As the UK’s first independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, John Vine gave the Home Office a few nasty nips. But don’t read too much into his early departure, he tells Sarah Aston
As one might expect from a former chief constable, John Vine arrives bang on time and wastes no time in getting down to business. He enjoys a small sip of his black americano, before launching straight into describing his experience as the UK’s first independent chief inspector of borders and immigration.
Arriving at the post in 2008, Vine was faced not only with a system that had never before been regulated, but one that was under intense public scrutiny following former home secretary Charles Clarke’s very public resignation two years before.
“The circumstances at the time were that there had been a crisis in immigration,” says Vine of his baptism of fire. “Charles Clarke hadn’t been able to tell parliament how many foreign national offenders had been released back into the community. And then John Reid very famously came to the Home Office and said it wasn’t fit for purpose.”
Starting out with two seconded civil servants in an office on Great George Street, in almost seven years as immigration watchdog, Vine published 51 reports and established a team of 30 staff.
The former chief constable of Tayside Police and president of the Association of Chief Police Officers Scotland says it was the challenge that drew him to head up what was then a new inspectorate,.
Back in 2005, Vine had led the police security operation for the 2005 G8 World Leaders’ Summit and, he explains animatedly, wanted to try something different.
“It’s not often someone gets to set up a new regulatory body from scratch,” he says. “What I wanted to do right from the start was to develop something that was unique for immigration. I suddenly discovered there was no handbook which told me how to set up an inspectorate, so it was very much set up in my image and with a view I had about what was required, although obviously based on what the UK Borders Act said as well.”
It is clear Vine is proud of his achievements with the inspectorate, and yet in August 2014 he announced he was cutting his tenure short by seven months, and stood down four months later. He says his decision to leave was largely to allow time for his successor to settle into the role before the election.
The key is to have an intelligence-led approach, making best use of intelligence about where you can deploy your resources most effectively. There are always things you can do in that area to make better use of what you have. For example, if you want 100% checking of everybody coming in on the border, unless you bring in smart technology like E-Gates on a much larger scale, you will need the right numbers of staff. But there does come a point at which, yes, you need the right staff with the right skills. One of the things I have commented on in recent reports, particularly on the customs side, is that a lot of very experienced staff at the border on the customs side have left, and have not been replaced. So that will lead to inefficiencies and ineffectiveness.
However, coming shortly after home secretary Theresa May’s much publicised decision to control the date of all publications, and the Home Office’s controversial move to redact 15 passages of a report on Calais border controls in 2013, some have laid the blame for Vine’s abrupt departure at the home secretary’s door.
At the time of Vine’s announcement, Labour immigration spokesman David Hanson accused May of attempting to silence the inspector by seeking “to increasingly hold back his recommendations”. Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee Keith Vaz also hit out at May and called for the immediate release of a “number of reports” she had not yet published.
Many column inches were filled with speculation over frosty relations between May and the inspectorate, but if tensions with the Home Office were the reason behind Vine’s decision, he is certainly not giving anything away.
“The home secretary received legal advice to say that what we had been doing for five years was not strictly in accordance with the Borders Act. I didn’t have any difficulty with that decision, except to say that I was concerned that it might delay publication of reports,” Vine says diplomatically.
Pushed on whether he felt May’s decision impacted on the role’s independence, Vine is careful not to criticise the Home Office.
“I think it is important to ensure that the perception of independence of the chief inspector is maintained, and I was concerned that delay may damage the perception of independence. Although, personally, I have never felt as though my independence has been interfered with,” he says.
“Each year I have gone to the home secretary, as is required by the act, and have asked them to comment on my proposed plan of work. None of the home secretaries I have worked for have significantly influenced or altered the plan that I have put to them. So that would have been the opportunity to interfere with the work or to influence it, and that really hasn’t happened.”
For Vine, much of the speculation around tensions with the Home Office is exaggerated, though he does wryly acknowledge his reports often “ruffled feathers”.
“I think the Home Office and, before that, the Border Agency, have found my reports uncomfortable at times because they have revealed to ministers things that were happening which they weren’t aware of,” he explains.
“When I started I found so much that was wrong that I couldn’t put it all in a report! Not unnaturally, then, I think some civil servants have found that very difficult.”
While Vine is diplomatic about relations with the home secretary, it seems he is unafraid to voice his opinions of civil servants, both good and bad.
“I started in an office in Whitehall and I remember finding a large pile of used computer equipment piled up into a pyramid in the middle of the floor, and then it took me about a week to get a telephone connected. So my first impressions of the civil service were not terribly favourable!” he laughs.
Joking aside, throughout his near-seven years in office, Vine has been highly critical of Whitehall’s management of immigration and borders.
Following a string of scandals, beginning with Clarke’s resignation and ending with that of UK Border Force chief Brodie Clark – who quit in 2011 following a bitter fall-out with Theresa May – in March 2013 the home secretary announced the Border Agency would be split in two. Separate immigration and law enforcement services would fall under direct control of ministers, alongside the Border Force created following Clark’s departure. It’s no wonder, says Vine, there was very little stability for frontline staff.
“I have been fairly consistent in criticising the management of change in this whole area, but only because it’s been almost constant throughout the seven years that I have been in this role,” he says.
“I think civil servants on the frontline feel that constant change, find it difficult to keep up, and, to be quite honest, probably find it exhausting and very difficult to manage.”
Vine on…setting up the inspectorate
The biggest challenge at the beginning was to get things established quickly so that we could then start some pilot inspections, and very quickly get into delivering some recommendations for improvement. You don’t really have a long period of grace with politicians… I remember my first appearance at the Home Affairs Committee was quite difficult because politicians on the back of this crisis were saying: “Are you not the chief inspector? What have you done?” So there is an imperative to really get on with it when you are starting to spend public money, and deliver something which people expect you to do.
The former chief inspector “cautiously welcomed” the UKBA’s abolition at the time, but says for the new directorates to work, the Home Office must address the lack of operational skills in the civil service.
“The creation of three separate directorates means that two of those directorates – Immigration Enforcement and Border Force – have more of a law enforcement ethos, which really takes civil servants away from what they joined up for,” he explains.
“It strikes me that people don’t tend to make their way in the civil service by seeking out difficult operational posts in this area, and a lot of very able civil servants choose the policy route, which I think they believe is the route to success.
“So in critical operational roles, where senior managers in borders and immigration need to have good professional knowledge, knowledge of powers, and provide continuity of leadership in critical parts of it… I don’t think that continuity is there,” he says.
In order to ensure this continuity of skilled workers, Vine says there must be “absolute clarity about roles and responsibilities”.
“If you take the inspection of Heathrow, which led to the border security investigation I conducted in 2011, what that report discovered was that, from top to bottom, from ministerial level down, there was no clarity about roles and responsibilities.
“So my 12 recommendations were largely about the need for a standard of border control, which says exactly at what point operational civil servants are in charge, and at what point ministers have to be informed and advised about what is going on.
“Having an ethos whereby senior managers feel that they can raise issues in a sort of a constructive way without feeling that they are putting their neck on the line is essential in order to encourage people to stand up and be counted and to improve things.”
With immigration turning into a political tool for all parties and an election just around the corner, Vine’s successor, David Bolt, is taking on the role at a tumultuous time. To overcome this, Bolt will need to have a “strong idea” of his aims for the job, says Vine.
As for this chief inspector, one might think he’d take the opportunity to put his feet up but, says Vine as he finishes the dregs of his coffee, that’s not going to happen.
“When I was a chief constable I was always on duty, so I’ve carried that forward and I still do that,” he says. “When I travel through an airport, I am constantly reviewing the efficiency and effectiveness of what I see.”
Having recently set up his own consultancy, Vine is looking forward to his next big challenge, despite feeling what he describes as, “institutionalised”. “I’ve been working in the public sector for well over 30 years and it is a bit of a strange feeling – but I am going to give it a go and see where I get.”