The watchdog tasked with providing ministers with insight on the UK’s borders and immigration system has accused the Home Office of behaving in a way that undermines public perceptions of his independence.
Chief inspector of borders and immigration David Bolt said the Home Office’s practice of sitting on his reports and publishing them in batches of several at a time, in an apparent attempt to manage bad news, was reputationally damaging.
Bolt also said the Home Office also frequently delayed starting work on addressing concerns in his reports until they were laid before parliament and published.
He also raised concerns that while just 4% of the recommendations for improvement he has made to the Home Office since he took up office in May 2015 had been rejected, 40% of the other recommendations were still “open”, meaning the prescribed actions had yet to be completed.
Bolt said a total of 20 new reports had been submitted to the Home Office during the last financial year, with fewer than half of them laid in parliament within eight weeks. He said that the average lag between submission and publication for the remaining reports had been 13 weeks, but that one had taken 23 weeks to publish.
He said that while pre-election purdah periods were the cause of some of the delays, other lags were “less explicable”.
Bolton’s annual report said that between 1 December 2017 and 31 March 2018 eight of his reports were laid before parliament – three on 30 January and five on 28 March. The March batch included reports on Border Force operations at Stansted Airport; potential victims of modern slavery; the controversial “right to rent scheme”; and an inspection of exit checks.
“Delays, and the release of reports in batches, inevitably raise questions about my independence and about the Home Office’s management of ‘bad news’,” Bolt said in his introduction to the annual report.
“I have no concerns about the former. The inspectorate’s processes are robust and interactions with ministers and officials are always professional.
“As to the latter, while publication of several reports on the same day may affect the media coverage each receives and therefore how widely they are read, my focus has been on urging the Home Office not to wait until the report is laid before beginning to make the recommended improvements. This happens in some cases, but the department has often moved more slowly than I had hoped it would.”
Bolt’s report makes no direct reference to the Windrush scandal that has dogged the Home Office in recent weeks – prompting the resignation of home secretary Amber Rudd. The departure of two senior civil servants from the department was subsequently announced.
Reflecting on the year, Bolt said his greatest cause for concern “ was not a particular function or failing but the overall capacity and capabilities of the Home Office’s Borders, Immigration and Citizenship System”.
He said that in 2017-18 several of the business areas inspected “appeared to be at full stretch and toiling to manage their current workloads”.
Bolt said that while “old and unsuitable IT” was part of the problem, “staffing gaps, shortages of skills and experience, and the inability to recruit, train and replace staff quickly enough” were the more pressing issue.
Responding to Bolt’s concerns, a Home Office spokesman said that in addition to the purdah-related delays cited by the chief inspector, last year’s terror attacks in central London had affected the publication timetable for some reports.
"We are grateful to the chief inspector for his work and for the positive comments he has made about his good relationship with ministers and senior officials,” he said.
“The Home Office is committed to reform across all areas of the border and immigration system and we are working hard to translate the chief inspector's recommendations into actions.”