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Priti Patel’s new bill won’t fix ‘toxic’ UK asylum system, says inspector

Home Office slammed for abusive culture and poor decision-making as staff claim they are told to ‘focus on numbers, not people’

Adam Bychawski
19 November 2021, 3.57pm
One official at Priti Patel’s Home Office claimed staff were ‘under pressure to churn decisions out’
PjrNews / Alamy Stock Photo

Priti Patel’s controversial immigration bill will not fix the UK’s “broken” asylum system, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration has said in a new report.

The review, published yesterday, found there was a “toxic environment” in the Home Office because of pressure to meet targets for deciding on asylum claims. It added that department officials are “instructed to focus on numbers, and not people”.

One official told the inspector that staff were “under pressure to churn decisions out, irrespective of quality”, and this was impacting their ability to empathise with the people they assess.

Another claimed that senior staff usually refer to asylum seekers “in a desensitised way” and that no support is provided after sitting through traumatic interviews.

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The chief inspector of borders and immigration monitors the Home Office and reports on the efficiency of the asylum casework system.

The latest inspection took place between August 2020 and May 2021, but the report makes clear that issues identified by this inspection predate the pandemic.

At my screening, it was like I was a criminal the way that they asked the questions… I felt threatened

“Ministers have described the asylum system as ‘broken’ and have pointed to the ‘New Plan for Immigration’ as the remedy,” wrote chief inspector David Neal. “But whatever changes this brings, there will still be a need to ensure that the Home Office is properly resourced, equipped and organised to make timely and good quality asylum decisions.”

He said the government had “failed to keep on top of the volume of claims”, adding that some asylum officials had been “openly disbelieving claimants in interviews and not responding appropriately to sensitive disclosures of personal information”.

The number of asylum seekers waiting for an initial decision reached an all-time high in March, at 52,935.

The average wait time has increased every year since 2011, with most adults now having to wait 15 months for a decision. For unaccompanied children, the delays are even longer, with an average wait time of almost 18 months.

In 2019, home secretary Priti Patel scrapped Home Office targets to process most asylum claims within six months, saying it would prioritise claims from children and the most vulnerable instead. However, the inspector found no evidence of any case being prioritised.

No evidence for Patel’s ‘exploitation’ claims

This week, Patel said that appeals to asylum decisions are “a complete merry-go-round and it has been exploited” by immigration lawyers.

But Neal’s report found that the Home Office loses almost half of appeals – suggesting that officials are rejecting valid applications. The standard of initial decisions are “inadequate”, the inspector added, and fail to meet targets for quality assurance.

“If you get somebody’s claim right the first time around then they don't have to keep reapplying in most cases,” said Alasdair Mackenzie, a barrister who specialises in asylum appeals.

He added that the report “entirely undermines the secretary’s position that the way to deal with the problems in the system is more legislation. What is needed is actually better administration of the system that you've got.”

Home Office officials told the inspector that the training they have received did not equip them with the skills to conduct interviews or make decisions.

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The report also found evidence that some asylum claimants have been questioned in a hostile manner and insensitively asked about past experiences of torture.

One person who had been through the asylum system told inspectors: “At my screening, it was like I was a criminal the way that they asked the questions… I felt threatened.”

“In my case the officer throwed [sic] the passports to the floor and said why am I claiming asylum... [it] felt like interrogation,” said another.

Tim Naor Hilton, CEO of Refugee Action, told openDemocracy: “This report is thoroughly damning of our broken asylum system. It’s findings make clear that the failings of this system are the result of Home Office incompetence.

“The report lifts the lid on a toxic culture of disbelief both in the claims of those seeking safety but also in Home Office staff raising concerns about the many obstacles they face in trying to deliver accurate asylum decisions in a timely manner.”

He added: “Instead of addressing the fundamental mismanagement of the asylum system, the Home Secretary is intent on pushing through an Anti-Refugee Bill that will do nothing to fix the problems outlined in this report.”

Labour MP Diane Abbott said: “The report highlights some of the toxic effects of the government’s ‘hostile environment’. The policy is not designed to identify those entitled to be here, or even process claims more efficiently. Instead, this is a policy which ruins lives so that the government can maintain its permanent and poisonous campaign against migration and migrants.”

Responding to the report, the Home Office said it is “pleased the report identifies examples of good practice within the existing asylum system and recognises the scale of future changes needed to ensure it is best placed to deal with future challenges, and accepts the challenges presented”.

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