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Last Updated: Monday, 15 January 2007, 10:19 GMT
Q&A: Foreign crimes vetting
A senior Home Office civil servant has been suspended over the failure to provide police with details of crimes committed by Britons in Europe. Home Secretary John Reid is to face questions from MPs. We look at the controversy.

How did this come to light?

It emerged in evidence presented by the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) - which covers England, Wales and Northern Ireland - to the Commons home affairs select committee.

Acpo spokesman, Paul Kernaghan, told MPs that until his association took over the job of updating criminal records last year, offences committed overseas were not being entered into the Police National Computer.

Instead, information on convictions was left "sitting in desk files" at the Home Office rather than being properly examined.

This would not be known to the British courts when criminals re-offended in Britain and an apparently clear record would affect sentencing, said Mr Kernaghan.

How many criminals are involved?

In total, details of 27,529 cases were left in files at the Home Office, according to Acpo.

Of those, some 540 British criminals have been identified as being convicted abroad of the most serious offences.

The cases involved included:

  • 25 rapes
  • 3 attempted rapes
  • 29 paedophiles
  • 17 other sex offenders
  • 5 murders
  • 9 attempted murders
  • 13 manslaughter convictions
  • 29 robberies
  • How many of these criminals offended again in the UK?

    The figure is thought to be about 70.

    But the National Association of Probation Officers said this number, based on feedback from officers, was particularly low, as half of all offenders are usually expected to re-offend within two years.

    How many have been cleared to work with vulnerable people?

    The Home Office said no violent or sexual offenders had been cleared for work.

    But five of the 540 most serious offenders had sought checks with the Criminal Records Bureau for employment purposes which did not show up their crimes, the Home Office said.

    A spokeswoman confirmed that four of these had been convicted for drugs offences in Europe. The other had been convicted of assisting illegal entry to a country.

    Two were applying for jobs as sports coaches, two had sought employment as carers and one as a foster carer.

    Four were men and one was a woman.

    What is the Home Office doing?

    Home Secretary John Reid has announced an internal inquiry would take place.

    This would look into the chronology of events, practices and procedures in place at different times, whether appropriate action was taken, and lessons to be learned, he said.

    It is expected to be completed within a few weeks.

    Did ministers know anything about the problem?

    Home Secretary John Reid was only told about the issue last Tuesday.

    Initially Joan Ryan, the minister responsible for the Criminal Records Bureau, said ministers had not been aware of the issue until last week.

    But Acpo revealed it had written to police minister Tony McNulty in October about "continuing difficulties around the exchange of criminal records across the UK".

    The difficulties were "specifically the need for notifications from EU states to be accompanied by biometric data", it said in a statement.

    The letter "did not relate to funding issues nor the outstanding notifications", the statement added.

    Acpo also says that, at the end of September, it made a request to a Home Office official for more money to help deal with the backlog of 27,500 cases.

    The Home Office said Ms Ryan had dealt with the letter, while the request for more funds had been dealt with by an official, not a minister.

    The department insists no minister was aware of the backlog in cases until last week.

    Why was a Home Office official suspended?

    The Home Office said a civil servant had volunteered evidence to an internal inquiry, and had been suspended pending an investigation.

    A spokeswoman said the information warranted a disciplinary inquiry.

    She would not name or say how senior the suspended official was, but the BBC has learned it is a senior civil servant.

    What is the background to the whole situation?

    John Reid told the Commons an agreement had been in place among European countries to exchange information on the criminal convictions of foreign nationals since 1959.

    Mr Reid said this system had "grave weaknesses".

    Implementation was not uniform across Europe and the information which was passed on was of extremely poor quality, with sometimes just a name handed over.

    Mr Reid said the procedure for handling notifications passed to the UK was "fragmented and piecemeal".

    To improve the situation a European Union decision in 2005 made it mandatory for all members to have a central authority for receiving and sending the information.

    In March 2006 it was decided the authority in the UK would be Acpo.

    A backlog of 27,500 files, which had been held by the Home Office, was passed to Acpo and it began processing the files in May.

    This is not the first time in recent years that the Home Office has become embroiled in controversy, is it?

    David Davis, shadow home secretary, said the last three years had been the worst three years in the Home Office's 200-year history.

    In May last year, former Home Secretary Charles Clarke was sacked after more than 1,013 foreign prisoners were released without being considered for deportation.

    But trouble did not let up with the appointment of Mr Reid.

    By July, he was facing criticism for a huge backlog of asylum claims which he said were unlikely to be cleared before 2011, and three months later he was in hot water again for prisons becoming filled to capacity.

    Most recently, the head of the Prison Service admitted he did not know exactly how many inmates were on the run from open jails in England.

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