No evidence to support Rishi Sunak’s asylum backlog claim

10 March 2023
What was claimed

There are 6,000 fewer people in the caseload of the asylum backlog.

Our verdict

The latest published data, for December 2022, shows that in total there were over 17,000 more people waiting for applications to be resolved than in September. It’s possible the number of ‘legacy’ unresolved cases opened before 28 June 2022 has fallen by 6,000, but we’ve not found any published data to show this.

As a result of what we’ve done, there are now 6,000 fewer people in the caseload of [the] asylum backlog.

During Prime Minister’s Questions on 8 March, Rishi Sunak claimed there are now 6,000 fewer people in the caseload of the asylum backlog. Moments later, on the same subject, he said: “The backlog is down.”

If by the “asylum backlog” Mr Sunak meant the number of people or cases waiting for decisions from the Home Office, then this is incorrect according to the most recent published figures. They show a large rise in December, of more than 17,000 people, compared with September 2022.

Full Fact asked Downing Street about Mr Sunak’s comments but we haven’t had any response, and when we contacted the Home Office, it said it would not comment on what Mr Sunak was referring to. So it is possible that he was talking about some as-yet-unpublished data, or that he was measuring the backlog in a different way. 

In December, Mr Sunak pledged to “abolish the backlog of initial asylum decisions” by the end of 2023, but the government later clarified that he was only referring to “legacy” cases, meaning those opened before 28 June 2022. So it is possible his latest comments were actually about legacy cases—but he did not say this.

Nor have we been able to find any published data to suggest that the backlog in these cases has fallen by 6,000 recently—although the immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, said in December that 11,000 “older cases” were resolved last summer and autumn. 

We asked immigration experts from the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford about Mr Sunak’s comments, and they told us that they did not recognise the 6,000 number either.

We have previously written several fact checks about government ministers quoting figures about the asylum system that they did not support with evidence.

In this case, we have not found or been given any evidence to support the Prime Minister’s claim. If he has some evidence to support it, or was referring to a specific set of cases, the government needs to tell the public.

The Office for Statistics Regulation says: “Data quoted publicly, for example in Parliament or the media, should be made available to all in a transparent way.”

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What is the ‘asylum backlog’?

The phrase ‘asylum backlog’ is usually used to describe the number of asylum applications that are waiting to be resolved by the government.

This data is published regularly by the Home Office, most recently on 23 February 2023. It is called the “backlog” by the Migration Observatory, the Institute for Government, the House of Commons Library and the BBC. The term has also been used that way in Parliament, for instance by the Conservative peer Lord Udny-Lister last month.

However, in recent months the government has on a number of occasions used the term “backlog” to refer only to a portion of the asylum applications that are waiting to be resolved—the 92,601 which were opened before 28 June 2022 and were still outstanding in December.

Mr Sunak used the term in this way when pledging in December to “abolish the backlog” by the end of 2023, while last month 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 on 20 December 2022 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 Mr Sunak having a target to “clear the backlog of legacy asylum claims”.

How many asylum applications are waiting to be processed?

The exact size of the total asylum backlog can be measured in several ways. For instance, people seeking asylum can also apply on behalf of their dependants, so the number of people waiting for asylum decisions is higher than the number of applications being considered, and both figures are published in the data.

We can find no way of measuring the total backlog that would suggest it has fallen recently, however. Indeed the latest figures, from December 2022, show that the total backlog is at its highest level since 2010, when the current dataset begins. This is true whether you count applications or people.

What could Mr Sunak have meant?

Immediately after Prime Minister’s Questions, we asked the Home Office and Downing Street what he was referring to.

Downing Street has not responded at the time of writing, but the Home Office said it would not comment on the source of the 6,000 figure, or the claim that the backlog was falling.

Given Mr Sunak has previously used the phrase “asylum backlog” to refer to the pre-June legacy backlog, it’s possible that he was referring to that again, but this isn’t something that he said.

If he was referring to those legacy cases, it’s also not clear what evidence his claim was based on. Ministers have sometimes referred to progress against what seems to be the legacy backlog target, but we have not been able to find any published data about it.

It is also possible that Mr Sunak was talking about the total asylum backlog, but referring to unpublished data. The latest official figures were published on 23 February and show outstanding cases up to the end of December, but the Prime Minister may have access to more recent data.

One other possibility is that Mr Sunak was instead talking about the 6,000 asylum seekers who were reportedly moved out of the Manston processing centre in Kent last November. If so, this does not mean that the backlog fell by 6,000 at the time. It just meant that these people were moved to new accommodation.

Image courtesy of HM Treasury

We deserve better than bad information.

After we published this fact check, we contacted the Prime Minister to request a correction regarding this claim, unless he can provide evidence to support what he said. 

He did not respond.

We referenced Mr Sunak's claim in a letter we sent to the Home Office raising concerns about the department's recent use of statistics and data.

The Home Office subsequently published an ad-hoc statistical release on 24 April, which proves that what Mr Sunak said was misleading.

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