Asylum Seekers
The UK Statistics Authority Chairman Sir Robert Chote said the Home Office and the UK ministers misleading claims regarding asylum backlog clearance might affect public trust as the full context of it has been left out. Gareth Fuller/PA

The Sunak government is caught on the wrong foot again after the UK Statistics Authority revealed that UK ministers and the Home Office were lying regarding clearing pending asylum requests.

The Chairman of the UK Statistics Authority Sir Robert Chote said findings from an investigation conducted by the statistics authority showed that claims made by UK ministers were false. Sir Robert said this may affect the public trust as shown by the number of complaints received.

This comes at a time when Rishi Sunak survived the tide of resigning MPs from both sides to pass the controversial Rwanda Bill.

Earlier this month, the statistics watchdog revealed its regulatory arm, the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) is investigating the asylum backlog clearing claims as figures didn't match, and a large number of cases are remaining, some asylum seekers are missing.

While the Labour Party accused the Tory government of a "barefaced lie", critics said the UK government was playing "fast and loose" with the figures.

Earlier, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledged to abolish the older asylum system and clear the asylum backlog by the end of 2023. This put the onus on the UK Home Office which had to clear 92,601 legacy claims made by June 2022.

However, the statistics watchdog investigation revealed that 4537 complex applications are pending as of December 28, refuting the Tory ministers' claim of clearing the asylum backlog.

Sir Robert revealed the investigation results in a letter written to Liberal Democrat Home Affairs Spokesman Alistair Carmichael and another MP Stephen Kinnock.

Answering Carmichael's complaint, Sir Robert said the public will interpret the 'cleared a backlog' claim as clearing the entire backlog as they don't know the context of 'hard cases' which remain "in the official estimates of the legacy backlog".

Sir Robert stressed the need for UK ministers and advisers to be careful about how they speak as a "reasonable person" might misinterpret "a quantitative claim" and consult the watchdog's statistical professionals.

"This episode may affect public trust when the Government sets targets and announces whether they have been met in the other policy domains," the UK Statistics Authority Chairman said.

On January 3, Alistair Carmichael wrote to Sir Robert urging them to look into the asylum backlog clearance claims as it was labelled "misleading" by the Refugee Council

The letter asked the UK Statistical Authority to investigate the matter as the Home Office data showed 4537 legacy cases pending final decision and the total backlog of asylum seekers stands at 99000 including new applications made after June 2022.

"As such, it would appear that there is no justifiable basis for the Prime Minister to claim that the Government has 'clear[ed] the backlog of asylum decisions", given that both 'legacy' cases and overall asylum cases remain unresolved", said Carmichael in the letter to the statistical watchdog.

In a separate letter dated January 4, MP Stephen Kinnock asked the UK Statistics Authority to investigate the matter as the legacy backlog numbers are at odds with the 4,500 cases remaining which predate the 28 June 2022 cut-off point.

In his letter, Kinnock said: "I am concerned that these statements by Ministers – if left uncorrected – risk creating a highly misleading picture of the actual state of affairs with respect to the asylum backlog, an issue of significant interest to the public."

Kinnock urged the watchdog to check if "there is any evidentiary basis to support claims by Ministers that either the asylum backlog as a whole or the so-called 'legacy backlog', had in fact been fully cleared by the end of December 2023".

"It should go without saying that the record should be corrected if, as appears likely, any demonstrably false claims have been made by ministers," Kinnock added.

Repeated misleading claims affecting transparency?

In his response, Sir Robert lauded the Home Office for publishing data regarding the asylum backlog but underlined the error. According to Sir Robert, the Home Office's inefficiency in not disclosing the entire fact to the journalists led to wrong reporting as it "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," Sir Robert added.

Earlier the Home Office announced the clearing of the asylum backlog by saying the "commitment of clearing the legacy asylum backlog has been delivered".

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak repeated the same words when he shared a tweet, saying: "I said that this government would clear the backlog of asylum decisions by the end of 2023. That's exactly what we've done."

Many readers then added context to the misleading post with comments.

Meanwhile, UK Home Secretary James Cleverly said again that the target had been met and the UK government delivered as it had promised.

However, these claims have been refuted repeatedly by the UK statistical watchdog. The letter to Carmichael on January 18 was the second time the UK Statistics Authority intervened in this matter.

Earlier in March 2023, Sir Robert had alleged that the UK Prime Minister and his ministers were using incorrect figures when they highlighted work done by the Home Office regarding asylum seekers.

This was followed by last month's intervention by the UK Statistics Authority Chairman when he said that Rishi Sunak's claims regarding public debt were misleading. The Prime Minister had said "debt is falling" in a social media post and that the government has "indeed reduced debt" in PM Questions.

Former chairman of the UK Statistics Authority Sir David Norgrove also alleged the UK government was misleading when it revealed crime figures in February 2022. The watchdog investigated the matter then as it received complaints against Boris Johnson who was the PM then and his home secretary Priti Patel. The Tory government had claimed credit for reducing crime rates then.

Speaking about Sir Robert's letter, 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," said Carmichael.

According to the Cabinet Office's Ministerial Code of Conduct, UK ministers have to provide "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".