Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration gives an update on his work to Parliament's Home Affairs Committee
David Neal, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI), last week gave evidence in a session before the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee.
The transcript of the session can be read online here.
The session was held to hear the reflections of David Neal as his three-year tenure in the role of the ICIBI comes to an end in March 2024.
Neal told the Committee that his current inspection programme is dominated by asylum and small boat crossings. He noted that the ICIBI was currently inspecting the asylum backlog and would be producing a very detailed, in-depth report.
Among the wide-ranging discussion, Neal provided some updated figures on the Home Office's progress in clearing the backlog of asylum claims awaiting an initial decision, known as the asylum 'work in progress' (or WIP). The Prime Minister has set an aim to clear the backlog of older, legacy claims by the end of this year.
David Neal told the Home Affairs Committee: "On 29 October, the legacy WIP stood at 32,109, from a start point of 98,307, so they are approximately two thirds through the legacy WIP, with a third remaining. I would say that the third remaining are the difficult ones, because they have taken the easy pickings of the two thirds and we are into the difficult things."
Neal later added: "I think they will struggle to clear the legacy backlog by 13 December. I think it will be a challenge, and I have quoted some of the figures. It is that two thirds: one third. With a third of the cases left, it is the difficult cases that remain. We saw the high grant rate initiative earlier in the year. I think it was a failure, although now they have learned their lesson from that and have been able to grant in a more abridged fashion. I think that will be more successful, so that will account for some of the more rapid decision making."
When asked about the number of caseworkers in place, the Independent Chief Inspector said he thought the Home Office had now achieved its target of 2,500, though he would need to check whether that figure accounted for high levels of staff turnover. Neal said that the attrition rate, or churn, among Home Office caseworkers was 36% during April to August of this year.
He told MPs: "Thirty-six per cent churn … Prior to that, 23%; prior to that, 45%. You might have achieved the top-end figure of 2,500, but you have 36% churn. Now, you heard in evidence from Abi [Tierney] that some of those people are promoted—yes, they are, but they are often promoted without the appropriate level of experience. So there is huge churn in this area, and I think that is important. In terms of recruitment, resources have been chucked at this. This is absolutely a main effort on the part of Downing Street, which is leaning over the Home Office to deliver this. So there are positives in terms of the recruitment, but challenges in the detail."
The Independent Chief Inspector added that productivity among caseworkers had improved and decisions were now being made more rapidly. He said: "In December, there was an announcement to move from four decisions per decision maker and to triple it to a dozen. We have been told that it is 10 at the moment, so it is potentially moving in the right direction. Speed of decisions and productivity have improved. As I have said before, I agree that there are productivity measures that could be brought in, but the quality of decisions is key. Credit within this whole area: what we are seeing from the inspection is a gargantuan effort in these areas. They have done a really good job, but I think there was a misappreciation of how long it takes to set up a decision-making centre—how long it takes to set all these things up."
Neal highlighted, however, that the reduction in the legacy backlog still left a large backlog of non-legacy claims, which now stood at around 85,000.
"The elephant in the room is the flow cases. There will still be something of the order of 85,000 flow cases that are not being touched. Then there is the knock-on effect of the longer term challenges—appeals, immigration enforcement resources, the number of withdrawals and housing problems, which relate to Alison Thewliss's point about where people end up in the system. Who is accountable for this? Every time I have appeared in front of this Committee, you have asked questions about it. There is a real elephant in the room. How have we got into this position and, equally importantly, how do we not get into this position again?" the Independent Chief Inspector told the Committee.
Last Wednesday's evidence session was somewhat overshadowed by being held on the same day as the Supreme Court handed down its judgment on the Government's Rwanda policy.
David Neal noted during the session that the ICIBI will soon be publishing a report on the Home Office's country information on Rwanda: "Now the judgment is out, we can hopefully finally publish our Rwanda country information report, which had been held with the Home Office—albeit it had been disclosed to the court. We can bring that before the independent advisory group on country information; we can get it signed off and get it published. That is the first step. Then we can decide whether we are going to look at Rwanda again because it has been some time since we commissioned an academic to look into that area."
Neal also told MPs that he would have loved to carry on in the role of the ICIBI if given the choice. OpenDemocracy reported in September that the Government decided not to renew Neal's contract after Home Office officials criticised his reports for being "excessively critical" and not positive enough.
The Independent Chief Inspector told the Home Affairs Committee: "I would love to carry on the job. I have a fantastic team of people. … It is frustrating that the ICIBI product has never been stronger, as an organisation of 31 people—I am running an absolute dream team. Who would not want to stay with those people, shining a light on to really important areas of public life? It is a massively important role; it is every bit as important as my time as a brigadier in the Army. It is a hugely important role. I think we have got real credibility and real spirit."
He continued: "I have stood in front of this Committee and I have been absolutely open from day one—maybe that is the reason I have not been reappointed. I have been absolutely direct with the Committee, and so have our reports. As you increase in confidence—I am sure you could track back and there would be someone who would be able to see that, once I really began to understand the areas that we are dealing with, the unfairness that we are encountering and, frankly, sometimes the ineptitude or the poor things that should not be found in public life. To be able to shine a light on those and be able to ultimately release those reports—whether they are delayed or not—is a hugely important role. So yes, I would want to stay."