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Former Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration: Reports

Volume 836: debated on Wednesday 6 March 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the release on 29 February of 13 reports produced by the former Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, and their findings in particular with regard to the conduct of staff responsible for unaccompanied refugee children in Kent.

My Lords, last Thursday we published 13 reports that were outside the normal eight-week commitment to review and respond. We also published the Government’s responses. We take the ICIBI reports seriously and do not wait until their publication to act on their recommendations. We have already implemented several of those recommendations. As regards the incident at the hotel, there was an immediate investigation and the support worker in question was removed.

My Lords, the reports are damning, documenting the disappearance of 467 asylum- seeking children and Home Office employees asking lonely unaccompanied children to play a cruel guessing game as to which of them will receive foster care; and revealing systemic failures at the border and in the asylum decision-making process. It beggars belief that David Neal was not sacked for revealing these truths, or that his 13 reports were not released en bloc to minimise security. Who ultimately is responsible for the culture of defensiveness in the Home Office, which Neal suggested had allowed these failures over time to go unchecked? If the Minister disputes this characterisation, can he inform your Lordships’ House in what respect the comprehensive evidence provided in the reports that support his assertion is mistaken?

I am afraid I do dispute that characterisation. David Neal had his appointment terminated after he broke the terms of his contract and lost the confidence of the Home Secretary, because he released sensitive and misleading information from unpublished reports, well within the time commitment for publication. The Home Office had therefore not had time to fact-check and redact inappropriate material. I will give an example of the fact-checking required in some cases: the asylum casework report contained 67 factual inaccuracies, the vast majority of which were indeed accepted by the ICIBI. It is important to mention that a new inspector will be appointed following a full and proper process.

As regards the situation in the hotel, as I said, on both occasions of the inspection, the ICIBI found that children accommodated temporarily at the hotels reported that they felt happy and safe and spoke well of the staff caring for them. But, once we learned about the incident from the chief inspector, there was an immediate investigation and the support worker in question was removed and did not return.

My Lords, your Lordships’ House spent many hours considering the Illegal Migration Bill, which considered the law to enable the Home Office to accommodate vulnerable children. Major concerns were raised at that time. Indeed, the Children’s Commissioner has said that it is “not appropriate” for the Home Office to accommodate vulnerable children—it is not its expertise. Will my noble friend the Minister accept her offer, in these circumstances, to conduct an inquiry and find out exactly what has been going on with what is obviously a most vulnerable group of children, many of whom are primary school age?

My Lords, since the two ICIBI inspections, in 2022 and 2023, we have closed all seven hotels used to accommodate unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. It goes without saying that the safety and welfare of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children is a priority. The multidisciplinary wraparound care provided in the hotels, including access to nurses and social workers, ensured that children were supported around the clock.

On whether they were of primary school age, I am afraid I do not recognise those numbers. I can update the House: as of 5 March, 118 children are still missing; 104 of those are Albanian, all of them are male, and the vast majority were aged 16 and 17 when they went missing. Only about 18 are still under the age of 18. It is not quite the picture that my noble friend painted.

My Lords, the chief inspector was due to start an inspection on the age assessment of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children shortly. What will happen to this now that he has been sacked? If an interim inspector is appointed, as was suggested by the Minister in the Commons, could he be encouraged to look at this, given all the accumulating evidence of the wrongful age assessment of children?

This is obviously a subject to which we will return a bit later, but as I said, a new chief inspector will be appointed following a full and proper process in accordance with the Governance Code on Public Appointments. The Home Secretary is considering appointing an interim chief inspector to cover the period of recruitment. What his remit will be I do not know, but of course we will come back in due course.

My Lords, since autumn 2022, we have had a number of Questions and Statements on the status of the Home Office as corporate parent when there is a gap before the appointment of a council. Indeed, on 23 January last year, my noble friend Lord Scriven asked when the Home Office was going to become a corporate parent, and the Minister at the time said that he would take it back and discuss it. The recently published ICIBI report covering an inspection in September and October last year says that

“the Home Secretary’s use of hotels to accommodate unaccompanied asylum-seeking children was unlawful. The Home Office has been running unregistered children’s homes for two years now, when these children should be in the … care of Kent County Council”.

Can the Minister confirm that the Home Office no longer has an invisible corporate parent responsibility without actually doing it lawfully?

My Lords, as I said, we have closed the seven hotels that were used to accommodate unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, as identified in the two ICIBI inspections. As the noble Baroness will be aware, the Home Office will return to the High Court on 14 March as part of the ongoing High Court oversight of the Kent County Council case, so I will say no more on that at the moment.

My Lords, the chief inspector raised the issue of the national security risk caused by general aviation—that is, private aviation, a subject which has caused concern to successive Independent Reviewers of Terrorism Legislation going back over many years. Can the Government assure the House that this issue has been given close attention in recent weeks, despite any disagreements with the chief inspector?

Yes, I can give that assurance. I would also reassure the House that Border Force facilitated 132 million passenger arrivals last year and 96% of passengers were processed within service standards. Significant progress has been made since that report was commissioned on increasing the number of officers who are trained appropriately.

My Lords, the Minister gave us an updated figure—that 118 children are still missing. That is truly shocking: the state has lost 118 children. What was lacking in the Minister’s answer was any description of what the Government are doing to try to find those children. What effort is being made to locate them? What liaison is taking place with police, social services and children’s services across the country? I say again to the Government: they have lost 118 children. If the state were a parent, it would be prosecuted.

The noble Lord has made that point before. Of course, we are unable to detain anybody, so when he characterises them as being lost, they have left as much as anything else. When they go missing from hotels, a multiagency missing persons protocol is mobilised, alongside the police and local authorities, to establish their whereabouts and ensure they are safe. Many of those who go missing are subsequently traced and located. The Home Office continues to review and improve practices around preventing children going missing, including work with the National Police Chiefs’ Council, which is publishing, and has published, guidance on missing migrant children. I say again: the vast majority of these were aged 16 and 17. Only 18 are still aged under 18.

The Government’s Rwanda Bill will now contain measures that will allow unaccompanied children to be relocated to Rwanda, and the Government have published a country note for Rwanda stating that it is a safe country. Normally, country notes are reviewed by the independent commissioner, but David Neal’s office confirmed to me on 17 January that the Government had not yet asked for an independent review of their country note statement that Rwanda is a safe country. Now that there is no independent reviewer, how will Parliament know that that statement has been reviewed by an independent commissioner?

To start with, the noble Lord is incorrect in saying that unaccompanied children will be sent to Rwanda; as he is well aware, that is prohibited under Article 3 of the treaty. On the review, the ICIBI started on the country-of-origin information but that has not yet been sent to the Home Secretary. That is one of the ongoing pieces of ICIBI work that cannot be finalised until a new or interim ICIBI has been appointed, and I cannot comment on that process yet.

Do we not have thousands of people in this country who should not be here, but of whose whereabouts we have no knowledge? Had the Government and the Lib Dems not abolished the Labour Party’s plan to introduce an identity system, we would know where they were.

My Lords, the Government got confused and in a bit of a mess about assessing the age of many people coming into the country. Further to the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, how can the Government be sure that the number of primary school-age children is accurate, according to their judgment?

As the noble Baroness will be aware, there are a number of different views on this. Age assessments go both ways. I was reading of a case earlier where a number of children requested that one of their number who had been imposed on them be looked into because the said person was significantly older than he appeared to be, and that was found to be the case. It works both ways.