Wednesday briefing: How a sacked official blew the whistle on new lows in the asylum system

<span>David Neal, former Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, giving evidence to the Home Office Select Committee.</span><span>Photograph: House of Commons/UK Parliament/PA</span>
David Neal, former Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, giving evidence to the Home Office Select Committee.Photograph: House of Commons/UK Parliament/PA

Good morning. When then-home secretary Priti Patel appointed David Neal as the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration in 2021, the Commons home affairs committee refused to endorse the decision. They were worried that the recruitment process had been inadequate and said they had seen no evidence that he was “confident to challenge performance publicly”. Well, they’ve seen it now.

Last week, David Neal was sacked from his job by James Cleverly, now the home secretary, just a month before he was due to stand down. Neal’s crime was to disclose unauthorised information to the media – a tactic that he appears to have resorted to after 15 reports he wrote uncovering problems with the immigration system went unpublished, instead gathering dust on a Home Office shelf. Now Neal has told the same parliamentary committee of “shocking leadership” at the Home Office and said he was “sacked for doing my job” – and his testimony paints a grim picture of the state of the accommodation centres where the government houses asylum seekers.

For today’s newsletter, I spoke to Diane Taylor, who covers immigration and asylum for the Guardian, about what her own reporting has uncovered about the facilities that drove Neal to go rogue – and what his departure tells us about the Home Office’s appetite for scrutiny. Here are the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Conservatives | An alleged victim of a serious sexual assault by a Conservative MP has accused the central party of being more concerned with protecting its own reputation than her welfare after it failed to formally investigate her complaint. After her mental health deteriorated, the party’s headquarters paid £15,000 for her to receive treatment at a private hospital, the alleged victim told the Guardian.

  2. US politics | Joe Biden has won the Democratic primary in Michigan – but a concerted effort by protest voters angry at his stance on the Israel-Gaza war could overshadow his win. With only 31% of votes tallied, 40,000 people had voted “uncommitted” – four times his margin of victory over Donald Trump in 2020.

  3. Post Office | The former chair of the Post Office has claimed he was the victim of a “smear campaign” led by the business secretary, Kemi Badenoch, and turned on his chief executive in a dramatic day of evidence to a parliamentary committee. Henry Staunton stunned MPs when he told them that Post Office chief executive Nick Read was facing an internal investigation.

  4. Politics | Rishi Sunak is braced for another byelection after former Tory MP Scott Benton was suspended from the Commons for 35 days over his role in a lobbying sting. If 10% of the Blackpool South MP’s constituents now sign a recall petition, a byelection will be triggered in his seat.

  5. Social affairs | Jonathan Dimbleby has described the criminalisation of assisted dying in the UK as “increasingly unbearable” after his younger brother, Nicholas, died this month with debilitating motor neurone disease (MND). The broadcaster spoke as MPs prepare to publish a report showing that three-quarters of the public support legalisation within strict guidelines.

In depth: ‘What’s going on in these sites is like nothing I’ve ever seen’

For a while, David Neal has been frustrated by the government’s failure to publish 15 reports uncovering problems with the immigration system – even though they are supposed to do so within eight weeks. Last year Suella Braverman (another home secretary) decided not to reappoint him after the Home Office sent him an email calling him “excessively critical”.

Since then, Neal appears to have gone rogue, writing for the Guardian about the government’s unwillingness to deal with the dismal state of immigration detention centres, giving an interview to the Financial Times (£) saying that “There is no asylum accommodation strategy” at the Home Office, and then telling the Daily Mail that passengers on hundreds of private jets landing were not being subject to proper security checks. That last intervention was what sealed his removal.

“He’s been very robust,” said Diane Taylor. “He’s stood up to the Home Office – the reports that he has been able to publish have been strong. And obviously they didn’t like that.”

Central to Neal’s responsibilities is an area that Diane covers closely: the state of the accommodation where asylum seekers are housed. This morning, Diane’s piece looking at the state of mass accommodation sites including RAF Wethersfield, a remote site in Essex, provides grim detail on some of Neal’s concerns. “What’s going on in these sites is like nothing I’ve ever seen in this country,” Diane said. “I haven’t got words for how bad it is.”


How the system used to work

“Before the pandemic, the numbers of people claiming asylum in the UK were much lower,” said Diane. “Most asylum seekers were housed in dispersal accommodation – shared housing, basically. And there was a bit of dormitory-style accommodation in home office hostels.”

The shared housing was “often pretty awful,” Diane said – “not places where council tenants would be housed. But it was possible to have some sort of life there – not a great life, but you could have a life.”

She remembers a visit to a property where five women were living together with their babies in 2014: “The support they could give each other was incredible. It was like each baby had five mothers, they would club together to buy food more cheaply, and step up and help each other out.” There was the intangible benefit, too, of typically being in cities or towns, and so connected to a wider world.


What changed

As asylum numbers spiked in 2021, and small boat crossings started to rise, pressure on the system grew, both in terms of numbers and scrutiny. “There was a shift in the political discourse – whether it was from the far right or the media, there was so much more attention.”

Anger, partly fuelled by Nigel Farage and the far right group Britain First, grew at asylum seekers being put up in taxpayer-funded hotels – usually far less luxurious than their reputation, but certainly expensive.

Eventually, then-immigration minister Robert Jenrick made the bleak announcement last year that “This government remains committed to meeting our legal obligations to those who would otherwise be destitute. But we are not prepared to go further.” The new solution, he said, was the use of large accommodation centres, including disused military bases and possibly ships, to house hundreds of people at a time.


RAF Wethersfield

You will be familiar with the Bibby Stockholm, the barge where there are now reports of inadequate support services and serious overcrowding. In December, Leonard Farruku, an Albanian asylum seeker, was found dead in a shower room in a suspected suicide.

Another site, RAF Wethersfield (above), is beset with similar problems. Neal wrote to the Home Office in December warning of “an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness” and, therefore, a risk of violence, and even arson; he wrote again in February and said there had been “no improvement”.

Diane’s piece today illustrates some of what he’s talking about. She reports two suicide attempts in January alone, and a man refused permission to be with his pregnant wife, only being allowed to join her after she gave birth alone to a stillborn baby. There are 500 male residents sleeping three to a room, and, Diane writes, they “are able to leave the site, but are not allowed to work. It is about eight miles to the nearest town and some spend their days walking around the surrounding countryside with nowhere to go.”

“The worst thing about Wethersfield is that people are just dumped there,” Diane said. She points to Napier Barracks, the first mass accommodation site to open, where there have also been serious concerns – but “people know that however bad it is, they are there for a limited period and after that their asylum claims progress, and they can grit their teeth and get on with it. That comfort doesn’t exist at Wethersfield. They feel trapped.”

This is likely to be layered on to repeated previous traumas, from the war or persecution that forced someone to flee in the first place to the journey across the Mediterranean or the Channel to get here. “The tensions are very high. There have certainly been fights, and there are claims of security guards assaulting asylum seekers. People feel they have nothing to hope for.”


Neal’s intervention

In his evidence yesterday, Neal painted a dire picture of the state of the borders and immigration system – and how his dealings with the Home Office and its attitude to accountability left him feeling he was “negotiating with the enemy”. “Just because the reports might be inconvenient, it shouldn’t mean that they’re suppressed,” he said, although that does appear to be exactly what has happened. He added: “There is a role in public life, for sure, for people who speak truth to power.”

This thread from immigration policy expert Zoe Gardner is a useful blow-by-blow account of the evidence. She notes: “He’s not exactly a lefty or a migrants’ rights activist. He’s an ex-military police officer… Working in that space must radicalise you one way or the other.”

Neal also voiced his fears over what will happen in the gap before his replacement is appointed. There are serious concerns that the government will struggle to appoint a credible successor given his well-documented problems with forcing the release of the reports, Diane said. “If the Rwanda flights ever get off the ground, I think the job could still be vacant then – there’s a risk that anyone who does it will be a patsy.”

So will anything he’s said make any difference? “This is just my opinion, but I don’t think so,” Diane said. “If you put the Home Office on the couch and psychoanalysed it, it’d be like Millwall football club – ‘no one likes us, we don’t care’. The optics of cruelty and punishment aren’t a coincidence – they are the point.”

What else we’ve been reading

  • Knowing your parents are cooler than you can be a hard pill to swallow, but for Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, whose mum and auntie (above) appeared in the Tate exhibition Women In Revolt!, it was a wonderful reminder of their legacy. “I have long understood the concept that we had been standing on the shoulders of giants, but seeing it in person helped it hit home; it made me realise how near we really are to the past,” she writes. Nimo

  • Like a lot of other journalists who went on to great things, Sirin Kale started her career at Vice with “no experience, no contacts and no journalism qualifications”. Her piece about its closure is a tour of a fairly mindboggling newsroom, a paean to the best of the work it produced, and a furious indictment of the executives who killed it. Archie

  • Anna Moore’s interview with Kathy Kleiner, a survivor of a brutal attack by the serial killer Ted Bundy, provides remarkable insight into human resilience. The pair discuss her recovery, the media depictions of Bundy in the decades since his killing spree and how Kleiner has rebuilt her life. Nimo

  • Whatever your view of adults who remain fully committed to an imaginary world populated by mice, “Disney adults” are a thing. Amelia Tait has a fascinating piece for the New Statesman about how the corporation has cultivated them. Archie

  • Sarah Manavis takes a look at what happens when parasocial relationships between influencers and their fans go sour. Nimo


FA Cup | Erling Haaland (above) plundered five goals as holders Manchester City powered into the quarter-finals with a 6-2 victory at Luton. Championship leaders Leicester pulled off a 1-0 win at Bournemouth thanks to an extra-time effort from substitute Abdul Fatawu. Newcastle went through after getting past Blackburn 4-3 on penalties after a 1-1 draw over 120 minutes at Ewood Park.

Football | Two goals from Lauren Hemp helped England’s women to a 5-1 friendly victory over Italy, adding to an impressive 7-2 win against Austria on Friday as they begin the charge towards retaining their European title next year. Manager Sarina Wiegman said the team had “ticked so many boxes we would have liked to have ticked”.

Formula One | Christian Horner could learn the outcome of an investigation into his conduct as team principal of Red Bull Racing as soon as Wednesday, before the cars take to the track for the opening session of the new Formula One season in Bahrain. The independent investigation begun following a complaint from a female employee alleging inappropriate behaviour has been ongoing since the start of February.

The front pages

The Guardian print edition today splashes on “Tories putting party before sexual assault claim, says alleged victim”. “UK blocks Macron’s bid to send troops to Ukraine” says the Daily Telegraph. A warning for Keir Starmer in the i: “Labour yet to convince 40% of target voters, new poll finds”.

On to budget matters – “£16 for a pack of cigs” says the Metro, as Jeremy Hunt plans a “huge tax rise” to tackle smoking and vaping. “Indefensible”, says the Daily Mail, because Hunt hasn’t budgeted extra funding for defence, geddit? “Prince still doesn’t get it” – the Daily Mirror after Andrew was photographed “in front and grinning” at a memorial service. “I’m not racist!” – they always say that, but anyway, the Daily Express headline continues: “Lee Anderson says he speaks for Tory faithful”.

Top story in the Financial Times is “Thames Water pushes for higher bills, lower fines and right to pay dividends”. “You’ve made point – now end protests, says Cleverly” – the foreign secretary wants marches about Gaza to stop, the Times reports.

Today in Focus

Saldo: Ukraine’s gangster governor – part 3

The liberation of Kherson city ended months of brutal Russian rule. But across the Dnipro River, occupation governor Volodymyr Saldo finds there is are still money-spinning opportunities to be found.

Cartoon of the day | Martin Rowson

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Brazil has been dealing with the twin problems of food insecurity and food waste for a number of years. In 2021, it re-entered the UN’s hunger map just seven years after first being removed from it; meanwhile 42% of all food produced is lost or wasted. One charity, Sesc Mesa Brasil or Mesa for short, noticed this discrepancy and has been trying to bridge this gap.

Mesa collects food that would otherwise go to waste from supermarkets, farmers and other suppliers and retailers, sorts it, and then donates it to partner organisations. Not only does the programme combat food insecurity; keeping food out of landfills also helps Brazil work towards its environmental targets as wasted food accounts for 8-10% of greenhouse gas emissions globally.

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Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s puzzles are here to keep you entertained throughout the day. Until tomorrow.