Suella Braverman is facing the “real danger” that conditions for asylum seekers held at Manston processing facility will once again become inhumane and dangerous, the immigration watchdog has found.
David Neal, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, said the Kent asylum centre, which became overcrowded and disease-ridden last year, could again become overwhelmed because ministers and officials in the Home Office were unable to say where they planned to house at least 55,000 people arriving by small boats this year.
Neal’s report also said recruitment of staff may be hampered by “the inefficiency of civil service hiring processes and by the tightness of the labour market in the region”.
His comments came as Whitehall’s spending watchdog disclosed that the cost of the asylum system almost in the year April to £3.6bn, while Rishi Sunak’s promise to clear the backlog of historic asylum claims remains behind schedule.
Neal examined the initial processing of people arriving in Kent via small boats, including at Western Jet Foil and Manston.
He said arrivals were flowing smoothly in February but “the capacity is not in place to process a large number of people arriving over a short period of time, particularly if, as might well be expected, sufficient onward accommodation is not immediately available.
“There remains a very real danger, then, that a shortfall in the capacity of the accommodation estate will see numbers in Manston build up, with a return of unacceptable conditions resembling those seen in October 2022.”
Manston was supposed to hold up to 1,600 people seeking asylum for short periods while they underwent security checks. But conditions quickly deteriorated in the autumn after numbers rose to 4,000. There were cases of infectious diseases, including diphtheria, and outbursts of violence.
Hopes were raised that potential overcrowding this year would be avoided by government moves to increase accommodation for asylum seekers. The immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, announced in March that long-trailed plans for camps on former military sites, barges and cruise ships would go ahead.
Nevertheless, many of the sites may not be ready to accept asylum seekers for weeks amid legal challenges and local protests.
Neal said in his report that he had asked ministers and officials about accommodation for tens of thousands of people expected to arrive in the UK, and had taken away the impression that no one at the Home Office knew where they might stay.
“I have received no clear answer from senior officials as to where the 55-85,000 people expected to arrive in 2023/2024 will be accommodated. I do not think that anyone knows yet,” he said.
According to a report by the National Audit Office released today, it would take 2,200 decisions on cases a week to clear the asylum backlog by the end of the year – but during April just 1,130 weekly decisions were made.
In December, the prime minister pledged to clear the backlog of around 92,601 “legacy” cases which had been in the system as of the end of June 2022.
Auditors said that by April 2023, only about 50% of the Home Office’s 1,270 full-time equivalent caseworkers were deciding claims.
The Home Office’s search for accommodation for asylum seekers has also become increasingly difficult, auditors said. In March 2022 the Home Office set an ambitious target to find 500 additional beds a week by October 2022.
But in the year to April 2023, they found fewer than 50 additional beds on average per week, and plans to reduce its target again, the report said.
The first alternative accommodation for asylum seekers, a barge at Portland harbour in Dorset, is not set to open until the end of this month, with only small numbers of people able to be housed at the start.
Two former RAF bases at Wethersfield in Essex and Scampton in Lincolnshire that are being converted into asylum camps are not expected to open until August.
Referring to Neal’s report, a Home Office spokesperson said: “We welcome this report, which highlights significant improvements we have made in the processing of migrants.
“This report acknowledges the great work already done by our staff and recognises the positive changes made across a range of areas including infrastructure, welfare support, biometrics, health screening and communication with migrants. As part of our ongoing work to stop the boats, we have already taken action to address the report’s recommendations.”
Responding to the NAO report, a Home Office spokesperson said: “As the NAO acknowledges, we have already doubled the number of caseworkers and cut the legacy backlog by 20%, but we know more must be done to bring the asylum system back into balance.”