“Why does your press release say that legacy asylum backlog cases, the target has been met when it hasn’t?”

That was the question BBC journalist Mishal Husain put to James Cleverly this morning.

“Because it has. Because it has,” the Home Secretary replied. “Our commitment was to make sure we process those 92,000 legacy claims,” he said, later declaring: “We have done what we promised.”

FactCheck takes a look.

What did Rishi Sunak promise?

On 13 December 2022, Rishi Sunak told Parliament that he would “clear the initial asylum backlog by the end of next year”.

A few moments later, he spelled out what this meant: “We expect to abolish the backlog of initial asylum decisions” by the end of 2023.

He said that would represent “about 117,000” outstanding applications.

Government shifts goalposts on asylum pledge

But within hours, Downing Street had watered down the promise, briefing journalists that it only covered the 92,000 claims made before 28 June 2022 – the so-called “legacy” backlog.

(That date was chosen because it was the day the Nationality and Borders Act took effect, which was designed to streamline asylum decision-making.)

On 13 December 2023, exactly a year after Rishi Sunak’s initial pledge and with two weeks to go before the deadline, immigration minister Tom Pursglove modified it again.

He told the Home Affairs Select Committee he was “confident that all claims that can be decided will be decided within the timeframes that the Prime Minister said would happen”.

Challenged by the Committee chair on his “very careful language”, Mr Pursglove said the government would meet its pledge “to deal with all the cases that we are able to deal with”.

So, over the course of a year, the promise went from clearing all asylum cases, to only clearing legacy claims, to only clearing legacy claims that the government is “able to deal with” in time.

Has the government cleared the legacy asylum backlog?

Today’s Home Office figures show considerable progress, with nearly 14,000 legacy claims cleared between November and December. And overall, a significant decline in the legacy asylum backlog compared to December 2022.

But crucially, 4,537 legacy backlog applications are still outstanding. That means the government failed to clear the legacy asylum backlog by the end of 2023.

So, what does Mr Cleverly mean when he says, “we have done what we promised”?

It seems he’s basing it on the idea of “processing” applications. In another BBC interview this morning, he said the department had “looked at all 92,000” cases.

The interviewer asked whether it was true to say the backlog was cleared if 4,500 claims had only been looked at without an initial decision made.

Mr Cleverly insisted the backlog was cleared because “the backlog referred to cases that hadn’t been looked at”.

He added, “they have all been through that processing, they’ve all been dealt with, in terms of getting through that initial adjudicating process. That’s what we meant by addressing the backlog. We have done that, we have completed that.”

But as well as diverging from Rishi Sunak’s original commitment, these comments are at odds with the Home Office’s own publications.

Throughout 2023, the Home Office has been measuring the backlog based on the number of “asylum applications awaiting an initial decision”.

Total asylum backlog stands at nearly 100,000

Meanwhile, the “flow” backlog of claims made after June 2022 has surged to 94,000.

That means that while the government has made progress on the “legacy” queue, the total asylum backlog now stands at nearly 99,000.

That’s down from a peak of 140,000 last March – but almost exactly where it was 18 months ago when the government’s landmark Nationality and Borders Act came into force.

Mr Cleverly told BBC Breakfast that “As well as those legacy ones, we’ve also been dealing with the current tranche of applications”.

The Prime Minister’s spokesperson told journalists today that the remaining 4,500 legacy claims are “complex cases” that “typically relate to asylum seekers presenting as children, where age verification is taking place; those with serious medical issues; or those with suspected past convictions, where checks may reveal criminality that would bar asylum.”

This article was updated on 3 January 2024 to clarify that the legislation that took effect on 28 June 2022 was the Nationality and Borders Act, not the Illegal Migration Act.