Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 4 of Session 2004-05, dated 8 February 2005


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said today:

"The Home Office allowed the number of asylum applications waiting for processing to build up to an unhealthy backlog which peaked at 129,000 in 1999. Since then they have made significant progress and reduced the backlogs in asylum applications; down to 63,700 at the end of 2003.

There is still considerable scope for the Home Office to speed up the decision-making process. I recognise that time is needed for applicants to make their own preparations for the case but the two months that the Home Office generally allows to consider most applications is too long when it only takes nine hours of actual work to make a decision. I urge the Home Office to fast track more applications; this is done for 40% of cases in the Netherlands compared with only 9% in the UK. Speedier resolution of cases would reduce the costs of supporting asylum seekers and the number of cases that become more complex and difficult to deal with over time.

In tackling the backlog of applications, the Home Office built up the number of caseworkers involved but then decided in 2001 to move them to work on removing failed asylum seekers - this may have saved an estimated £50 million in asylum support costs but that saving hardly compares favourably with the £200 million that could have been saved by leaving staff in place to completely clear the backlog of applications within six months. In deciding how many staff to deploy, and where, departments must consider the costs and savings available across the whole programme."

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 4th Report of this Session, which examined effectiveness in tackling the influx of asylum applications; and whether there was scope to improve the timeliness and quality of decision making.

Over recent years the number of asylum applications made in the United Kingdom has fluctuated significantly, with a peak of 84,130 applications in 2002. Since 2002, the number of applications has fallen steadily with 49,370 applying for asylum in 2003 and further reductions since. The Home Office has had difficulty matching its handling capacity to the volume of new applications, resulting in large backlogs.

The Home Office's Immigration and Nationality Directorate's objective is to process applications efficiently, focusing the asylum system on those genuinely fleeing persecution by taking speedy, high quality decisions. They are also responsible for supporting applicants during the process. Speedy initial decisions, and decisions on any subsequent appeals, reduce the cost of the asylum process and allow the Directorate to take action to remove those applicants who fail to gain asylum or short-term protection.

The Directorate spent £1.86 billion on its operations in 2002-03, including £1.07 billion in supporting asylum applicants. In the same year, the Immigration Appellate Authority spent £101 million on dealing with appeals from immigration and asylum cases.

The Committee found that Departments should compare the additional administrative costs of resourcing to meet surges in demand, with the additional programme and other costs which will arise if backlogs are allowed to accumulate. The National Audit Office estimated that up to £500 million might have been saved if the Home Office had been able to put in place sufficient staff and infrastructure to meet the significant rise in asylum applications in 1999 and 2000.

Departments also need to consider the end to end impact on delivery chains of tackling major shifts in demand for services. The Home Office's decision to move caseworkers from deciding applications to work on removing failed asylum seekers saved some £50 million but the impact on the backlog of applications may have cost some £200 million. The Treasury should be sensitive to the risk of administrative cost limits inhibiting timely action to save programme expenditure where there may be an "invest to save" case.

The Department should look to expand its fast track procedures, drawing on its experiences at Harmondsworth and Oakington and on those of other countries such as the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, some 40% of asylum applications are handled through fast track processes taking around 7 working days, whereas only 9% of cases are fast tracked in the United Kingdom.

The Department for Constitutional Affairs should consider whether a more demanding joint target could be set to improve the Appellate Authority's speed in handling appeals, and hence reducing costs for the taxpayer in supporting asylum seekers until their appeal is determined.

Cases not dealt with through the fast track process have a target of 61 days for a decision even though on average a caseworker spends only some nine hours on the case to reach a decision. The Home Office should seek to shorten elapsed times.

Over the last five years, the proportion of appeals allowed has consistently exceeded the Directorate's target of 15%, and has frequently exceeded 20%. The Directorate should examine why appeals are upheld and disseminate the lessons for improved decision-making to its caseworkers.

The Home Office should expand, beyond more senior staff, the number of caseworkers with expertise on particular countries or regions of the world to improve the quality and consistency of its decision-making.

The cost of legal aid for asylum applicants in the United Kingdom is expected to be £146 million in 2004-05, and accounts for example for 30% of the cost of the initial decision stage. The Department for Constitutional Affairs should compare the cost of legal aid with that of other countries.

The Directorate has put in place procedures to detect possible multiple applications, but has not always acted promptly to investigate concerns raised by third parties about potentially fraudulent claims. Amongst a sample of 65 backlog cases examined by the National Audit Office, four contained evidence from third parties that the claims could be fraudulent but no action had been taken.

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