UK

Sacked borders watchdog hits out at ‘shocking leadership’ in Home Office

David Neal said he was fired over Microsoft Teams and his staff found out through the media.

David Neal has hit out at his treatment by the Home Office
David Neal David Neal has hit out at his treatment by the Home Office (ICIBI Corporate Services/PA)

Sacked border watchdog David Neal told MPs he was fired “for doing my job” and hit out at the “shocking” way the Home Office terminated his role.

He was sacked as the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration earlier this month after losing the confidence of Home Secretary James Cleverly amid claims he breached the terms of his appointment.

The former inspector had become embroiled in a row with the Home Office about concerns he was raising over security checks at airports.

Mr Neal told the Commons Home Affairs Committee: “I’ve been sacked for doing my job.

Home Secretary James Cleverly sacked borders inspector David Neal
James Cleverly child protection policy announcement Home Secretary James Cleverly sacked borders inspector David Neal (Jonathan Brady/PA)

“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.”

His tenure as the independent borders watchdog was due to end on March 21 and he claimed No 10 had blocked his reappointment before he was ultimately fired.

He told the committee: “I now know that the Home Office, so the ministers, supported my reappointment, my extension, my reappointment. And the Home Secretary supported my reappointment.

“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.”

He added: “So, I can’t tell you, I can’t tell you why I have not been reappointed. But I can tell you that the Home Office, as far as I understand from material that has been disclosed to us, approved my reappointment.”

Mr Neal also denied a suggestion by Mr Cleverly that he had been afforded the opportunity to reapply for his role, telling MPs that was “not the case”.

The material was disclosed as part of a judicial review in relation to the Manston migrant processing centre.

Asked about the alleged No 10 involvement, a Downing Street spokeswoman said: “I’m not getting into conversations or correspondence between No 10 and the department, but how this works is this is a Home Secretary appointment and I think the Home Office made statements at the time when that position was open, to follow a fair recruitment process.”

Mr Neal told the MPs he had been fired in a Microsoft Teams meeting held online.

The former borders inspector 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 had the chance to speak to them, which is just shocking. Shocking leadership.”

Mr Neal’s departure from the role comes in the wake of a series of critical inspection findings where he frequently took the department to task over its performance in the areas he inspected.

During his tenure, Mr Neal had repeatedly raised concerns that the department was too slow to publish his reports and questioned why his three-year contract was not renewed for a second term, as was customary with his predecessors.

His exit came after the Daily Mail newspaper reported that data provided to the independent chief inspector showed the UK Border Force failed to check the occupants of hundreds of high-risk, private jets arriving at London City Airport.

Mr Neal told the newspaper it was a “scandal and incredibly dangerous” but ministers accused him of putting “misleading information into the public domain”, claiming that a large proportion of flights initially categorised as high-risk should have been classed as low-risk.

In written evidence sent to the committee, Mr Neal called for the watchdog role to have greater powers and more resources in order to fully scrutinise the work of the Home Office and hold its decisions to account.

He said his team’s budget was this year being cut by 5%, despite “a huge increase” in the size of Home Office areas that the watchdog inspects.

“Today, the headcount in the parts of the Home Office performing borders and immigration functions has increased to 45,684 (as of December 2023). This is almost double what it was when the inspectorate was established.”

The “growing disparity” means the watchdog is only able to “scratch the surface” and there are areas which “require closer monitoring and oversight”, he said.

The Home Secretary defended the professionalism of the Home Office in the wake of Mr Neal’s comments to MPs, telling the PA news agency: “It was disappointing the sequence of events that led to me asking him to stand down but we have remained professional throughout this process.”

When asked for his reaction to Mr Neal’s evidence during a trip to the US, Mr Cleverly said he had not yet had chance to see the exchange but added: “I always look carefully at any reports produced by the Home Affairs Select Committee.

“I am absolutely confident that the Home Office is focused on the priorities that I’ve set it – protecting the British people from crime, from terrorism, particularly focus on protection of women and girls, and making sure that we protect our borders and stop the boats.”

Mr Cleverly said he made it “absolutely clear” that Mr Neal was to be contacted directly when he was fired, adding: “That is what I instructed and that is what happened.

“I’ve not had a chance to listen to exactly what he said. I’m not going to try and comment on things that I haven’t heard directly.”

Labour’s shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock said: “The chief inspector’s evidence makes clear what the British public already knew – that the Conservatives have undermined our border security, and are failing to show any proper leadership to sort it out.

“Rather than confront uncomfortable truths, the Government is hiding them – sitting on 15 unpublished reports which are likely to expose failings in their handling of the UK’s borders.

“Those must be published immediately.”