Rishi Sunak has insisted he can clear a backlog of nearly 100,000 asylum claims by the end of next year as part of a set of policies that include resuming “hostile environment” checks on bank accounts suspended after the Windrush scandal.
The prime minister outlined a five-point plan in the Commons including law changes to criminalise and then remove tens of thousands of people who claim asylum after travelling to the UK by small boats, and a deal with Albania to aid removals to the Balkan state.
But the plan, the details of which have not been released, was criticised by some Conservative MPs including Theresa May, who said that one announcement – a promise to overhaul modern slavery laws – might undermine protections for victims.
Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, said Sunak was indulging in more “unworkable gimmicks” as promised by other Tory prime ministers. A majority of those who arrive by small boats qualify as legitimate refugees fleeing wars and famine, charities said.
Sunak said he would also revive data-sharing powers to stop migrants who have arrived in the UK by irregular means from obtaining bank accounts.
“It is frankly absurd that today illegal immigrants can get bank accounts which help them live and work here,” he told MPs. “So we will restart data sharing to stop this.”
The powers were suspended four years ago in the wake of the Windrush scandal amid fears that people wrongly identified as illegal migrants were being denied bank accounts, the Guardian’s former home affairs editor Alan Travis pointed out on Twitter.
An inquiry by a government watchdog in 2017 found that one in 10 people refused a bank account because of a failed immigration check were wrongly denied access.
Colin Yeo, the immigration specialist barrister and author, said the development was a “massive” potential problem for those caught up in the Home Office’s faltering systems.
“There are huge problems with Home Office data,” he said. “Banks have to shut your account if a check against that data flags you.
“There’s basically no remedy. That’s it, game over, you can’t eat, travel or pay your rent.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Following the Wendy Williams lessons learned review into the Windrush generation, a range of safeguards have been introduced to the data-sharing process to better protect those who are lawfully present in the UK, as well as to mitigate the risk of unintended consequences.”
The asylum backlog has ballooned, with 143,377 people awaiting an initial decision on their application and unable to work. Downing Street insisted that the pledge related to 92,601 claims made before the nationality and borders bill came into force in June.
Sunak claimed that triple the number of asylum applications will be processed to clear asylum claims, with a doubling in the number of caseworkers.
“We expect to abolish the backlog of initial asylum decisions by the end of next year,” he said.
“We will introduce new legislation to make unambiguously clear that if you enter the UK illegally, you should not be able to remain here.
“And furthermore, if our reforms on Albania are challenged in the courts, we will also put them on a statutory footing to ensure the UK’s treatment of Albanian arrivals is no different to that of Germany or France,” he said, adding that a dedicated unit of 400 specialists will be set up to handle claims from Albanians.
Sunak also announced:
A small boats command, with an extra 700 staff from Border Force, the National Crime Agency and other agencies, to combat people smugglers and the surge in arrivals across the Channel.
An end to the use of hotels for more than 40,000 asylum seekers. They will be sent to disused former military bases, holiday camps and student accommodation.
Sunak also claimed again that he would restart plans to deport people seeking refuge in the UK to Rwanda – a policy that is being challenged in the courts.
He also said “extra resources will free up immigration officers to go back to enforcement, which will in turn allow us to increase raids on illegal working by 50%”.
May told the Commons that people smuggling and human trafficking were “distinct” and “separate crimes” and modern slavery was a “very real and current threat”.
Starmer said: “Money is being wasted on the unworkable and unethical plan to deport people to Rwanda. The prime minister has promised more legislation but the last time the government legislated to tackle the broken asylum system they made it worse.”
The government promised earlier this year to speed up the return of Albanians arriving on small boats. Of the 7,219 who had applied for asylum, only 50 had received a decision.
Ministers have also previously promised to speed up returns of asylum seekers to their countries of origin after their cases were processed, but they have so far returned about 800 failed asylum cases – down from 10,000 in 2010.
The number of people seeking asylum who arrive on small boats is expected to exceed 50,000 this year.
Charities condemned the proposals. Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: “The government has yet again shown it doesn’t have a workable or principled solution. It is simply wrong to say all those crossing the Channel do so without good cause.”
Tim Naor Hilton, chief executive of charity Refugee Action, criticised the government for failing to commit to creating safe routes for people seeking refuge.
“Most of these changes are cruel, ineffective and unlawful and will do nothing to fix the real problems,” he said.