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Chief Inspector David Bolt aims for lower profile than predecessor

This weekend, I spent Saturday at the Immigration Law Practitioners Association Annual General Meeting. What a lark.

The main attraction, other than catching up with (increasingly) old friends, was a talk by David Bolt, the newish Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration. It was clear from his presentation that he intends to take a lower profile, more consensual approach to his work that he considers more in line with the statutory remit of the inspector.

The UNHCR representative to the UK, Gonzalo Vargas Llosa, also spoke. While he was careful in what he said it is clear that Theresa May’s New Asylum Plan is not going to be good news for refugees.

New approach

Bolt began by telling us a little about himself. At the time he was appointed, there was no picture of him available other than from his LinkedIn profile. The only picture that could be used was apparently a rather informal one. Strangely, six months later, that remains the only publicly available picture of David Bolt, as far as I can see. It is almost as if he is media shy. So I decided to improvise, as you can see above.

Comparing his own approach to that of his predecessor, John Vine, Bolt said:

“My language will be less emotional. You will see less surprise, less disappointment in my reports, no media soundbites. You will see well evidenced findings and recommendations with no room to wriggle.”

The implied criticism of Vine’s later work is rather strong and arguably overlooks the long experience of Vine in the role. Vine began in a similar way but perhaps learned that using neutral language and avoiding soundbites makes the reports rather dull and correspondingly far less likely to be reported in the media. This reduces the impact of the reports and reduces the pressure on the Home Office to respond positively and to improve. Arguably, it undermines the effectiveness of the role.

A new inspection process has been introduced. Bolt says this is considerably shorter than before, with time saved at the drafting stage in particular. There is now a fixed time scale and end date for inspections. He is also reviewing the 10 criteria for inspections and the inspectorate’s methodology. Bolt says he is aiming for shorter, crisper reports, which is how things are “intended” to work according to his interpretation of his statutory remit.

He plans to manage stakeholder groups differently and create continuous dialogue rather than relying on occasional meetings. This sounds good but Bolt confessed he has no experience of managing stakeholders. A new communications manager has however been appointed, not yet in post, whose main job this will be. Communication with the press certainly will not take up much time if the reports continue in their current vein.

Eritrea country information

On Eritrea, Bolt acknowledged the spat between the Independent Advisory Panel on Country Information and the Home Office about use of the controversial Danish fact finding mission report.

It is only the UK Home Office who are willing to rely on this generally discredited report and independent judges in the UK appear very much to disagree: since the Home Office started relying on the report, the latest statistics show the refusal rate by Home Office civil servants has more than doubled. In response, the appeal success rate in Eritrean cases has doubled.

I asked Bolt about this and he indicated the Home Office is unwilling to change its position, there is a meeting coming up about this shortly which he does not anticipate will lead to a change of position and that he may have to do further work on this.

Concerningly, he seemed worried that the Home Office might consider this “unfair” (heaven forbid!) so do not hold your breath.

Timing of reports

The precise timing of publication of Bolt’s reports is outside his control, but the commitment of the Home Secretary to publish reports within 8 weeks as long as both Houses of Parliament are sitting means that he can influence timescales to some extent. His report on illegal working is currently with Home Secretary along with two others and the slot for publication is week after next or failing that the first week in January.

Given the current proposal in the current Immigration Bill to introduce a new criminal offence of illegal working we might hope to see this report sooner rather than later, but that is beyond Bolt’s control now.

On timing generally, Bolt said he was aware that his reports present a snapshot and that it might be more or less favourable to the Home Office as a result than if done at a different time. The family visit report of which I was quite critical may be revisited and an upcoming report on asylum casework may be more favourable to the Home Office than it would have been if the work had been done during a different period so may also need revisiting.

Bolt says that he has not ignored the previous strong criticisms of the Home Office by the outgoing John Vine. In closing, he made it clear that he has no time for conspiracy theories and very much presumes that civil servants and departments will fully co-operate with his inspections.

Overall, my impression was of a serious and committed public servant who considers himself independent but who, with the best will in the world, lacks balance in his professional experience. For example, his suggestions on evidence in domestic violence cases in a recent report were simply ignorant, not only on the value of evidence from domestic violence organisations but also on the cost, evidential value, traumatic impact on the individual and proportionality of routine interviews in domestic violence cases.

Bolt is essentially a government insider with no direct experience of working with those affected by immigration control or indeed ordinary members of the public. It is hard to be genuinely independent and to imagine different perpectives when your experience is so one-sided. If he said at his job interview with the Home Secretary what he said to us at ILPA, it is no surprise he was appointed; he might well be considered a “safe pair of hands”.

Time will tell as he grows into the role.

More asylum changes ahead says UNHCR representative

UNHCR representative Gonzalo Vargas Llosa also spoke. He expressed disquiet about Theresa May’s recent conference speech and confirmed that there will be a New Asylum Plan in 2016. Some of her ideas in her speech may find their way into that plan. He also said that there are some “worrying elements” to the Immigration Bill currently working its way through Parliament.

Of the new asylum plan, he said

There is a real risk that strategy be more restrictive than we would like and to some extent one of its objectives may be to dissuade people from coming here. If you take her speech it is very risky and her differentiation between “deserving” refugees and less deserving ones who somehow have been able to make it to the UK because they are stronger or have a little bit of money.

He expressed real concern about the handling of Eritrean cases and the information being used by the Home Office combined with the dramatic drop in recognition rates for Eritrean refugees.

Llosa warned that the issue of detention remains a serious concern and that the detained fast track is likely to return in a different form after its period of suspension.

On a positive note Llosa suggested we should find optimism in the power of public opinion. In the last week of August he had a meeting at a fairly senior level at the Home Office and he once again raised the need for the UK to increase the number of Syrian it would relocate and was told categorically that this would not happen. This was clearly ideological: the Gvernment view was that resettlement would only encourage people to come.

Then came the tragic picture of Aylan Kurdi, the outpouring of public sympathy and a rapid change of policy.

Unfortunately, though, public opinion is very much a two edged sword when it comes to immigration and refugees.

Colin Yeo
Colin Yeo A barrister specialising in UK immigration law at Garden Court Chambers in London, I have been practising in immigration law for 15 years. I am passionate about immigration law and founded and edit the Free Movement immigration law blog.

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