A rise in asylum decision appeals is proving expensive
Immigration authorities are making faster decisions on asylum cases - but need to improve how many they get right, says the government's spending watchdog.
The National Audit Office says £200m could have been saved if ministers invested in case work rather than on removing failed asylum seekers.
It says mistakes meant more people appealed - increasing the costs.
The National Audit Office (NAO) looked at the speed and quality of asylum decisions between 1999 and 2004.
It found the Home Office had dramatically increased the processing of asylum applications, including putting a tenth of cases through fast-track procedures.
While in 1999 some 120,000 asylum seekers were waiting for a decision, by 2004 immigration officials were dealing with eight out of ten applicants in less than two months.
Case worker problems
But the NAO said case workers making decisions "receive less training than they should", sometimes use "flawed tests of credibility" and occasionally make basic errors of fact.
The quality of some country reports - basic information about home nation conditions - was also flawed.
These factors were sometimes complicated by applicants without documentation or inconsistencies in their accounts.
This meant too many cases were unnecessarily going to an appeal - leading to higher costs within the system and in supporting the applicant waiting for a final decision, said the NAO.
While an initial decision cost just over £4,000 per applicant, including support and housing, this more than doubled if a case went to appeal.
The watchdog said that over four years the level of successful appeals had been consistently above the expected rate of 15%.
In the case of some countries with well known records of persecution, up to 40% of initial refusals of asylum in 2003 were found to have been wrong.
Percentage of asylum rejections overturned on appeal 2003
Source: NAO analysis of Home Office data
A closer look at case workers revealed better training in some other European countries also dealing with large numbers of asylum seekers.
While staff in Germany had some formal legal training, the Home Office had abolished minimum academic standards for British case workers in 2000.
A requirement of at least two A-levels had recently been reintroduced, said the NAO, after the Home Office found some new caseworkers were "less able to deliver properly considered decisions".
Sir John Bourne, the auditor general, said: "The complex challenges faced by case workers should not be underestimated.
"Improved recruitment, more extensive training and more specialisation would improve the quality of decision making.
"Higher quality decision-making at the initial stage might save the taxpayer money and make it easier to return failed applicants more quickly."
Sir John praised the Home Office for efforts in clearing the enormous backlog in 2000 and 2001.
But he added a subsequent decision to shift resources into removals meant a continuing caseload had cost an estimated £200m.
The Home Office rejected this, saying the savings would have been eaten up by not removing failed asylum seekers.
Immigration minister Des Browne said significant improvements to the asylum system had already been made.
"We have introduced a range of measures which have seen applications fall by half since their high point in October 2002, which in turn helps to reduce costs.
"We already have a number of measures in place to improve the quality of initial decisions such as external sampling, the setting up of the independent Country Information Panel and working with external agencies such as the UN's refugee agency.
"However, we are not complacent and we know there is still more to do."
But Maeve Sherlock of the Refugee Council said: "An asylum system that is humane and efficient is in everybody's best interests. The current system fails on both counts.
"The most significant cause of delay is poor initial decision-making on asylum claims - too often the Home Office is refusing people who are later found to be refugees.
"It can't be right that, overall, one in five Home Office refusals is overturned on appeal."