The Home Office is failing to combat fraud by asylum seekers, the immigration watchdog has said.
The number of asylum seekers receiving support funded by the taxpayer had also increased, partly because of staff shortages within UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI), the agency which deals with asylum claims, it added.
John Vine, the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, called for immediate changes and said “opportunities to identify and deter those wishing to commit fraud were lost”.
People claiming asylum in Britain can apply to the Home Office for “asylum support” to pay for living costs, including accommodation and financial assistance. The system had a budget of £155 million in 2013/14 and at the end of September 2013, 26,731 asylum seekers were receiving support.
Officials were having problems finding out whether asylum support applicants were receiving benefits from other government departments, such as the Department for Work and Pensions and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), which runs the tax credit system.
Asylum seekers are also receiving child benefit when they are not entitled to the benefit, the report said.
There had been a rise of nearly 1,200 claimants between April 2012 and the end of last year because of an increase in applications and a “significant loss of staff in the Asylum Casework Directorate over a relatively short period of time”.
“We also sampled a case where UKVI experienced significant obstacles when attempting to inform HMRC that an individual did not appear to be eligible for child welfare benefits,” it added.
The report highlighted one case where a claimant was paid £18,000 in asylum support over a period when they also received £74,000 in benefits, an NHS bursary and wages from working illegally.
The claimant was given a 12 month suspended jail term in January last year after being found guilty of committing fraud and using false documents.
But Mr Vine’s report found there was “no evidence” UKVI tried to reclaim the £18,000 of taxpayers’ money, even though the offender had £10,500 in the bank.
The offender even continued to receive asylum support payments after their conviction, the report said.
In another case, a couple received £11,000 in child tax credits and child benefit – to which they were not entitled – while also claiming asylum support.
The couple deposited £10,000 of the payments into their bank.
UKVI calculated they should repay more than £6,000 but the couple were then granted leave to remain in this country.
The Home Office said there were no policies in place to allow money to be reclaimed after an applicant had been granted leave, meaning the couple were repaying £15 a week voluntarily.
It would take eight years for the debt to be repaid, the report said.
In a further problem identified by the chief inspector, money that had been overpaid to asylum seekers was not being clawed back effectively.
“UKVI had not established an effective counter-fraud regime,” the report said.
“At a strategic level, it did not have an accessible strategy setting out how it would tackle asylum support fraud, nor had it determined the scale and nature of the risks posed by fraud.
“Resource management was therefore haphazard and regional fraud and compliance teams operated autonomously, without any overarching organisational direction governing their work.”
As a result, the teams had a series of problems including lack of consistence and they were “not suitably trained to undertake investigative work.”, it added.
It went on: “We found no evidence that UKVI had attempted to determine what its exposure to asylum support fraud was and there were no entries regarding fraud in its general support risk register.
“By not taking this approach, the Home Office had contravened Treasury guidance.”
Mr Vine said: “The administration of asylum support represents a significant challenge for the Home Office. It must balance the need to provide assistance to vulnerable applicants against the public interest in deterring fraudulent support claims.
“Although decision making was good in the cases I examined, once again a poorly managed organisational change had led to deterioration in service, and an increase in the number of recipients of asylum support.
“I found no evidence that the Home Office had an effective strategy to identify and tackle fraud in the asylum support system. Work had not been undertaken to determine what its exposure to fraud risk was.
“No attempt had been made to ensure fraud and compliance teams operated in a consistent manner and there were insufficient resources dedicated to this work. As a result opportunities to identify and deter those wishing to commit fraud were lost.
“Almost half of my recommendations in this report relate to improvements in tackling fraud. The Home Office must ensure these are implemented swiftly and effectively.”
He made 11 recommendations in total calling for a range of improvements to combat a backlog of outstanding cases, and to implement effective counter fraud measures.