The total asylum initial decision backlog has increased since December

6 June 2023
What was claimed

The asylum initial decision backlog is down by 17,000.

Our verdict

This is not correct in terms of the total number of asylum cases awaiting an initial decision, which has increased since December 2022. However the “legacy backlog”, which the government defines as asylum applications made before 28 June 2022 still awaiting an initial decision, has fallen by almost 18,000 since December.

“The asylum initial decision backlog is down by 17,000 and we are on track to abolish all legacy cases by the end of this year.”

In Parliament on Monday, home secretary Suella Braverman claimed that “the asylum initial decision backlog is down by 17,000”.

This is not correct in terms of the total number of asylum cases awaiting an initial decision. Home Office data shows the number of applications awaiting an initial decision has actually increased since the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak outlined a five-point plan to tackle the asylum backlog in December 2022.

The Home Office has since clarified that the 17,000 figure refers to the backlog of initial decisions relating to asylum applications made before 28 June 2022, though this wasn’t made clear in Ms Braverman’s comments.

After being challenged on her claim by Labour MPs later in the debate, Ms Braverman said: “We are on track to deliver on reducing the backlog of initial decisions and the legacy backlog. Those are decisions that have been waiting in the system up until July or June last year. Those are the backlogs that we are working on.”

This isn’t the first time the government has made potentially misleading claims about the asylum backlog. In recent months we’ve written about Mr Sunak failing to provide evidence for his claim that the caseload of the asylum backlog was down by 6,000, as well as comments made by the home secretary about the current backlog and the backlog under the last Labour government.

The use of official information without appropriate context and caveats can damage public trust in both official information and politicians. Ministers should correct false or misleading claims made in Parliament as soon as possible, in keeping with the Ministerial Code which states that they should correct “any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity”.

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What do the figures show?

We asked the Home Office about Ms Braverman’s claim, and it directed us to a press release which states that “the asylum backlog of legacy cases has fallen by over 17,000 since December 2022”.

This appears to be based on incomplete monthly data published this week by the Home Office related to its Illegal Migration Bill. According to these figures, it’s true that the number of “legacy” asylum cases, which the government has defined as applications made before much of the Nationality and Borders Act came into force on 28 June 2022, has decreased. 

Since the beginning of December 2022 the number of “legacy” cases awaiting an initial decision has decreased by 17,917 (down from around 92,000 to about 74,000 as of 28 May this year).

However, when looking at all cases awaiting an initial decision, the backlog has increased by 6,291 (up from around 131,000 cases at the end of November 2022 to over 137,500 at the end of May). 

It’s worth noting that the figures included in this dataset differ from the official quarterly migration data published by the government. That data shows between the end of December 2022 and the end of March 2023 the overall number of cases awaiting an initial decision increased by around 1,400, while the total number of people (main applicants as well as their dependents) awaiting a decision increased by almost 12,000. The Home Office notes that the data published this week is provisional and has not been cleansed to remove duplicates.

What is the asylum ‘backlog’?

As we’ve written before, the government’s use of the term “backlog” in relation to asylum statistics has been under scrutiny in recent months.

The term has usually been used to describe the number of asylum applications that are waiting to be resolved by the government. For instance, it’s been used that way by the Migration Observatory, the Institute for Government, the House of Commons Library and the BBC. It’s also been used that way in Parliament, for instance by the Conservative peer Lord Udny-Lister in February.

However, in recent months ministers have on several occasions used the term “backlog” to refer only to asylum applications still waiting to be resolved which were opened before 28 June 2022. As a result, it’s not always clear what specific set of figures ministers are referring to when they talk about the “backlog”, as is the case with Ms Braverman’s comments.

Mr Sunak used the term in this way when pledging in December to “abolish the backlog” by the end of 2023, and in February immigration minister Robert Jenrick appeared to do the same when claiming “we are already seeing significant progress on the asylum backlog, with cases falling significantly with every passing week”.

Mr Sunak was challenged on this by the Liaison Committee in December, and when pushed as to whether he had really pledged to “abolish the backlog”, said: “I think it would represent one of the most significant reductions in the backlog that we’ve seen.” The Home Office website refers to the government having a target to “clear the backlog of legacy asylum claims”.

Image courtesy of Simon Dawson

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After we published this fact check, we contacted the Home Secretary to request a correction regarding this claim.

Ms Braverman told the Home Affairs Committee on 14 June 2023 that she had been referring to the pre-28 June 2022 initial decision backlog of legacy cases, but she has still not corrected the record.

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