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Home Office has ‘culture of defensiveness’, sacked borders watchdog warns

A view of signage for the Home Office (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)
A view of signage for the Home Office (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

Border security at UK airports is neither “effective nor efficient”, the immigration watchdog warned as he described a Home Office “culture of defensiveness” in a series of reports produced before he was fired.

The criticism from David Neal was set out in stark terms among a raft of reports the Government department finally published on Thursday in the wake of his sacking, after months of delays.

The former chief inspector of borders and immigration’s exit came after he was embroiled in a row with the Home Office about concerns he was raising in a report submitted over security checks at airports – one of two outstanding documents still yet to be published by the Home Office.

MPs security budget
Home Secretary James Cleverly was said to have lost confidence in David Neal prior to his sacking (PA)

The Daily Mail newspaper reported data provided to Mr Neal showed the UK Border Force failed to check the occupants of hundreds of high-risk, private jets arriving at London City Airport – but the department disputed the figures.

In his annual report, covering April 2022 to March 2023, Mr Neal said the Home Office had a “reluctance to engage” with recommendations for improvement and he had experienced “significant pushback” while drafting inspection reports, including responses which “have gone way beyond” just checking factual accuracy.

“Some of this is perhaps down to a culture of defensiveness, but it is not good”, he said, although he noted many senior officials “embrace the independent oversight”.

He expressed fears that some officials would be “content to polish and put a positive gloss on far too much, which results in a failure to deliver real change”, adding: “To put it bluntly, if the Home Office does not want to change, it will not.

“The only meaningful way of determining whether a recommendation has been delivered is to review it as part of another inspection”.

Mr Neal also said he senses a “reluctance for some officials to get out on the ground and speak to people”, adding: “Part of that is a legacy of the pandemic, but the bigger part is a lack of self-confidence and a culture that prioritises office-bound policy over on-the-ground experience.”

Other reports raised a series of concerns about the performance of Border Force, warning protections at UK airports were neither “effective nor efficient”, with ePassport gates left unmanned.

The basics were “not being done well” at arrival halls, with operations “hampered” by an inconsistent lack of resources, Mr Neal said.

Separately, Mr Neal highlighted blunders due to an “over-reliance” on using Google Maps to carry out checks on locations ahead of planned illegal working enforcement raids – which resulted in officers finding the entrance to one property had moved from the front to the back of the building since the Google Street View images they had seen had been taken. The Government said it would carry out a review into guidance for reconnaissance “to ensure it is sufficiently rigorous”.

Another report exposed how “perverse” decisions were being made amid Rishi Sunak’s push to clear a backlog of asylum seeker cases, describing how “poor-quality” refusals of some claims were driving up the number of appeals.

In January, the Home Office was reprimanded by the statistics watchdog after the Government was accused of lying when ministers insisted they had met a target to clear a number of older asylum cases by the end of last year.

A follow-up inspection amid concerns over lone child migrants being housed in hotels warned there were several instances where “bread-and-butter checks” were not being carried out, while some of the findings pointed to a “lack of grip and poor leadership in a critical area of business”, adding: “The Home Office must do better.”

Other findings said staff working with children and vulnerable adults in asylum accommodation in Northern Ireland had not been subject to the necessary safeguarding checks or been trained.

In addition, Mr Neal found Afghans fleeing to the UK after the Taliban takeover were “unknowingly failing” to meet resettlement scheme requirements because of a “secret policy” by the Home Office on hotel accommodation.

The bundle of reports was published all at the same time, late in the afternoon on the same day as damning findings from an inquiry into Sarah Everard’s murder by serving police officer Wayne Couzens, a series of significant immigration statistics were released as well as a host of other major developments.

But Downing Street downplayed suggestions this was a deliberate move in an attempt to bury bad news.

A No 10 spokeswoman said: “We wanted to publish them as swiftly as possible following the necessary and appropriate due diligence.”

Home Office Select Committee
David Neal, former independent chief inspector of borders and immigration giving evidence to the Home Office Select Committee (House of Commons/UK Parliament/PA)

Diana Johnson, the Labour chairwoman of the Commons Home Affairs Committee, said: “Not only have all these reports been published in one go, but there is no ICIBI (Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration) in post to provide a press release or a commentary on the contents of these reports.

“This is wholly inadequate and raises serious questions about what the Home Office has been doing all this time.”

Earlier this week, Mr Neal told the committee he was sacked “for doing my job” via a Microsoft Teams meeting held online after the Home Office said he lost the confidence of the Home Secretary James Cleverly amid claims he breached the terms of his appointment.

During his tenure, he repeatedly raised concerns the Home Office was too slow to publish his reports and questioned why his three-year contract was not renewed for a second term, as was customary with his predecessors.

His time in office was due to end on March 21 and he claimed Number 10 had blocked his reappointment before he was ultimately fired.

Labour branded the publication a “broken borders dossier”, with shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper claiming: “This is the border chaos the Tories are trying to hide.

“Ministers have sat on these devastating reports for months in a bid to hide their utter failure to protect our borders … They have tried to bury this bad news, but the public deserve the truth … This is a Government that has lost its way and on their watch our borders are less secure, and our asylum system is falling apart.”

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson Alistair Carmichael said: “These damning reports were held back for a scandalous amount of time. Home Office ministers are running scared of their own failings and ducking accountability.

“We need a new inspector immediately, not in six months’ time. This derelict Conservative Government must be held accountable for their incompetence.”

But the Home Office said it had “delivered” on a promise to publish all overdue report as soon as possible, adding: “The publication of these reports that scrutinise the activity of the Home Office and make recommendations for improvement is in and of itself a demonstration of transparency and acceptance of independent scrutiny.”

The two final reports will be published “in the established eight-week period” and the process of hiring a replacement watchdog was “already underway”, a spokeswoman added.