Department aims to have 1,000 caseworkers in post by next April to tackle growing backlog
Giving evidence before the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee last week, Home Office officials said that the average waiting time for an asylum decision was now over a year, but more caseworkers are being recruited to tackle delays.
Image credit: UK GovernmentThe Committee heard from Matthew Rycroft, the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, and Tricia Hayes, the Second Permanent Secretary at the Home Office.
Matthew Rycroft was asked by Ruth Edwards MP how long it currently took on average to decide an asylum case. Rycroft responded: "It is over a year. … It is going up because—as the Second Permanent Secretary and I were talking about—the number of people coming into the system is greater than the number of initial decisions. We have a plan to change that around, which is what the Second Permanent Secretary was just alluding to, and we are seeking to reach a point where it is no longer going up by the end of this financial year and then starting to come down during the next financial year."
Rycroft added that projections for when the Home Office might eliminate the growing backlog of asylum cases were "very much internal" and he declined to tell the Committee.
Tricia Hayes explained to the Home Affairs Committee that the main request among Home Office personnel for tackling delays in the asylum system was for more staff. Hayes said the Home Office currently has around 600 caseworkers and the aim was to increase this number substantially to have 1,000 caseworkers in post by next April.
Hayes told the Committee: "We recognise the need to grow our asylum operation. That is something that we are involved in doing across all aspects of the team, from the work that is going into the resettlement scheme, through the management of the accommodation process, all the way through to the case-working operation, where we need to tackle the backlog of cases. We are actively recruiting into the asylum operations team and have been for several months.
"The good news is that we are getting a lot of interest from people coming to join our team. We have had tens of thousands of people apply to come and work for us. We do accept that this is a part of our activity where we need to grow our numbers and we have a clear plan to do that over the next few months."
Matthew Rycroft commented: "If I could add one thing: recruitment is clearly an important part of this strategy, but it is not the only part. Training and retention and the offer to colleagues, so that they want to stay, is an important part of this. We are simplifying the system so that we can do parts of the decision making much, much more quickly than we have previously done. There is a very significant amount of automation ahead, using technology to improve our asylum system which, as the Home Secretary says, is broken and has been. There are lots of different aspects of this. The legislation going through the Nationalities and Borders Bill as well will seek to do part of that as well."
In response to concerns raised later by Stuart McDonald MP, Rycroft clarified what he meant by automation, saying: "We are a very long way away from the sort of problem that you are identifying, of having so much automation that there is no human involvement at all and therefore the risks of an algorithm giving the wrong answer. What we have now in the asylum system—even compared to other parts of the Home Office, such as the Passport Office— is significantly less automation than we could have. We are not talking about reducing the human part of decision making below an acceptable minimum; we are talking about increasing the streamlining and ensuring that we can spot the issues from all the cases so that a human can then deal with them speedily and more effectively. That is the sort of automation that we are talking about, just as we have already in the Passport Office, for instance."
Tricia Hayes commented that the retention rate in the asylum team was lower than in some other operational teams in the Home Office.
Stuart McDonald MP noted that the Home Office's target of six months for an initial asylum decision now "seems like ancient history" and asked Hayes what would success look like in terms of decisions in a year's time.
Tricia Hayes said: "I wish I could make you a commitment that, when I come back next year, we would have seen a dramatic downturn in the number of work-in-progress cases we have in the asylum system. I have to be straightforward and say that I think we have a bit of work to do before we get to that point, given the fact that we are still working through the implications of what we had to do during Covid, the new working methods we had to put in, of some of the new pressures that have come along, and the timeline for recruiting extra people into our teams, which will see numbers of extra caseworkers coming in. That process will not be complete until March of next year.
"What I am anticipating is that the number of cases in our work in progress will continue to grow over the rest of this financial year. Hopefully, by the time I come back, if it is September next year, we will have started to see a downturn, but I am not going to promise that we will have made a dramatic difference by then."
As the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford reported last month, the asylum backlog has grown despite a reduction in asylum claims. Over 70,000 people were waiting for a decision on their initial asylum application as of the end of June 2021.