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Home Office pressured inspector to soften damning report on Channel crossings

Priti Patel accused of delaying report after inspector criticised failure to respond to crisis

Adam Bychawski
21 July 2022, 11.53am

The Tug Haven processing centre in Dover was closed in January after a separate report by the prisons inspector found it was "unfit for purpose".

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PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The Home Office pressured an independent inspector to change a report that called aspects of its response to Channel migrant crossings “inexcusably awful”.

openDemocracy understands Home Office officials demanded that David Neal reword his foreword because it was too critical, but Neal – the chief inspector of borders and immigration – refused.

The report, which was published today after a three-month delay, said the way vulnerable migrants who crossed the Channel by small boats were being treated on arrival was “unacceptable”.  

“The Home Office’s performance in delivering an effective and efficient response to the challenge posed by the increasing volume of migrant arrivals via small boats is poor. In my judgement, this arises principally from a refusal to transition from an emergency response to what has rapidly become steady state, or business as usual,” Neal said in his foreword to the report.

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Last year, 28,526 people arrived on the south coast in small boats, according to Home Office statistics – a hundredfold increase from 236 in 2018.

Neal found that “effective safeguarding was sacrificed” at the Tug Haven facility in the Port of Dover, and that “data, the lifeblood of decision-making, is inexcusably awful” because staff were failing to record some arrivals, which he said could pose a security risk.

Tug Haven was closed in January after a report published by the HM Chief Inspector of Prisons in November found that it “resembled a building site” and that families were being forced to sleep in tents in the cold because its facilities were “not fit for purpose”.

It followed an intervention by Neal himself, who had written to the prisons inspector following a visit in the facility in September, where he witnessed 18 unaccompanied children being held in what he described as “unsanitary and squalid” conditions. 

He wrote: “From my service in the Royal Military Police, I have significant experience of visiting detention facilities overseas, and I have never visited a detention facility in such a poor state. If this was within my inspection remit, I would be taking action as a matter of urgency.”

During a later visit in January 2022, today’s report reveals, Neal found some migrants had not been treated for burns and cuts and that one person who tested positive for Covid had been left to isolate in a metal shipping container for hours because it appeared that staff had forgotten about him.

covid isolation room at Tug Haven

Migrants that tested positive for Covid were moved to a shipping container (pictured).

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The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration

A senior manager at Tug Haven told him that identifying vulnerable migrants who required safeguarding “went out the window” during busy periods. But Neal said the problem appeared even larger: there was no obvious sign that identification was happening even when it was quiet at the facility.

Migrants’ charities told the inspector that safeguarding failures had led to potential trafficking victims going missing. More than 200 Vietnamese nationals who arrived in small boats in 2021, many of whom showed signs they may be at risk, disappeared after being released into hotels with no support, the report said.

Inspectors found that Home Office staff at Tug Haven were “calm, polite and professional” but were facing burnout from operating under significant pressure, and that senior officials and ministers were to blame for not delivering an effective response. 

Despite having attempted to tone down the report, the Home Office said today it “acknowledges the observations of fact in the report and accepts all the recommendations without demur” in its response.

In June, Neal told the Home Affairs Committee that he had not met the home secretary, Priti Patel, since being appointed in March 2021. He said Patel had cancelled six scheduled meetings with him in that time. 

“I’m disappointed and frustrated that I’ve not been able to speak to the home secretary because I think I have things to offer,” Neal told the committee.

A Home Office spokesperson said: "The Home Office does not recognise the interpretation of its role in fact-checking the report.

We thank Mr Neal for his report and have accepted all of his recommendations, the majority of which were already being addressed at the time of the inspection, and almost all this work has already been completed.

Since the inspection took place, we have transformed how we manage the arrival of migrants making dangerous and unnecessary Channel crossings in small boats. This includes the previously planned closure of Tug Haven and the movement to a two-site operation at Western Jet Foil and Manston.”

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