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Watchdog rebukes Government over claim asylum backlog had been ‘cleared’

The Home Office has been reprimanded by the statistics watchdog after the Government was accused of lying about clearing part of the asylum backlog.

UK Statistics Authority chairman Sir Robert Chote warned the “episode may affect public trust” as he outlined the findings of the body’s investigation into complaints received about Rishi Sunak’s claim ministers had “cleared” the outstanding cases in question.

The watchdog previously said its regulatory arm, the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR), was probing the announcement made earlier this month as figures showed thousands of asylum cases were waiting to be dealt with despite the Home Office saying it had succeeded in meeting Mr Sunak’s target.

At the time, critics accused the Government of playing “fast and loose” with the figures while Labour branded the claims a “barefaced lie”.

Sir Robert Chote
Sir Robert Chote’s letter to Alistair Carmichael MP has been published (PA)

The Prime Minister previously pledged to “abolish” a portion of older asylum applications awaiting an initial decision, by the end of last year, tasking the Home Office with tackling 92,601 so-called “legacy” claims made before the end of June 2022.

But figures showed 4,537 applications were still outstanding as of December 28.

In a letter to Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Alistair Carmichael, who lodged the complaint, Sir Robert said: “The average member of the public is likely to interpret a claim to have ‘cleared a backlog’ – especially when presented without context on social media – as meaning that it has been eliminated entirely, so it is not surprising that the Government’s claim has been greeted with scepticism and that some people may feel misled when these ‘hard cases’ remain in the official estimates of the legacy backlog.”

Stressing the need for ministers and advisers to “think carefully about how a reasonable person would interpret a quantitative claim of the sort and to consult the statistical professionals in their department”, Sir Robert said: “This episode may affect public trust when the Government sets targets and announces whether they have been met in the other policy domains.”

While he welcomed the Home Office publishing data on such an “important policy area”, he noted the department did not disclose this at the same time as making the announcement in a press notice to journalists, “which prevented them from being able to scrutinise the data when first reporting it”.

“This does not support our expectations around intelligent transparency, and we have raised this with the Home Office,” he added.

The Home Office said the “commitment of clearing the legacy asylum backlog has been delivered”, with a similar wording repeated by the Prime Minister.

“I said that this government would clear the backlog of asylum decisions by the end of 2023,” Mr Sunak wrote on social media site X, formerly Twitter.

“That’s exactly what we’ve done.”

Readers added detail to the posts under the Community Notes function on the site which X said allows people to “add context to potentially misleading posts”.

Meanwhile Home Secretary James Cleverly said the target had been met, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the Government has “done what we promised”.

In his first speech as Prime Minister in October 2022, Mr Sunak vowed: “This government will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level.

“Trust is earned. And I will earn yours.”

The letter, published on Thursday, is the latest in a string of criticisms raised by the watchdog and the second time it has intervened on this subject.

In March 2023 Sir Robert said the Prime Minister and other ministers used incorrect figures when citing Home Office action on tackling the backlog of asylum claims.

Last month Sir Robert also challenged Mr Sunak’s claims to have reduced public debt, saying his comments on social media that “debt is falling” and that “we have indeed reduced debt” at Prime Minister’s Questions were misleading.

In February 2022, the watchdog’s former chairman Sir David Norgrove said the Government presented crime figures in a “misleading way” after it received complaints that then prime minister Boris Johnson and former home secretary Priti Patel falsely claimed crime had fallen under their leadership.

Mr Carmichael said: “Not only is the Conservative Government celebrating something that is no achievement, they are twisting the facts – as proven by the UK Statistics Authority just today.

“As this letter again shows, the Conservatives have not cleared the asylum backlog.

“Thousands of vulnerable people are still living in limbo as they wait for their claims to be processed. The British public deserves better than this.”

Labour shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock accused Mr Sunak of once again being “caught red-handed”, adding: “The Prime Minister’s addiction to playing fast and loose with the facts is the behaviour of someone not fit for public office.”

The watchdog works to “promote and safeguard official statistics to serve the public good”, including “regulating the quality and publicly challenging the misuse of statistics”.

It can intervene if it considers a politician or government department has misused or misrepresented figures and has not adhered to a code of practice.

The Cabinet Office’s Ministerial Code of Conduct says it is of “paramount importance that ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister”, adding: “Ministers need to be mindful of the UK Statistics Authority’s Code of Practice which defines good practice in relation to official statistics.”

Downing Street said it would “consider” Sir Robert’s letter to “ensure we can be as clear and transparent as possible” while the Home Office said it had been noted and was fully committed to transparency.

Asked whether there was a problem in No 10 with not being able to represent statistics accurately, a spokeswoman for the Prime Minister said: “I don’t think that is right.”