Page last updated at 02:59 GMT, Friday, 23 January 2009

Backlog of asylum cases doubles

By Dominic Casciani
BBC News home affairs

Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre
Colnbrook removal centre: Last stop before Heathrow

The backlog of asylum cases more than doubled over a year to 8,700 by mid-2008, a government watchdog says.

In a critical report, the National Audit Office says the Home Office has also failed to deliver an increase in removals of failed asylum seekers.

It praised a major reform of the asylum system, but said 450,000 unresolved "legacy" cases had cost the taxpayer 600m over the past year.

The UK Border Agency said the NAO had recognised "considerable successes".

Home Office chiefs introduced the New Asylum Model (Nam) two years ago to speed up and improve decision making.

It means a single official deals with an applicant's case from start to finish.

'Sudden changes'

The National Audit Office report broadly praised Nam, saying it recognised the challenges posed by asylum applications.

It said the UK Border Agency had increased the proportion of cases dealt with in under six months and the quality of decisions was improving.

But it said the system could not cope with "sudden changes" in demand and the backlog of undecided cases had more than doubled to 8,700 during the second quarter of 2008, compared with the same period in 2007.

Colnbrook (Heathrow): 385
Harmondsworth (Heathrow): 259
Yarl's Wood: 400
Gatwick Airport: 145
Dover: 316
Campsfield: 215
Lindholme: 112
Dungavel: 189
Haslar: 160
Oakington: 352
Total: 2,533
Source: UKBA

A quarter of all applicants were not having a vital full-screening interview early enough, it said.

The report criticised a second backlog of unresolved asylum applications under the old system - totalling up to 450,000 in June 2006 but down to 245,000 by last summer.

These are thought to have cost the taxpayer 600m in the last financial year.

The report said all of this was exacerbated by too few secure detention and removal facilities.

The Home Office's decision to prioritise removing foreign national prisoners had also hit asylum targets.

Tim Burr, head of the National Audit Office, said: "The system is not yet working as it should for every case.

"The UK Border Agency has to be sharper in gathering all relevant information as early as possible, translating it into good decisions and then speedily enforcing those decisions.

"There is a risk that a new backlog of unresolved cases will be created, adding to the existing backlog of 'legacy cases'."

Detention plans

Lin Homer, head of the UK Border Agency, said many NAO recommendations had already been acted upon.

New detention facilities were in the pipeline, she said.

"This report recognises the considerable success we have had in improving the asylum system.

"It acknowledges that we have an improved grip on asylum applications. We are strengthening our checks on decision making, recruiting more staff and are committed to conclude 90% of new asylum cases within six months by 2011."

Donna Covey, of the Refugee Council, said: "We have first-hand experience of the problems with the current system, from case owners not being present all the way through the process, through to people not being able to access legal advice before their main interview. "

Edward Leigh MP, chairman of the Commons public accounts committee, said he would not bet on the backlog target being met.

"When you get down to brass tacks, the UK Border Agency is struggling to cope, even with its new programme.

"Not the least frustrating aspect is that, because of a continuing lack of detention space, failed applicants often disappear."

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