Ex-immigration watchdog warns his sacking has put inspection work 'in limbo'

Former chief inspector for borders and immigration David Neal says he was sacked for "doing his job"
Photo: Parliamentlive.tv

By Tevye Markson

28 Feb 2024

Former immigration watchdog David Neal, who was sacked last week, has warned that his dismissal will bring most of the watchdog’s work to a standstill.

Neal, who confirmed he was sacked on a Microsoft Teams call, told MPs today that his removal creates a “cliff edge” for the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration's work until a replacement is appointed, which “could take six to nine months”.

The watchdog’s 14 unpublished reports that are awaiting Home Office approval will remain “in limbo” as they “effectively can’t be signed off” without an independent inspector in place, he told the Home Affairs Committee. "As I understand it," he added.

Meanwhile, ongoing inspections on topics including adults at risk in immigration detention, the Rwanda scheme and small boats will be on hold, and the inspectorate cannot begin work on next year’s probes, he added.

There will also be no independent chief inspector at the judicial review into the overcrowding crisis at the Manston detention facility in 2022, he said.

Neal said that if he had been able to stay in the role until the end of March, when his contract was due to end, the watchdog would have been able to “set staff off” on the rest of this year’s inspection programme and submit reports on contingency asylum accommodation and Rwanda.

“We’d have been much better prepared than we would have been as it is with the cliff edge, which really just leaves us hanging in the wind,” Neal said.

‘Sacked for doing my job’

Neal, who was fired after making public his concerns that hundreds of high-risk flights were landing in the UK without being checked by border security, also hit out at the reasoning for his sacking and the way it was carried out.

“I’ve been sacked for doing my job,” he told the MPs. “I think I’ve been sacked for doing what the law asks of me and I’ve breached, I’ve fallen down over a clause in my employment contract, which I think is a crying shame because I think that I’ve done my job extremely well."

He confirmed he was sacked by video call, but said “worse than that, for my high-performing team of 30 civil servants, the notification that I was sacked was in the media before my team or I had the chance to speak to, which is just shocking, shocking leadership”.

Asked later by PA about the criticisms, Cleverly defended the Home Office, saying: “I made it absolutely clear that David was to be contacted directly. That is what I instructed and that is what happened."

He added: “I’ve not had a chance to listen to exactly what he said [at the committee hearing]. I’m not going to try and comment on things that I haven’t heard directly. It was disappointing the sequence of events that led to me asking him to stand down but we have remained professional throughout this process.”

‘No justification’ for lack of autonomy

Neal had repeatedly hit out at the Home Office’s failure to publish his reports within a reasonable timeframe during his time in the role.

Asked if there was any good reason why the ICIBI is unable to publish their own reports, Neal said: “I don't think there's any justification for it.

“I think that the sterilising effect of openness on the areas that we inspect is really helpful in these matters that are critical to our country functions and there is a public interest to get these things out into the public space. I just don't think that there's any reason why we should be any different, for example, to [the Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services] or [the Inspectorate of Prisons]. Just because the reports might be inconvenient, it shouldn't mean that they're suppressed.”

Asked if he was “set up to fail”, Neal said: “I’ve had to play a canny game. Had I chosen to press the nuclear button, the country would’ve missed out on 18 months of assessments and reports, because I'm pretty sure I'd have been dismissed 18 months ago and then we would have had significantly less oversight, independence and confidence in the work that we do than we've got now. So I think it was the right decision not to go nuclear. And this has been borne out subsequently by events.”

No.10 ‘said no’ to reappointment

The former inspector also claimed that, before his sacking, Home Office ministers had wanted to reappoint him to the role but No.10 had rejected the idea. Neal’s three-year spell in the role had been due to end on 21 March. His two predecessors were both reappointed for second terms.

“I now know that the Home Office, so the ministers, supported my reappointment and the home secretary supported my reappointment," Neal said. "That reappointment process was sent to the Cabinet Office and that was sent on to No.10. And it was turned down by No.10. So I've no idea why it was turned down by No.10."

Neal said he had discovered this in papers submitted as part of next month's Manston judicial review.

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