The government’s borders inspector has spoken out about his “frustration” at not being able to meet home secretary Priti Patel once since his appointment more than 14 months ago.
David Neal – appointed the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration last March – told MPs that he was “disappointed” to have had five or six meetings canceled.
“I’ve not met the home secretary yet,” he told the home affairs select committee. “I’ve asked to speak to her on a number occasions, and pre-arranged meetings have been canceled on maybe five or six occasions now.”
Asked if the apparent snub was different from previous dealings with other departments, Mr Neal said: “It is – I’m disappointed I haven’t spoken to the home secretary, and frustrated, because I think I’ve got things to offer from the position I hold.”
The Immigration Service Union (ISU) told The Independent that Ms Patel had also rejected requests to meet leaders representing borders staff to discuss the small boats crisis.
“Ms Patel won’t with us either,” the ISU’s Lucy Moreton said. “We’ve trying to engage over the small boats issue, about staffing and resourcing and the unrealistic expectation that somehow the crossings will stop.”
She added: “It is disappointing. I’m glad David Neal expressed his view, because he is her chief inspector and she should hear from him directly. It’s really important to hear a range of voices. She doesn’t do that.”
Mr Neal said he had been forced to “switch fire” when it came to dealing with vital issues like the migrant crossings in the English Channel – arranging meetings with junior ministers at the Home Office instead.
The top official said No 10 chief of staff Stephen Barclay – who has a co-ordination role on the small boats crisis at the Cabinet Office – had also “declined” a meeting to discuss the small boats issue.
The inspector he was “happy” with the engagement of junior ministers and civil servants – but repeated his frustration over the failure to speak to Ms Patel, saying his own role was “really important”.
Mr Neal added: “With the home secretary, to be honest, I’ve switched fire. I’ve written to her on a number occasions, I’ve had a number of meetings canceled, I’m not sure I can do any more to get access … So I’ve switched fire onto speaking to ministers.”
Labor’s Yvette Cooper said that Mr Neal’s comments were “astonishing”. The shadow home secretary said she did not know how Ms Patel could “possibly claim to be taking border security and immigration policy seriously if she hasn’t even met with the chief inspector”.
The senior MP said the home secretary had “no credible plan” to deal with the trafficking gangs and the “collapse” in the number of asylum decisions taken by the Home Office.
The SNP’s shadow justice Secretary Anne McLaughlin said the snub “speaks volumes about the attitude of the home secretary – it’s clear she does not care about the multitude of issues within her department.”
The borders inspector also told MPs that he had seen conditions at detention facilities in Kent – used to process initial asylum claims of migrants arriving in small boats – that were “not acceptable”.
Asked about women and children being detained alongside men by immigration officials after being brought to shore, Mr Neal said he found it “concerning”.
“It’s a concern that we have because of the vulnerability issues,” he said. “I saw conditions [in the Kent Intake Unit] that, in my judgment, with a reasonable level of experience of detention, were not acceptable.”
He said he had written to Ms Patel about the matter. He also told MPs that the suitability of detention facilities would be covered “in detail” in his latest report, sent to the home secretary and expected to be published soon.
Downing Street has insisted that “significant numbers” of Channel crossings are being stopped because of joint working with the French authorities.
However, children clutching teddy bears were seen being carried ashore at Dover on Tuesday, as the number of migrants who have crossed the Channel to the UK so far this year hit 10,000.
The government last month dropped its plan to “push back” small boats carrying migrants towards France shortly before the plan was due to be challenged in court. Mr Neal said he had not been able to inspect what, if any, preparation work Border Force had carried out on the “push backs” small boats.
The inspector also told MPs he had not yet “encountered” any impact of the controversial plan to send some failed aslyum seekers to Rwanda. Asked if the plan to fly migrants to central Africa was having a deterrent effect, he said: “Not that I’ve encountered, no.”
Mr Neal said he “understood” that Rwanda scheme was intended to only apply to single men. “I think it is, but the policy for Rwanda is developing and it’s not something that we’ve yet inspected – but that’s how I understand it to be,” he said.
Asked whether the idea of sending migrants to Rwanda is acting as a deterrent, a Downing Street spokesman said: “The first flights are expected to take place on June 14 … We will need to wait until that point to fully understand the deterrent effect it has.”
Some 28,526 people made the crossing in 2021, compared with 8,466 in 2020.