As independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, David Bolt spent six years shedding light on the Home Office’s work. He tells Beckie Smith about inspecting Napier Barracks, post-Windrush reforms, and the challenge of changing the department’s culture

It is eight months since home secretary Priti Patel promised to deliver a “cultural shift” at the Home Office that would see the department become more compassionate and people-focused, with a “culture of learning”.

In the months since that “unprecedented programme of change” – brought about by the revelations of the damning Windrush lessons learned review – launched, many have questioned the extent to which the department has learned from its mistakes.

Sceptics have questioned whether the ministry’s promise to “see the face behind the case” is meaningful, as stories of people being harmed by Home Office decisions continue to unfold. Earlier this year, for example, it emerged that asylum seekers had been forced to sleep in dormitories of more than 20 people while being held in repurposed army accommodation during the Covid-19 lockdown.

It is partly because of David Bolt that the public is aware of the conditions in Napier Barracks and Penally Barracks during the pandemic – conditions he described following an inspection as “impoverished, run down and unsuitable for long-term accommodation”. Those conditions made a coronavirus outbreak “almost inevitable”, Bolt said – contradicting the home secretary’s insistence that “mingling” was to blame for the eruption of 178 cases in a single month at Napier.

“It was always going to be questionable whether that type of barracks accommodation was suitable in any event for asylum seekers – particularly if there are those who have suffered trauma, or possibly been involved in being interned or in camps in their home country. So it was always a questionable exercise,” says Bolt, who stepped down as independent chief inspector of borders and immigration in March. But the pandemic made it even more so, he adds, because it meant keeping large numbers of people in cramped conditions.

Having spent six years inspecting the Home Office’s work, Bolt well understands how asylum seekers came to be held in such inappropriate quarters. Even outside a pandemic the whole of the immigration system is under constant strain, and “the capacity of the system to do everything well, to an appropriate standard, all of the time and across all of the business just isn’t there,” he says.

Bolt’s inspection of the two barracks – one of his last pieces of work as ICIBI – led Home Affairs Select Committee chair Yvette Cooper to conclude that “at a time when the home secretary and permanent secretary have told us they are making major changes to improve the culture and the humanity of the department in response to the Wendy Williams Windrush review... they haven’t yet learnt the lessons”.

Campaigners and human-rights charities meanwhile described the decision to use the former army accommodation to house asylum seekers as “inhumane” and “heartless”.

But Bolt says he doesn’t believe Home Office civil servants lack compassion. “I’ve met lots of staff at all levels across the department and I don’t think that is fair to say about the majority, or even many of them. I’m sure there are some people who are ‘case hardened’ to the point where they are maybe less caring and thoughtful than they ought to be about dealing with individual cases – but in general, I don’t think that is an issue,” he says.

But he says those leading the department sometimes fail to recognise the “transactional” nature of its work. Many staff deal primarily with application forms, and opportunities to speak to people face to face are “limited”.

“And some of those opportunities are confrontational – like in immigration enforcement,” Bolt adds. “Border Force [is one example]: although they don’t set out to become confrontational, nonetheless they’re in an unequal power relationship with the people who are arriving at the frontier.

“So the Home Office’s interactions with people are not the same as they would be in, say, the Department of Health and Social Care. They’re not in a welfare role, they’re in a transactional mindset. They’ve got a set of rules, a set of guidance, an application or a claim in front of them and they’re applying the rules and the guidance to that claim.

“I would question whether sometimes they do that as carefully as they should... and I do think that when those judgments require compassion, or when they require an understanding and empathy with the applicant, that is sometimes lacking, because that’s not part of the norm in which these things are done.”

To illustrate his point, Bolt recalls examining family reunification for refugees in 2016. Back then, applications for asylum were handled in overseas posts by people “who were applying the sorts of considerations that they would to a normal visa”. He explains: “So when the wife or the children [of a refugee who had settled in the UK] were unable to provide passports or other documents in support of their application, they were being routinely turned down on the basis that, ‘Well, they can always reapply, it’s free’. I’m not sure that you call that callous or heartless, but you would call it unimaginative and not recognising the true circumstances of those people’s situations.”

As well as inspecting the Home Office’s work, the immigration inspector makes recommendations on how to improve – and this is one occasion when the department took Bolt’s advice, which was to put the asylum operations directorate in charge of handling family reunification casework. “That was a step forward. But there were lots of other [recommendations I made] to do with refugee camps that they rejected.”

Asked about his proudest moments as ICIBI, Bolt says he “did take some satisfaction” in changing the family reunification process. But he says every win was tinged with disappointment. “With family reunion, department ministers decided that they didn’t want to go down the route of extending the notion of the family to include siblings who are over the age of 18,” he says, adding: “I tend to be a glass-half-empty person, as you can probably tell.”

Despite those frustrations, Bolt says he didn’t see the job as a battle. “It wasn’t about me winning and the department losing. It was more about trying to make sure that the department actually understood certain things that it [wouldn’t otherwise].” He wanted to create a “‘water on stone’ sense of continuous inspection and continuous pressure on the department to do the best it could”, he says. “We managed that, I think,” he adds, noting that he introduced a reinspection process to review progress on his recommendations.

Another factor that has dampened confidence in the Home Office’s pledge to “right the wrongs of Windrush” is that the process seems to be taking an awfully long time. A compensation scheme for victims took a year to launch after then-home secretary Amber Rudd acknowledged the scandal and set up the Windrush task force. This March, nearly two years after the scheme launched, just £14.3m had been paid out and some people had been waiting more than 18 months for their applications to be processed. Twenty-one people had died waiting.

Bolt hasn’t inspected the compensation scheme directly, as it has its own assurance mechanisms. But he observes that when it was being set up, the Home Office seemed very concerned about ensuring the system would work properly. “I don’t think it managed to achieve the right balance there – the need to move at pace and the need to do it with care,” he says.

“It seemed to me that with this, it was moving very, very slowly, which it might argue was necessary to get it all right, but obviously wasn’t matching public expectations – nor, indeed, the needs of the individuals who’d been affected.”

“I think one of my major frustrations is the very slow pace at which things move [in the Home Office],” he says, noting that the department was consistently slow to publish his reports and act on his recommendations – “particularly those that require policy input, where that seemed to take forever”.

The Home Office officially aims to publish ICIBI inspection reports eight weeks after it receives them – but only did so for a tiny fraction of those Bolt wrote. It took months to publish some of them.

“I think the Home Office’s sense of time – the passage of time, the speed at which time moves – is different from many of the people that are engaging with it,” he adds.

Take, for example, the panels deciding if adults at risk in detention should be released. If the panel needs more information about a case after its first meeting, it might take a couple of weeks to reconvene. “A couple of weeks might seem like pretty quick in civil service terms or administrative terms. But for the person sitting in an immigration removal centre, it feels like a long time. So I think there’s a lack of recognition of the need to move at pace, which I think is a concern.”

For those following the Home Office’s work closely, it can feel that change is often influenced by public opinion. It was only after a national outcry over reports about the treatment of elderly and vulnerable Windrush victims that the department acknowledged its failings and launched the lessons-learned review – and there are many examples of visas being granted or deportations being stopped following media attention.

Does Bolt think the commitment to change post-Windrush is meaningful – or is it more about protecting the department’s image? “Well certainly, there’s an image and reputation issue that is clearly part of all of that,” he acknowledges.

But he says the desire for change runs deeper than that. “I think that a lot of staff were quite bruised by Windrush... from what I saw and heard, a lot of staff were very upset that the Home Office had acted in the way that it had, and felt personally hurt by it and had a determination to do something about it. So I think at all levels, there is a desire to change,” he says.

“I think the Home Office’s sense of time is different from many of the people that are engaging with it”

There is “some scepticism” about whether things will actually change, though. “The Home Office has got more transformation plans and programmes than you can shake a stick at. It’s always talking about transforming and changing.”

“And there’s a question in my mind about follow through,” which Bolt attributes partly to the “tremendous” rate of churn among senior civil servants and ministers. In his six years inspecting the Home Office it had four home secretaries, seven immigration ministers, three permanent secretaries, three second permanent secretaries, and the director generals changed “at least twice”.

“Any programme that’s going to require a commitment over time is at risk because whatever energies you have at the beginning, and whatever personal commitment... as people change and as time goes on and new things hit you, it’s hard to keep that momentum going. I just think that’s one of the real challenges that the department’s got,” he says.

“How does it manage to do that, and keep the momentum for something like that when it’s got so many other challenges to deal with? And this issue I mentioned before, about capacity, and it’s always running to stand still?”

Then there is the sheer scale of the Home Office, he adds. “There’s so many moving parts. Even when you talk about culture – I’ve often said, well, there isn’t one culture in the Home Office.” Border Force, immigration enforcement and UK Visas and Immigration all have their own “micro cultures”, with distinct identities and responsibilities.

“I know Matthew [Rycroft, permanent secretary] and ministers are talking about how they’re intending to change the culture, the ‘face behind the case’ training is being rolled out so that people will develop more sympathy, more empathy for the applicants. That’s a hell of a challenge, I think, to achieve that across such a big department with so many diverse functions, such a devolved workforce. A real challenge. I don’t doubt there’s a will to do it, I doubt whether there is the ability to do it.”

CSW wonders where Bolt would start, were he in charge. “I think that you’d have to be careful not to try and eat the elephant all in one go. I think you need to find things where it’s possible to make change,” he says. Not that that’s a simple task – as he points out, every change has a knock-on effect, and a change to one area of casework could have an unforeseen impact on processes elsewhere.

But he would invest in career management, training and personal development, he says. And he would encourage – as he tried to do as ICIBI – more top-level ownership of officials’ work. “One of the things you hear is that the people in asylum feel like a forgotten army; they’re not necessarily a particularly high priority to top management,” he says, but he concedes that may have changed since the appointment of a new director general for asylum and protection in February.

Does Bolt think a requirement for Home Office staff to spend time meeting people in detention centres, or visiting asylum accommodation, would be helpful? Yes, he says – he would encourage the department to give staff “as much exposure as possible” to the groups of people they are dealing with. He says his own experience doing just that was “illuminating and quite humbling”.

The post-Windrush “face behind the case” training will mean more officials meet Home Office “customers” – but Bolt notes that in the past, the department resisted his calls to increase face-to-face contact. It turned down a recommendation to require caseworkers making decisions about foreign national offenders who had served their sentences to visit immigration removal centres and prisons – instead putting other staff in place as go-betweens.

Another theme running through many of Bolt’s reports – and which appears to be reflected in the Home Office’s attitude towards the publication of the reports themselves – is a lack of transparency. It was only through his reporting that seemingly key information needed to allow scrutiny of its work, such as the makeup of the panel consulting on its right to rent scheme, became public.

“Transparency is a real issue,” Bolt says. “I realised after a while that part of the function of my reports was to expose things, to get things into the public domain, in a way that I hoped would mean that people had a better understanding of what was really going on – because the Home Office itself was so poor at explaining itself,” he says.

“The Home Office has more transformation plans and programmes than you can shake a stick at. There’s a question in my mind about follow through”

That was part of the thinking behind the advice Bolt passed on to his successor, David Neal, about how to succeed as chief inspector. “It’s in the title, ‘independent’, so I tried to be very careful not to try and steer him towards a particular thing. The independence comes in deciding what to look at, how to look at it, what’s important. So I encouraged him to do that.

“But I passed on a few tricks of the trade – things to do with pushing back at the Home Office at the factual accuracy stage of the report [after submission and before publication], where the Home Office tends to go well beyond factual accuracy when it’s seeking to add things and redraft it. You need to be robust there – otherwise, it will try spinning the report.”

His final piece of advice is, he acknowledges, “an enormous cliché”. “It’s a great privilege to be able to poke around under the bonnet of the Home Office in the way that I did... to have your own train set and to be able to do exactly what you wanted, when and how you wanted, was fantastic. And so essentially, I encouraged him to make the most of that.”

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