Here is the text of the letter from Charles Clarke to the chairman of the home affairs select committee John Denham in which the sacked home secretary sets out his explanation of how the foreign prisoners scandal came about.
Dear John, ( John Denham, Chair, Home Affairs Select Cttee)
FOREIGN NATIONAL PRISONERS
As I have said to you both in the Select Committee and in the House itself, I am very glad that the Home Affairs Select Committee has undertaken an investigation into the way the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) operates and that you have decided to widen the scope of the enquiry to include some consideration of the position of Foreign National Prisoners. I look forward to your Report and its conclusions.
I know that your Committee has already taken oral evidence from the current Home Secretary, from the former Permanent Secretary, Sir John Gieve, and from senior Home Office officials. I would like to contribute one or two further points on these matters, and you will appreciate that they are without benefit of official advice and based upon my own recollection of events.
First of all, it is important to note that there are two separate issues here. These are:
(1) The number of Foreign National Prisoners currently held within the prison system and how best to deal with them; and
(2) The fact that a number of Foreign National Prisoners were released from prison at the end of their term but not considered for deportation as they should have been.
These two issues were continually confused throughout the 'Foreign National Prisoner crisis' and I would like to deal with them separately in this submission.
1. How best to deal with the problem of Foreign National Prisoners (FNPs) held within the prison system.
1.1 This problem arose largely as a consequence of the increase in asylum-seekers coming to the UK in the late 1990s. As a result, the number of FNPs increased faster than the prison population as a whole until it reached about 13% of the overall prison population or around 10,000 individual prisoners.
1.2 So, for example, in the year 2000, 5,587 Foreign National Prisoners were being held and by 2005 this figure had reached approximately 9,650.
1.3 The increase in the number of Foreign National Prisoners represented an obvious pressure point on the capacity of the prison system as well as raising obvious questions about the reason why they were held in this country, rather than deported to their country of origin. From 2000 to 2004 these issues were identified by various pressure groups and by the both the former and the current Chief Inspectors of Prisons in their Annual Reports. For example, in December 2002, the current Chief Inspector, Anne Owers, highlighted a lack of procedures in place to address the particular concerns of foreign national prisoners and to ensure they were returned home immediately, after the completion of their sentence.
1.4 Between 2002 and 2004 various managerial and other solutions were suggested and tried including the appointment of Foreign National Prisoner Co-ordinators in some prisons. Largely because the problem fell across a key Home Office fault-line, the relationship between prisons and IND, these initiatives were less effective than was needed.
1.5 I was appointed as Home Secretary in December 2004 and from the outset I was aware of the issue of Foreign National Prisoners though I have to say this was only one of many pressing issues and concerns within the prison and probation system. However the scale and substance of the problem only became really clear to me after my Prison Reform Trust speech in September 2005. At this point I immediately asked officials for an urgent Action Plan covering proposals (short term, medium term, long term) for reducing the Foreign National Prisoner population.
It will be minuted that I emphasised the importance of urgent and wide-ranging work on the subject and agreed a series of measures which led to a number of changes including:
the allocation of increased resources to this area,
the seeking of more effective international agreements including a new European Union Directive; and
the development of better working relations between the Prison estate and IND.
You may recall that I referred to some of these measures in passing in my evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee on 25th October 2005.
1.6 I reported my concern about the broad issue of Foreign National Prisoners within the prison system to the Prime Minister on 16th November 2005 at a meeting on the work in hand on managing the prison population. As I am sure the record of that meeting would show, I explained to him that I was urgently exploring options for reducing the number of foreign nationals in prisons and said that I would come back to this when firm proposals had been developed based on the intensive work being done by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) and IND. I was not at that stage aware of the fact that FNPs were being released without being properly considered for deportation and so I did not discuss this matter with the Prime Minister.
2. The fact that a number of Foreign National Prisoners were released from prison at the end of their term but not considered for deportation as they should have been.
2.1 It is first worth recounting some of the background to this issue.
2.2 At the end of their prison sentences, all foreign nationals should be considered for deportation within the existing legal framework. In some cases, after consideration, they are given leave to remain. In other cases a deportation order is issued and the subject can be detained pending deportation. Many of these cases, however, are subject to legal appeals and lengthy court action and as a result of recent court rulings, it is currently deemed unlawful for deportees to be detained if the UK government knows they cannot be returned to their country of origin. It has also been the case that it has sometimes been very difficult to establish the correct nationality of some foreign nationals because documentation has been destroyed or for other reasons.
2.3 In the period until 1988, the standard practice was to defer consideration of deportation, where someone was in prison, until near their release date. This was deliberate in order to take full account of their circumstances at the time of release. In practice, however, this meant that prisoners were detained increasingly beyond the end of their sentences, under immigration powers. The practice was therefore changed to one where the decision to deport was to be taken as early as possible, with a review of that decision closer to the release date.
2.4 Then, in 2001, the Immigration Appeal Tribunal allowed an appeal by Chindamo, who was convicted of the murder of the headmaster, Philip Lawrence. Chindamo appealed against the decision to deport him on the grounds that it had been taken only two and a half years into a life sentence and, as a result, was "premature". After this, the decision was taken that deportation should not be considered until towards the end of a prison term.
2.5 The combination of rising numbers of foreign nationals and the compressed time scale resulting from the Chindamo ruling has had inevitable consequences on the overall administrative and organisational process. With hindsight it is now clear that improved communication between prisons and IND (referred to in Para 1.5 above) was also producing more referrals than anticipated and that previous increases in staffing were not sufficient to cope. In addition, the new Head of IND had recently taken up her post (August 2005) and other measures were being instituted which rightly identified higher numbers of Foreign National Prisoners than previously thought within the prison estate.
2.6 Officials are clear that although the general issue of increased numbers and staff overload was logged with Ministers, Ministers were not told that some Foreign National Prisoners were being released without being considered for deportation, nor was the real seriousness of the situation appreciated even by senior officials. I understand that Sir John Gieve confirmed these facts to the Home Affairs Select Committee when he gave his evidence.
2.7 At this stage it is also worth stressing that, while of serious concern, the Foreign National Prisoners who were released without being considered for deportation had all completed their prison sentences. In effect, they were being treated in exactly the same way as UK nationals who are released on completion of a prison term. Some were released on licence, some were moved to bail hostels and so on. For reasons set out above (paragraph 2.2), it is also likely that many would have been considered for deportation and then allowed leave to remain in the UK.
2.8 Let me now turn to recent events.
2.9 On 26th October 2005, Home Office officials gave evidence to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on removing failed asylum seekers. Most of the session was devoted to exchanges over the difficulties of removing unsuccessful asylum seekers and the prospects of hitting the 'tipping point' target. However, Richard Bacon MP asked about the number of failed applicants who have been released from prison because their removal could not be arranged. Officials said that the number was thought to be around 500. Following further exchanges, Mr Bacon asked for a note on the number of criminals who are failed asylum seekers and are then released from prison; how many there are, where they are, what types of crimes they had committed, what sentences they were given and how long they had served.
2.10 The then Permanent Secretary, Sir John Gieve, promised a note with the information the Department had and his response was submitted to the PAC on 14th November 2005. In this submission he suggested that from 2001 to August 2005, the Home Office knew of 403 foreign nationals who were released from prison without deportation proceedings being completed. The note did not include a breakdown of the offences for which these prisoners had been convicted but IND believed that foreign national prisoners released in these circumstances would not have included those convicted of serious offences.
2.11 Sir John Gieve left the Home Office in December 2005 and, as noted in Para 2.6 above, gave his own personal evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee in May this year. In it he stated that he was unaware of the scale of the problem and did not consider it to be a debacle. He also said that although he was aware of discussions about the general policy issues concerning Foreign National Prisoners, he did not bring this specific problem (or the exchanges last Autumn with the Public Accounts Committee) to the attention of Ministers.
2.12 In fact, as the Home Secretary, John Reid, made clear in evidence to the Committee, Ministers were not made aware of this specific problem until March 17th 2006 when the then Minister of State was told that there was 'a problem of uncertain magnitude'. On March 31st a submission to myself and other Ministers set out the situation and its scale in more detail. The House had risen for the Easter Recess on Thursday March 30th and the following week I made a Ministerial Visit to Albania, Romania and Bulgaria addressing issues of organised crime, including people-trafficking, in the region and their impact on the UK, as well as issues of accession to the European Union.
2.13 I read the March 31st submission on the plane returning from Bulgaria and at that point, I had two main concerns:
First, to ensure that previously misleading evidence to the Public Accounts Committee was corrected at the first opportunity after the Parliamentary Easter Recess; and
Second, that urgent steps were taken to pursue those FNPs who had not previously been considered for deportation.
2.14 Looking back, I am sure that it would have been better if the operational process to pursue these FNPs had been commenced earlier - at least upon receipt of the March 31st submission. Given the history of this matter, however, I felt at the time it was important to make sure that the information was as accurate as possible before it was reported to the House, and then to the public and the media. Officials were therefore asked to check the material and ensure its accuracy as best they could before the House returned from the Easter Recess on Tuesday 18th April 2006.
2.15 On 21st April, I informed the Prime Minister of the full position and on Monday 24th April I phoned Edward Leigh MP, the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee to let him know the position and that I was making a Written Statement to Parliament setting out the full facts on the following day, Tuesday 25th April. I wrote in parallel to the Public Accounts Committee. I subsequently made an Oral Statement to the House on Wednesday 26th April.
2.16 Meanwhile, a central control room was established to identify, track and arrest FNPs who had not been considered for deportation and should have been. I would like to thank those officers and officials of different services who worked tirelessly at the demanding tasks of cleansing the data, identifying individuals and bringing them under control in what were very difficult circumstances.
I hope that the above account of the way in which I sought to deal with these two separate issues is of assistance to your Committee.
Some of the allegations, particularly in the media, which appeared as matters unfolded arose from confusion between the two issues. I was probably responsible, at least in part, for some of this confusion because I was mindful of my duties as Home Secretary and thought that it was important and proper that I should take overall responsibility.
However the suggestion that from July 2005 I had personally known about the failure to consider deportation and done nothing about it was wrong. As others have already made clear to the Committee, it was only in late March 2006 that ministers, including myself, were made aware of the failure to consider for deportation some foreign national prisoners at the end of their sentence, and when we were aware of this action was then taken.
Because of the substantial coverage of these issues at the time, I am releasing this letter to the media.
I look forward to the Committee's report.
Rt Hon Charles Clarke MP