referenced in his comments. The newly released annual statistics reveal that, during that time, the asylum backlog has increased nearly eightfold: from 11,623 in 2010, to 85,527 as of the end of 2021.

The minister himself attracted widespread criticism earlier this week when he responded to a query on what the government is doing to offer routes into the UK for Ukrainians fleeing the war by pointing out that they may well qualify for a seasonal worker visa – which are largely used by farms to hire overseas workers to pick fruits and vegetables. The tweet in question has since been deleted.


Sam Trendall

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