Home Office asylum caseworkers are being offered thousands of pounds in bonuses to stay in their jobs as part of efforts to bring under control a backlog of more than 127,000 cases, the Home Office has revealed.
Matthew Rycroft, the Home Office’s permanent secretary, said the allowance – £1,500 if staff stay for one year and £2,500 if they stay for two – was ‘doubling’ retention rates for social workers for the asylum.
However, the backlog of unprocessed asylum applications continued to grow despite efforts to retain staff and hire hundreds of new social workers as productivity levels plummeted.
According to News bulletin and the Observer, the department has recruited people who are inexperienced, don’t get enough support, earn low wages, are faced with making difficult decisions, and don’t stay long in their roles.
Rycroft and Home Secretary Suella Braverman outlined the department’s efforts to address the huge backlog in a session of the Home Affairs Select Committee yesterday, including efforts to improve productivity levels of existing staff, recruit more and address concerns about the competence of new recruits.
Staffing levels on the rise but productivity on the decline
Braverman told the commission the number of asylum social workers was increased by 80 percent from 597 in 2019-20 to more than 1,000 today to address the backlog. The department plans to recruit 500 more by March, though about 200 employees are expected to leave.
Although the number of employees has almost doubled in the last two years, productivity levels have declined and processing an average asylum application currently takes 450 days.
Social workers now make just one decision a week, up from three in 2011-12. Only 4 percent of asylum applications from people who arrived by boat to seek asylum last year were processed, HASC revealed last month.
Braverman said he could not set a date when the backlog would be resolved, but said the Home Office aims for social workers to reach three decisions a week by May 2023 and four decisions a week at some point.
To do this, the Home Office is digitizing and streamlining the process and has piloted a new scheme in Leeds, which has doubled the decision-making rate of caseworkers from 1.3 cases per week to 2.7.
Committee member James Daly said current productivity levels were “the pinnacle of rank incompetence or mismanagement”. But Rycroft said the Conservative MP’s suggestion that 15 decisions per social worker a week would be the right target was “unreasonable” given the complexity of the cases.
He said the department’s target productivity levels would be “high enough to clear the backlog and handle the inflow” of new cases.
As of last month, 96 per cent of the 26,526 applications made by asylum seekers who crossed the Channel in 2021 had yet to be processed, according to Abi Tierney, director-general for client services at the Home Office.
The department has struggled to cope with the large number of migrants entering the UK, with a record 40,000 arriving on small boats so far this year.
But while the number of annual asylum applications increased by 130% between 2017 and 2022 (from 27,428 to 63,089), the backlog quadrupled over the same period.
Asked if the Home Office had considered bringing in staff from elsewhere in the department to help with the backlog, Rycroft said this would not be a simple solution.
“The investment in training is quite significant. It’s not as simple as moving people from one pattern to this one. It’s important that people have the full training to catch up. That’s why overall we’ve been addressing most of this through recruitment,” she said.
But Braverman said she’s “still very keen to explore all the options.”
An inspection of asylum case work by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration said reasons for poor processing included the use of Excel spreadsheets to keep track of large numbers of cases; a shortage of specialized technical personnel; inadequate training; low morale; and high turnover.
Home Office bosses respond to concerns about new employees
During the recruitment campaign, concerns were raised about the skills and abilities of the new employees.
Inexperienced, low-paid staff are hired to handle applications, and many leave quickly under pressure, according to the BBC and Observer.
The new hires, coming from customer service sales positions at McDonald’s, Tesco and Aldi, were undergoing two days of training and had used Lonely planet guides to get information about countries before making decisions, the Observer reported earlier this month.
A whistleblower with nearly 20 years of experience in asylum decision-making who is currently training new staff to carry out interviews, told the paper: ‘They are bringing in too many inexperienced people, with no understanding of the asylum system, and they just don’t have the support they need, so they leave. It’s a total disaster.”
When asked about the claim, Braverman told MPs the report was “worrying” but that he “didn’t know about it”.
He added: “Ultimately these are really important decisions that people are making. It is important that they receive sufficient training and use the appropriate government-issued and independently-verified guidelines when making these decisions.”
Rycroft has denied the claim that travel guides were used to make decisions. “There is a national guide on every country and that is the basis of the decision making process,” she said.
He confirmed News bulletin reports that these staff are not well paid, however, saying that asylum social workers are “among the lowest paid civil servants in public administration” when mentioning the detention allowance.
Braverman added that the department wants to “ensure that our social workers are adequately compensated and have the adequate resources to work productively.”