The Home Office vetoed a request by MPs to attend an inspection by the immigration watchdog, the Home Affairs Select Committee has revealed.
In a tense hearing this morning, committee members grilled Home Office permanent secretary Sir Matthew Rycroft and interim second perm sec Simon Ridley on the work of the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, David Neal, who monitors the work of the department. They expressed growing frustration at being barred from observing his work more closely.
Committee member Tim Loughton noted that when the committee had floated the idea of attending an inspection in a previous hearing, then-home secretary Suella Braverman had been unable to “raise any objections to that being a good idea – and yet, subsequently, it was vetoed”.
Asked why this was the case, Ryroft said: “Ministers decided that in order to preserve the independence of the inspectorate, it would not be right for this committee to join an inspection.
“However, as you know, you are very welcome to visit any part of the Home Office, estate or team and I'm very glad that many of you do very regularly.”
Asked why an MP’s presence would compromise the inspector’s independence, Rycroft said: “I think that was a decision that ministers took.”
Pressed on whether he agreed with this position, Rycroft said he did not believe his opinion to be “relevant”.
“It is entirely relevant,” Loughton said.
“You are the chief civil servant running the Home Office. Ministers expressed to us in front of our committee they didn't have a problem. And then magically, they did have a problem that would suggest they had taken different advice from officials for whom you are responsible. Therefore your view on this is entirely relevant,” he said.
Rycroft suggested there was an assumption in Loughton's question that officials had advised ministers against allowing the MPs to attend an inspection, but declined to say if this was the case. “That’s a decision for ministers and ministers are, quite rightly in our system, accountable to parliament for the decisions they take on policy issues,” he said.
'It is taking too long' to publish ICIBI reports
MPs on the committee also expressed frustration at the Home Office’s continued delays in publishing reports produced by the inspectorate. Ten of the reports that Neal has produced during his tenure as chief inspector have yet to be published.
The Home Office has a target to publish and respond to ICIBI reports within eight weeks of receiving them, but half of the unpublished reports are more than three months old and the oldest was completed on 23 April.
Appearing before the committee earlier this month, Neal suggested that parliament "needs to consider legislation on the publishing of reports" because publication delays present an ongoing "challenge".
Presented with this statistic, Ridley said: “It is certainly the case that it is taking too long to publish some of these reports and we need to get a number of those published much more quickly, and that’s what I hope we will do.”
This has been a long-running issue for the department. In 2020, Neal’s predecessor, David Bolt, said publicly that these delays “undermine the impact and value” of the watchdog’s work.
And in an interview with CSW, he described this as one of the “major frustrations” of his time as ICIBI, adding: “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.”
The MPs demanded to know why reports are not being published in a timely manner.
“The individual publication of an individual response is a matter for ministers, so ministers decide the timing of those responses. Some of them, I accept, are detailed and complicated and deserve very thorough analysis and response – and they get that,” Rycroft said.
He said he took responsibility for the Home Office sometimes being “not the speediest department” in responding to reports, but said there were occasions when ministers “have chosen not to make a publication at a particular time”.
No answers on why ICIBI contract was not renewed
During the often combative session, MPs demanded answers on why Neal's contract as ICIBI had – unusually – not been renewed when he came to the end of the three-year post.
Neal told the committee earlier this month that he had not been given a clear explanation for the decision, and that he believed the post should be a five-year one, potentially backed by legislation.
"I think to terminate it at the three-year point is not good," he said, adding that he believed he was "right at the top of [his] game".
"It takes a good 12 to 18 months to get your eye in – to really be able to contribute," he said.
Asked who was responsible for deciding whether ICIBI’s contract is renewed, Rycroft said the former home secretary, Suella Braverman, had made the call after taking advice from officials.
Asked by Loughton why Neal’s contract had not been renewed, Rycroft said: “Because that is what the then Home Secretary decided.”
“On what basis?” Loughton asked.
“You’ll have to ask her,” Rycroft replied.
Asked to reveal the advice officials had given on the matter, Rycroft said he was not “at liberty” to say. “I think that's private between Home Office officials and the home secretary,” he added.
He also declined to tell the committee what the most likely reasons would be for an inspector’s contract not to be renewed. “I don’t think there's any presumption of any particular number of terms for a job like that,” he said.