A committee of MPs has refused to endorse the Home Office’s pick for the next immigration watchdog, citing “weaknesses” in the recruitment process and his lack of experience in the field.
The Home Office selected David Neal, a former army officer and security expert, as its preferred candidate to be independent chief inspector of borders and immigration in November, following an open recruitment process. Now a strategic security adviser for Blackstone Security Consultancy, he is a former provost marshall in the army and commander of the 1st Military Police Brigade.
But the Home Affairs Select Committee has now said the selection process failed to adequately test whether Neal had the skills required for the job.
“We regret that Mr Neal was placed in an unfair and difficult position by a recruitment process which we believe was insufficiently robust,” the MPs said in a report following a pre-appointment hearing with Neal last year.
ICIBI is responsible for monitoring and reporting on the work of the Home Office, and the efficiency and effectiveness of the UK’s border and immigration functions.
The MPs said they had been “only partially persuaded” by Neal’s responses to some of their questions in the pre-appointment hearing. These areas “should have been more effectively tested earlier in the process to assess his suitability for the role”, they said.
In particular, the committee was concerned that Neal had no experience in or knowledge of some immigration or borders issues that the role would cover.
In a letter to home secretary Priti Patel setting out its concerns in December, made public now as part of HASC’s formal report, committee chair Yvette Cooper said past experience in immigration is not essential. Neither were the MPs seeking “precise or detailed knowledge,” she said.
“But at minimum we would have expected any candidate by this point in the recruitment process to have been probed on their understanding of the kinds of challenges facing the immigration and border systems, and to have been required to reflect on the nature of the issues facing the inspectorate in order to demonstrate whether they had the skills and capacity to do the job.
“We would expect to find passion for, or a degree of curiosity about, these challenges from the preferred candidate.”
Had Neal’s lack of experience in the field been the committee’s only concern, Cooper said it may have given the appointment the green light, as previous inspectors had had similar career histories before taking on the role. She did note, however, that such appointments “lead us to question why the post has proved more accessible to candidates from policing and security backgrounds than from an immigration and/or border management background”.
And Neal had also left the committee unconvinced that he could withstand parliamentary and public scrutiny and provide public challenge to the Home Office – another requirement set out in Cabinet Office guidance on scrutiny of government appointments.
Cooper said that while Neal had demonstrated “impressive” skills challenging systems and officials privately to effect change in previous roles, he could not demonstrate evidence of public challenge – a key mechanism used by ICIBI to improve the immigration system.
“We are concerned that Mr Neal’s previous experience may not provide him with the resources he will need in order to fulfil the independent public scrutiny role which is a key aspect of the inspector’s responsibilities,” Cooper said.
The committee noted that when it asked Neal about some other critical criteria for the role, including his capacity to provide strategic direction to the inspectorate, and to build effective relationships with its stakeholders, it “appeared he had not been questioned on them before”.
“We are very concerned that many of the questions we put to Mr Neal did not appear to have arisen previously during his appointment process,” Cooper told Patel.
Committee members concluded that Neal had “an impressive CV and career history and have no doubt that he could make a significant contribution to public life in a suitable role”, their report said.
“However, based on the pre-appointment hearing our conclusion, while not unanimous, was that we were unable to support the recommendation of Mr Neal as the preferred candidate for the particular role of independent chief inspector of borders and immigration.”
Patel does not appear to have taken the committee’s concerns on board, and indicated in her response to Cooper’s letter in December that she intended to forge ahead with the appointment.
In her response, Patel said the recruitment panel had “considered Mr Neal as a strong and appointable candidate, evidencing all the essential requirements of the role, including demonstrating strong leadership and strategic thinking skills, with experience of driving change”.
“I am satisfied that, following a full and robust recruitment process, he is the outstanding candidate for this role and intend now to proceed—subject to the usual pre-appointment processes being completed—with his appointment,” she said.
“It is clear to me that Mr Neal has all the necessary qualities to not only fulfil this role, but to make a huge success of it. I very much look forward to a constructive working relationship with him, as we both share a strong desire to improve the borders, immigration and citizenship system.”
This is the first time that the appointment of the ICIBI has been subject to a pre-appointment hearing.
In her letter to Patel in December, Cooper noted: “There are very few such Home Office posts that require pre-appointment hearings and this is an indication of the importance of this position and of getting the appointment right.”
She added: “We hope that changes will be made to the recruitment process on the next occasion, in consequence of the concerns we have now raised.”
Neal’s selection followed a lengthy recruitment process, which was first launched last May. The initial June deadline for applications was extended by two weeks because too few people applied for the £130,000-a-year role.
Current immigration inspector David Bolt has agreed to stay in post while a candidate is appointed. Bolt's tenure had already been extended to cover a delay in launching the search for his successor.