The asylum backlog is far higher now than when Labour left government

14 March 2023
What was claimed

If we “go down the path of comparing asylum backlogs”, the Labour party will be “found wanting”, and the current backlog bears no comparison with what was left by the Labour party in 2010.

Our verdict

There were 166,261 people waiting to have their asylum claims decided at the end of December, according to the latest published data, including 160,919 awaiting an initial decision. This is far higher than the total of 18,954 people in June 2010, which included 9,441 awaiting an initial decision.

What was claimed

The current asylum backlog is not a record because under Labour in 2006 there was a backlog of 400,000 cases.

Our verdict

This claim appears to compare two different sets of figures which are not directly comparable. Although we’ve not found figures for the total asylum backlog dating back that far, the number of initial decision cases waiting to be resolved as of December was 132,182, up from 6,400 in 2006. The 400,000 figure appears to refer to the ‘legacy caseload’, which included duplicated, withdrawn and resolved cases.

If we go down the path of comparing backlogs, the Labour party will be found wanting. The backlog with which we are dealing bears no comparison whatsoever with what the Labour party left us with in 2010.

During a debate on the Illegal Migration Bill on 7 March, in response to a question from a Labour MP about outstanding asylum cases, the home secretary Suella Braverman claimed that the “Labour party will be found wanting” if a comparison of asylum claim backlogs were to be made, adding that the current backlog “bears no comparison whatsoever with what the Labour party left us with in 2010”.

When Full Fact asked the Home Office about Ms Braverman’s comments, it denied that she had made any comparison between the size of the asylum backlog currently and when Labour left government, and said had simply meant that it was not possible to make such a comparison—and the exact wording she used isn’t completely clear. But it would be misleading to suggest the Labour party would be “found wanting” in a comparison of the size of the asylum backlog, because it is now many times larger than it was when Labour was last in office.

The government’s latest figures show that in December 2022 the number of people waiting to have their asylum cases resolved was nearly nine times higher than it was in June 2010 (after the general election in May when Labour left government), while the number of people awaiting an initial decision is 17 times higher. There were 166,261 people with asylum applications waiting to be resolved in December, including 160,919 awaiting an initial decision. This compares to a total of 18,954 people in June 2010, including 9,441 people awaiting an initial decision.

Dr Peter Walsh, a senior researcher at the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, told Full Fact that the claim made by Ms Braverman in Parliament was “incorrect”. Labour MP Karen Buck, whose question Ms Braverman was responding too, also tweeted: “Responding to my question in today’s statement on the #IllegalImmigrationBill Suella Braverman rejected a reference to the asylum backlog and claimed it was worse in 2010. That is not, of course, correct.”

A Home Office spokesperson denied that the home secretary had made a comparison in her remarks, and added that comparisons couldn’t be made due to “different economic and political factors”. 

A functioning democracy depends on good information. Politicians should be clear about the claims they are making and ensure that the language they use does not create confusion, and if ministers do make false or misleading claims in Parliament they should correct them as soon as possible in line with the Ministerial Code.

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How could the current backlog be compared to that under Labour?

As outlined above, whether you look at the total number of people waiting for asylum cases to be resolved or those awaiting an initial decision, the backlog was many times larger in December 2022 than it was in June 2010. 

The Home Office’s own page on the backlog statistics also specifically explains that there has been a rise in outstanding cases, saying: “The number of cases awaiting an initial decision has increased in the last 10 years and risen more rapidly since 2018, when there were 27,256 cases awaiting an initial decision at the end of that year.”

One possible point that could be made if comparing backlogs is that under Labour there were a very large number of cases in something called the “legacy caseload”, which the Labour government began working through in 2006. The coalition government continued this work after coming to power in 2010. 

Then-Home Secretary John Reid said in 2006 that this legacy caseload comprised between 400,000 and 450,000 individuals. 

He added that the records were “riddled with duplication and errors, and include cases of individuals who have since died or left the country, or are now EU citizens”.

In March 2011 the UK Border Agency, which was tasked with clearing the backlog, said it had completed its review of all outstanding legacy claims. 

The Migration Observatory’s Dr Walsh told Full Fact the ‘legacy caseload’ is “absolutely not comparable” with the backlog figures cited in the most recent statistics.

He added: “As [...] Reid stated in parliament, it dealt with all “unresolved cases”, which included people who had been refused but not removed, duplicate records, withdrawn cases, and cases that had been resolved but not recorded as such. 

“It is therefore not accurate to suggest that the 2022 backlog of just over 160,000 individuals is smaller than the backlog in the late 2000s or early 2010s.”

Another MP has questioned whether the current backlog is a record

During an interview with BBC Newsnight on 23 February—the day the government’s most recent set of asylum backlog statistics were released—Tim Loughton MP said: “You said it was a record backlog. Actually to put it in context, back in 2006 under the Labour government there was a backlog of 400,000."

We asked Mr Loughton, who is a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, to confirm what he was referring to when he made the claim that there was a backlog of 400,000 cases under Labour, but did not receive a response. However, it appears likely he was talking about the legacy caseload.As outlined above, the legacy caseload is not directly comparable with the current asylum backlog figures. 

In 2006 there were 6,400 cases waiting for initial decisions, compared to 132,182 last December. These are the most comparable figures to the current backlog we could find—the statistics for 2006 don’t give a total number of cases awaiting decisions which include those awaiting further review, or a figure for the total number of people waiting. (Some cases may refer to multiple people listed as dependents of the main applicant.) 

Full Fact has also contacted the BBC for comment. 

Image courtesy of UK Government

We deserve better than bad information.

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

We also sent a correction request to Tim Loughton MP regarding his claim about the asylum backlog. 

Mr Loughton did not respond.

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