The claim

“The 40 per cent grant rate has been pretty consistent since 2005. I would accept there was some truth in the allegations of an amnesty if there had been a big leap in that 40 per cent figure under this Government. But actually the opposite is the case.”
Damian Green, 02 June 2011

Cathy Newman checks it out

Am-nes-ty – noun – a general pardon for offences, especially political offences, against a government, often granted before any trial or conviction.

When is an amnesty not an amnesty? Today we discovered – courtesy of the Home Affairs Select Committee – that 161,000 asylum seekers were allowed to stay in this country, simply because they’d been here so long. That’s 40 per cent of a backlog of 450,000 cases.

We spoke to one Afghan who’d been given just such a pardon. He spent eight years begging to be to be given asylum here. The authorities repeatedly refused, before suddenly telling him he could stay after all, no questions asked. This policy of granting asylum to thousands of claimants who have previously been asked to leave sounds very much like an amnesty. So is Damian Green right to deny it?

The background

The Home Office found itself on the back foot this week after the Commons’ Home Affairs Select Committee published a searing report on the UK Border Agency.

Declared “unfit for purpose” by the then-Home Secretary John Reid in 2006, the beleaguered UKBA is still without a permanent head after its last chief executive, Lin Homer, quit five months ago.

The agency has been tasked with clearing a historic backlog of 450,000 cases dating back to the 1990s – evidence of Labour incompetence, according to the Government – by this summer.

But the select committee has seized on the fact that 40 per cent of the 403,500 cases dealt with so far have been granted leave to remain in the UK. Only 9 per cent of asylum seekers, by comparison, have had their claims rejected and have been removed from the country.

The committee concluded: “We consider that in practice an amnesty has taken place, at considerable cost to the taxpayer.”

Immigration Minister Damian Green was quick to respond, denying there was a de facto amnesty for asylum seekers and saying in a television interview that a “grant rate” of 40 per cent has been the norm for years.

The analysis

You might think, at first glance, that Mr Green was suggesting that 40 per cent of asylum cases routinely end up with the claimant being allowed to stay.

That’s not the case, so FactCheck sought clarification from the Home Office.

We were told that Mr Green was referring only to the historic cases being worked through as part of the UKBA’s “legacy project”, not newer cases that the agency deals with week by week.

The Home Office has been giving the Home Affairs Select Committee regular progress updates on how its efforts to clear the asylum backlog have been faring since 2007.

Grants of leave have fluctuated from 31 per cent to 43 per cent over the last five years and average out at just over 37 per cent.

So if the rate is now running at around 40 per cent Mr Green is right that there has been no statistically significant jump since the start of this Parliament.

And he points out, quite correctly, that the grant rate has even fallen slightly in recent months.

Whether that really disproves that there is a de facto armistice in place is a different matter, as a scan of Home Office statistics on ongoing asylum applications suggests.

The figures for more recent applications – not being dealt with as part of the historic backlog – show that an asylum seeker arriving in the UK has a slightly better than one in four chance of being given leave to remain.

In 2007 the grant rate was 27 per cent. In 2008 it rose to 30.5 per cent. It dropped to 27 per cent again in 2009 and fell again, to 25 per cent, last year.

Figures for the first quarter of this year – the latest available – show the rate running at 30 per cent.

Again, in the words of Damian Green, “pretty consistent” – and consistently well below the 40 per cent chance an asylum seeker whose case has fallen into the backlog can expect.

Cathy Newman’s verdict

Damian Green is right to argue that there hasn’t been a change of tack: he’s simply picking up where the previous administration left off, clearing a backlog of cases in the hopes of getting on top of the problem once and for all.

However, the Home Affairs Select Committee is spot on to argue that the policy pursued by this government and the previous one amounts “in effect” to an amnesty. But to own up to that would incur the wrath of the rightwing press. And that would never do.

The analysis by Patrick Worrall