With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the deportation and removal of foreign national prisoners.
I will update the House on our progress in considering the cases which I reported last week had been released without proper consideration, and I will set out the facts in relation to the reports on foreign national prisoners and the removal of failed asylum seekers which my department received over a period of time.
I will also set out the action taken by my department in response to those reports - including the robust procedures put in place to deal with the very specific issue of consideration of deportation pre-release.
And finally, Mr Speaker, I will set out, as promised a week ago, the conclusions I have come to on reforms necessary to the policy framework in which deportations are considered and dealt with.
Let me begin by confirming, as set out to the House last week, that as a result of a series of decisions taken earlier this year including improved management structures, more resources and tightened procedures we have for the past month had a system to ensure that further cases cannot be missed.
This situation will continue to improve as we move over time as a matter of routine to consider for deportation all potential cases a year before they leave prison, or at the beginning of the sentence if that is less.
Last Friday I wrote to you, Mr Speaker, to set out our progress in dealing with those cases released without prior consideration of deportation.
I would now like to update the House on the figures I published then.
As of yesterday evening, consideration of all the most serious 79 cases had been completed, with deportation action having been commenced in respect of 70. The remaining 9 are cases where deportation action is not being pursued, in accordance with current policy criteria. 32 of these 70 are now accounted for and either deported or within our control. The Immigration Service and police are continuing priority operations to bring the remainder under control. I will not give further details at this stage as the House will appreciate that my first priority is the efficacy of these operations.
As I made clear in last Friday's letter, Mr Speaker, our second priority for consideration is the 103 cases for which, as we stated to the Public Accounts Committee, the type of offence was unknown. Data on these cases is now complete and I can say that there are 11 of these cases where the original offence was within our category of 'more serious offences'.
Consideration for deportation of all but one of these cases has now been completed and deportation action has commenced in respect of seven of them. Since their release none of these individuals has committed any of the more serious further offences.
This deals with all the cases where individuals were originally convicted of more serious offences. Of the 1023 cases in total, consideration has commenced in 574 cases, of which 554 have been completed, with deportation action being pursued in 446 cases.
Perhaps I should add, Mr Speaker, that almost all of the cases which have so far been given prominence in the media in recent days are not amongst those upon which I have been reporting to the House, though some do indeed raise important issues of policy.
Mr Speaker, whatever the historic failings, I do want to thank all of those engaged in the very intensive work which has continued throughout the Bank Holiday weekend. This has included a major police incident room in Portsmouth; a casework operation in the Immigration and Nationality Department in Croydon; work by prison and probation staff; and joint police and IND operations to detained offenders decided for deportation.
There is a very high operational commitment to this work for which I want to express appreciation.
Mr Speaker, from the outset I have acknowledged that there has been a systemic failure within the Home Office which I regret and for which I have apologised. For example it was only in 1999 that records began to be kept in this area at all.
However, there have been a number of allegations of inaction by the Home Office in a range of areas over a period of time which have portrayed what I believe to be a false position.
I want now to set the record straight.
There are three distinct issues. The first is the broad issue of the rising number of foreign nationals in our prisons (rising from 5,587 in 2000 to almost 10,000 in 2005) and the policy framework for their deportation. The second is the removal of failed asylum seekers and our action to reach the so-called 'tipping point'. And the third is the specific operational question of the backlog of cases.
The first issue - the overall approach to foreign national prisoners and their deportation - was the one raised over a period of time by respective Chief Inspectors of Prisons. In summary they have mainly made the argument that the government was not paying sufficient attention to foreign national prisoners or their human rights, particularly in relation to detention after the end of their sentences. The Home Office has sought to deal with these concerns by a variety of means, which, amongst other things, led to the deportation of about 3000 foreign national prisoners in the years 2004 and 2005, a figure to compare with a total foreign national prisoner population of 9690 prisoners in 2005. Anne Owers did acknowledge some progress on this broad issue in her report of 2004/05.
The second issue - the removal of failed asylum seekers - was the main focus of the NAO report of July 2005, entitled "Returning Failed Asylum Seekers". The overall conclusion of this report was that the prompt departure or removal of unsuccessful asylum applicants should be prioritised, a conclusion which squared exactly with the Home Office prioritisation of asylum in general and, in particular, action to reach the point where more asylum seekers were leaving the country than unfounded new applications.
This was indeed achieved in February of this year and was widely welcomed.
The NAO report also noted that action on criminal cases was not being initiated early enough to allow preparations for removal to be made pre-release from prison though the report acknowledged the increase in resources already directed to dealing with these cases.
The Home Office immediately responded to the NAO comment. Additional staffing of 90 caseworkers to come on stream from January 2006 was identified as was a further £2.7m of resource to come on line from 1 April 2006. Immigration Service staff were placed in 4 London prisons and surgeries were held in 60 prisons; a weekly report on the foreign national prisoner population was initiated; and new arrangements were made to move foreign nationals who had completed their sentence from prison to immigration detention facilities at the rate of around 300 a month.
In addition management arrangements were strengthened.
This NAO report was the basis for the Public Accounts Committee evidence session on 26 October 2005, which also focused on the issue of the removal of failed asylum seekers.
I have already acknowledged the important role played by the Public Accounts Committee in focusing attention upon these matters. I also very much welcome the announcement that the Home Affairs Committee will extend its enquiry to cover this matter.
The House may recall that I first raised publicly my concern over the broad policy issues raised by the rise in the number of foreign national prisoners in evidence to the Home Affairs Committee on October 25th last year.
Following the PAC hearing, the Home Office set about collecting and cleansing the data in order that we could report properly to the Committee and the public on the true size and nature of the backlog, and take the appropriate action. The first report was made to the PAC in November.
However closer analysis revealed that the size of the backlog was larger than previously thought and, crucially, that serious offenders were amongst the backlog.
This was reported to me at the end of March 2006, together with plans to re-check the information before it was put into the public domain, to begin casework on this backlog, and to work with prisons and probation on the serious cases.
The PAC itself published its report on March 14th. It did address the issue of Foreign National Prisoners in the body of its report but it was not in a position to draw firm conclusions or make firm recommendations.
Mr Speaker, the rise in the numbers of foreign nationals in our prisons and the overall policy framework for dealing with issues of their deportation is a long-standing concern about which detailed work has been proceeding for some months.
I would now like to report my preliminary conclusions to the House.
Mr Speaker, these are complex and difficult issues. I will shortly publish, before the end of May, a consultation paper with specific and detailed proposals from the beginning to the end of the process.
The guiding principle will be that foreign nationals guilty of criminality should expect to be deported.
To achieve this I will consult in the following areas.
Firstly, the data which identifies an individual as a foreign national must be captured at the beginning of the criminal justice system, including at the point of arrest and as the case proceeds through the courts. At each stage there should be sanctions against individuals who give false information on nationality, or indeed no information at all.
Secondly, it is important to ensure that the issue of deportation is raised throughout the sentencing process. Following recommendations from the Sentencing Advisory Panel, the Sentencing Guidelines Council will shortly be publishing draft guidelines to set clear criteria according to which judges should make deportation recommendations when sentencing.
Thirdly, we need to deport prisoners at an earlier stage in their sentence. Ideally prisoners should serve their sentence in full in their home country, which also assists rehabilitation.
The UK currently has Prisoner Transfer Agreements with 90 countries, and we have recently ratified an agreement with India and others are awaiting ratification. Within the EU, we are strongly supporting the efforts of the Austrian Presidency to secure a Directive which will enable the repatriation of prisoners within the EU without requiring the consent of the prisoner.
In addition, The Criminal Justice Act 2003 introduced arrangements to consider whether prisoners should be deported before the end of the sentence and we will consult upon proposals to enable this to happen earlier in a prisoner's sentence.
Fourthly, Mr Speaker, I want to make it clear that the Government not only intends to ensure that the current system operates effectively but also seeks after consultation to extend the categories of offenders who are considered for deportation. We will therefore publish proposals to consider for deportation a wider range of offenders.
Mr Speaker, I want to state clearly that where deportation can properly be considered, the clear presumption should be that deportation will follow unless there are special circumstances why it cannot. We will consult on whether this presumption should be made statutory through primary legislation.
Such a presumption would include all criminals sentenced to imprisonment; all those convicted for an offence listed in an Order under section 72 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002; all those on the Sex Offenders Register; repeat offenders and, of course, all those recommended for deportation by the sentencing judge.
We believe that there is a strong case for extending these proposals to any individual who is convicted of an imprisonable offence, whether or not a sentence of imprisonment was actually given, and we will consult on that.
These proposals would replace the current practice of considering for deportation only non-EEA nationals with a sentence of 12 months or more; EEA nationals with a sentence of 24 months or more; cases where the individual has 3 lesser convictions in a 5 year period; and all cases where the sentencing judge has recommended deportation.
Finally in relation to our policy framework, I have already said that we are now ensuring that all deportation decisions are being taken before an individual is released. That will continue.
But I will also consult on the following steps to ensure effective implementation of deportation and removal decisions: Full use of the less burdensome process of administrative removal rather than deportation in eligible cases - that is, where individuals have no or limited leave to remain; more effective procedures in relation to psychiatric hospitals; a new power in primary legislation to enable us to detain an individual pending consideration of whether they should be deported or removed as a result of their criminal conviction; amending primary legislation so that deportation appeals, save for those raising asylum or human rights issues that are not clearly unfounded, are heard after the individual has been deported from the UK; the introduction of an automatic bar on return for all those who are subject to administrative removal due to criminality, as is already the case with those who are deported.
Finally, Mr Speaker, I should add that I will also consult on proposals to achieve a more coherent approach to taking criminality into account in decisions on who is allowed into the country, who is allowed to stay, who is granted settlement and who can acquire British citizenship.
These are significant proposals which, as I said earlier, we have been preparing for some months. They will I am sure also be controversial. But I hope that unlike some previous legislation in this area we can rely on the full-hearted support of both the main opposition parties in ensuring that foreign nationals who commit crimes are deported rapidly to the countries from which they come.
Mr Speaker, this has been an unedifying episode for all of us in the Home Office who are charged with the protection of the public. But I said that I would stay and put the situation right.
I have set out the results of the intensive work being done by the agencies to deal with the outstanding cases. I have set out steps taken to improve our systems on foreign national prisoners including robust procedures which now mean that the appropriate processes are in place. And I have set out my proposals to deport more offenders, more quickly.
I commend this statement to the House.