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6 March 2024

Why the Home Office manipulated the news

No wonder the ministerial department sneaked out its immigration reports. They are damning.

By Hannah Barnes

 What better way for a government to illustrate its unflinching commitment to transparency than releasing 922 pages of material, highly critical of one of its core policy areas, at 4pm on a Thursday, on a busy news day?

Sure, they were pressured into it by sacking the author of those reports – David Neal, the now former independent chief inspector of borders and immigration – after he went public with his concerns. And sure, the timing meant journalists couldn’t write up the story to meet their deadlines. It was also a coincidence that the government chose a moment when all eyes were on the Rochdale by-election and the publication of the Angiolini report on the murder of Sarah Everard. The Home Office says it has “delivered” on its promise to publish all overdue reports as soon as possible. And it insists that publishing critical content is “a demonstration of transparency and acceptance of independent scrutiny”.

No one is fooled. The department’s data dump of 13 previously unreleased reports on 29 February was deeply cynical. It prompted rare agreement from journalists across the political spectrum: seven home affairs specialists have written to the Home Office to complain. It was, they said, more egregious than the suggestion that 9/11 offered a chance to “bury bad news”. “You sought to obscure one set of failures by the Home Office with a second set of failures, for which the department is also ultimately responsible,” the journalists argued. “It was not an opportunistic seizure of an external event… but a calculated manipulation of a news ‘grid’ which you oversee.”

There are plenty of reasons the Home Office might not have wanted Neal’s reports published to great fanfare, from the lack of safeguarding of migrant children to a fundamental inability to secure our borders. Let’s take the second of those first.

“The protection of the border is neither effective nor efficient,” Neal wrote to the Home Secretary in June 2023 after an inspection of electronic passport gates. While inspectors found “enthusiastic” staff, they also saw “border posts left unmanned while officers signalled for attention from their managers”. A report sent to the Home Secretary in September 2023 warned that a “lack of anti-smuggling capability at airports should be a major concern for Border Force and ministers, and raised questions as to whether the border is secure from a goods perspective”. During another inspection, Neal expressed his surprise that not all Border Force officers were trained in firearms awareness, given the “interception of illegal firearms, along with illegal drugs and human trafficking” were “fundamentals of a secure functioning border”.

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Two reports on housing for vulnerable children make for shocking reading. In Northern Ireland, young people were losing weight as they refused to eat “culturally unfamiliar food”. Staff at the hotels housing them had not undergone “basic clearances and training” and systems for recording safeguarding incidents were not in place. In Kent, hotels housing unaccompanied child asylum seekers were also failing in basic safeguarding duties. Neal was not assured all staff had received a DBS check. “This is basic, building-block stuff” that any employer should do “to satisfy itself that it is not employing potentially dangerous staff to work among children”.

During the period that unaccompanied children were housed in hotels (July 2021 to 8 September 2023), children went missing on 467 occasions. In 320 cases, the child was found; 147 remain unaccounted for. A senior staff member described one particularly cruel practice: a “game” in which children would have to guess who would be next to be placed with a family; the answer would then be revealed. “Inspectors considered this to be insensitive in the extreme and undoubtedly upsetting to the children,” Neal wrote.

Fresh analysis is provided of Rishi Sunak’s December 2022 pledge to clear the backlog of legacy asylum claims within 12 months, too. While the government had achieved a reduction of 82 per cent, Neal was concerned by the implications of “the focus on clearing the legacy backlog ‘at all costs’”. Twenty two per cent of all decisions were withdrawals, only one of which had undergone formal quality assurance, leaving the Home Office open to appeal as “a result of poor-quality refusals”.

Neal’s annual report for 2022/23 was also published – eight months after it had been sent to the Home Secretary. “To put it bluntly,” Neal wrote, “if the Home Office does not want to change, it will not.” The department is described as having “a culture of defensiveness”, where “obfuscation and opacity seem to be the norm”. Data underpinning policies was “inexcusably awful” and officials would “push back” against inspection findings.

Neal has welcomed the publication of his reports. But he added, “There are real questions to be asked about why it takes the sacking of a public official to expose what should be routine.” Indeed there are. “The role of an independent inspectorate… is important at any time, but it becomes critical when lives are at stake, and when views are polarised,” Neal wrote in his annual report. He has advised that his successor (who is yet to be appointed) be true to themselves. “You have to have the moral courage to do what is right… and you have to stand by your principles.”

We are fortunate that people are willing to speak truth to power, even at a personal cost. That they sometimes lose their jobs in the process should worry us all, and shame those they are holding to account.

[See also: Reem Alsalem on the biggest obstacles to ending violence against women]


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This article appears in the 06 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Bust Britain

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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