Home secretary sacks borders watchdog via Zoom after clash

<span>James Cleverly, who terminated David Neal’s job with immediate effect.</span><span>Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA</span>
James Cleverly, who terminated David Neal’s job with immediate effect.Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

Rishi Sunak has been accused of “total Tory chaos” over immigration policies, after Britain’s borders watchdog was sacked in a hastily arranged Zoom call.

David Neal, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, was told by a top civil servant on Tuesday that James Cleverly was terminating his job with immediate effect.

Neal, who had been in the role for nearly three years and was due to step down next month, had recently expressed his concern that there would be no one in the watchdog role for several months as ministers tried to force through Sunak’s controversial Rwanda policy.

Related: I warned ministers about our disgraceful UK detention centres. Their solution? Stop the inspections | David Neal

Downing Street blocked his reappointment, an unusual move for the post in which his predecessors all served two full three-year terms in the post.

The Home Office said Neal, a former police officer and soldier who commanded the 1st Military Police Brigade from 2016 until 2019, had “breached the terms of appointment”.

The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, said: “This is total Tory chaos on borders and immigration. A series of Conservative home secretaries have sought to bury uncomfortable truths revealed by the chief inspector about our broken borders, and shockingly they are still sitting on 15 unpublished reports – stretching back to April last year. The home secretary must now publish those reports in full.

“The Conservatives have lost control of our borders, are seeking to hide the truth, and are putting border security at risk.”

Diana Johnson, the chair of the home affairs select committee, said the government had treated the role of chief inspector of borders and immigration “like an inconvenience” rather than a vital part of developing policy.

“We are now left with yet another vacant post, with reports unpublished and not responded to, all the while the asylum and immigration system lurches from crisis to crisis. The behaviour of the Home Office seems unlikely to attract many high-quality candidates as they seek to fill this crucial role,” she said.

Neal has been accused of breaking the terms of his appointment in comments published by the Daily Mail on Tuesday claiming that lax checks on private jets were a security and immigration threat to the UK.

Border Force officers are supposed to check 100% of general aviation flights which they have classified as “high risk”. But inspectors found last year that just 21% were inspected by immigration officers at London City airport, Neal claimed.

Earlier on Tuesday, the immigration minister Tom Pursglove told the Commons the Home Office “categorically rejects” Neal’s claims.

“It’s deeply disturbing that information which has no basis in fact was leaked by the independent chief inspector to a national newspaper before the Home Office had the chance to respond,” the minister told MPs. “We are urgently investigating this breach of confidential information in full in the normal way.”

Friends of Neal have said he had raised on several occasions the government’s failure to publish 15 reports that uncovered problems within the borders and immigration system dating back to last April.

These included inquiries that could be politically explosive, including into unaccompanied children being housed in hotels and illegal working enforcement. Civil servants have also been accused of delaying investigations into the government’s plans to process asylum claims in Rwanda.

Other unpublished reports, which were supposed to be released as long ago as last June, include examinations of ePassport gate inspections; Border Force parcel operations; the Border Force’s firearms procedures; illegal working enforcement; asylum accommodation; immigration enforcement; and the processing of migrants arriving by small boats.

Neal and his predecessors as chief inspector, John Vine and David Bolt, received legal advice saying they should be allowed to publish their own reports in line with other independent inspectorates. However, the publication date of each report remains within the gift of the home secretary, despite repeated criticisms of the delays from MPs on the home affairs select committee.

While in the army, Neal was responsible for the assurance and inspection of the UK’s detention facilities around the world, including in Afghanistan and on Royal Navy ships. He graduated in 1994 from the Sandhurst military academy, and was seen on TV screens over Christmas captaining Bangor on University Challenge.

Another of Neal’s unpublished findings was disclosed on Monday. Neal told the Times that an inquiry into caseworker visas found that the Home Office had issued 275 visas to a care home that did not exist and 1,234 to a company that stated it had only four staff when given a licence to operate.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We have terminated the appointment of David Neal, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, after he breached the terms of appointment and lost the confidence of the home secretary.”

The recruitment process to replace him was “in progress”, they added.

In a comment piece in September for the Guardian after a critical report into Brook House detention centre, Neal wrote: “The Home Office’s responses to my reports have been characterised by defensiveness and excuses rather than a commitment to improvement and positive change, and I’ve encountered significant pushback from senior leaders within immigration enforcement.”