In an alarming development that raises serious concerns about the UK government's accountability and commitment to child protection, the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, David Neal, has been dismissed by the Home Office. This move comes at a crucial time with 15 inspection reports unpublished, including a 2nd report into the practice of accommodating unaccompanied children in Home Office hotels.  

ECPAT UK is deeply concerned about the implications of this dismissal for independent scrutiny of the safety and well-being of vulnerable children. 

Drawing on our recent victory in a landmark legal challenge, which underscores the primacy of the Children Act 1989 for children subject to immigration control, we are particularly troubled by the lack of transparency surrounding the Chief Inspector's dismissal and the unpublished report of his reinspection of the use of hotels for housing unaccompanied children. Our legal challenge found both Kent County Council and the Home Office to have acted unlawfully since December of 2021 in the routine use of hotels to accommodate children outside of the care system. It is within this context that the dismissal of a key figure with a pending report on these issues is highly concerning.  

The Chief Inspector’s term of three years was due to come to an end next month and he had recently expressed concern about the lack of a replacement in the statutory watchdog role, established by the UK Borders Act 2007, under which the Secretary of State controls the publication of the Inspector’s reports. 

A vacancy in this role will have significant impact on child victims of trafficking, especially as parliament is scrutinising the government’s Safety of Rwanda (Asylum & Immigration) Bill. It comes in the wake of an 18-month delay in the appointment of a new Independent Anti–Slavery Commissioner following significant legislation and policy changes altering the regime for victims.    

The unpublished report may contain critical information and evidence of failures in protecting children placed in hotels by the Home Office, which the Inspector has said contains five recommendations. A previous report was published in October 2022 which examined the use of hotels to accommodate unaccompanied children, with reference to the Home Office’s duty under Section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009. In publishing this report, Chief Inspector David Neal said that the housing of children in hotels represented ‘both ethical and operational’ challenges for the Home Office. The report found two cases of staff who worked in the hotels with unaccompanied children had not been Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checked residing at hotels and made clear the Home Office had no exit strategy to halt this practice which the court later found unlawful in our legal challenge.  

Patricia Durr, CEO of ECPAT UK said: 

Scrutiny and transparency in child protection is essential both to understand the scope of the problem and to and implement the necessary measures to protect these children effectively. Children rely on independent champions to speak out and speak up about unsafe practices and to expose the risks and harms they face. The dismissal of the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, coupled with the suppression of the inspection report about the treatment of children in Home Office hotels, only serves to hinder efforts to reform and strengthen child protection within the immigration system. 

The children affected arrived alone in the UK seeking safety, many of them also  victims of human trafficking and vulnerable to exploitation. Hundreds of children went missing from hotels where they were unlawfully accommodated and over 100 have never been found. It is an on-going child protection scandal and ECPAT UK continues to call for an independent inquiry to ensure it never happens again.

ECPAT UK will continue to advocate for the rights of child victims of trafficking and for children at risk within the immigration system, pushing for reforms that ensure their safety, rights, and well-being. The dismissal of the Chief Inspector and the lack of transparency cannot go unchallenged. Our commitment to protecting children from exploitation and harm remains unwavering, and we urge the government to act in the best interests of all  v children  - not least those subject to the UK's immigration and border control policies. 


Notes to editors:

  1. ECPAT UK press contact: [email protected]and 020 7607 2136 

  1. Previous ECPAT UK report from June 2022 highlighted these concerns of children going missing from Home Office hotels