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This Government believe that foreign criminals should be returned to their home country at the earliest opportunity, and the UK Border Agency always seeks to remove them. Last year we removed more than 5,000 foreign criminals, 43% by the end of their prison sentence. Where there are barriers to early removal, the agency seeks to detain them to protect the public. However, the agency has to operate within the law. It must release foreign offenders when ordered to do so by the courts and release low-risk offenders where there is no realistic prospect of removal within a reasonable period. When this happens, the agency works closely with the police and the National Offender Management Service to reduce the risk of reoffending. Deportation action continues in all cases.
There are 3,940 foreign offenders in the community, 90% of whom were released by the courts. Deportation can be delayed for many reasons, including challenges under human rights legislation, the situation in the offender’s home country, and lack of co-operation by the offender or his home Government in getting essential travel documents. We are doing everything in our power to increase the number and speed of removals. We now start deportation action 18 months before the end of the sentence to speed up the deportation process. We are chartering flights to remove foreign offenders to many more long-haul and challenging destinations. We will change the immigration rules to cut abuse of the Human Rights Act 1998. We will open more foreign national-only prisons, and we will be able to remove more European offenders through the prisoner transfer agreement. The House can therefore see that we have already taken significant action to address this long-standing problem and intend to take further action in the months ahead which I hope Members on both sides of the House will support.
Well, quite the opposite, in fact. The trouble is that the rhetoric does not fit with the facts. We learned this weekend that a report has been sitting in the Minister’s hands for weeks and yet he had absolutely no plans to publish it. When was he going to reveal the true figures to this House? Will he publish the report, in full, this afternoon? Will he confirm that according to the report by the independent chief inspector of the UK Border Agency, John Vine, there were 3,775 foreign national offenders awaiting deportation in May this year, and that according to the secret internal Home Office report in his hands, that figure had leapt by September by nearly 500 to 4,238—higher than the number that the Minister just gave us? That equates to seven foreign criminals in every constituency awaiting deportation. Is not that an increase of 12.5% in just four months? Can the Minister tell us where these people are? To be precise, can the Home Office be precise about the whereabouts of every single one of these people? If not, then contrary to what the Minister says, he has absolutely no means of deporting any one of them.
Will the Minister confirm that the number of foreign national offenders deported has actually fallen this year—fallen, not risen—by more 700,an astounding figure? Will he confirm that the number of staff at the UK Border Agency is being cut by 6,500? Will he confirm that foreign criminals who left prison this year and have not yet been deported have been arrested and charged with violent crimes? If so, how many; and does that include murder, kidnapping and violence to the person?
So far on the Minister’s watch, we have seen numbers of staff at the UK Border Agency going down, numbers of foreign national offenders deported going down, and numbers of foreign criminals in our midst going up. Does the Minister not realise that that is the wrong way round? I urge him to get a grip as soon as possible, to publish the figures, to publish his secret report, and to put a real plan in place to ensure that more, not fewer, foreign criminals are deported: fewer words, more action.
The problem for the hon. Gentleman is that he should think carefully before asking urgent questions about newspaper reports that he has not read very carefully. All the figures in the newspaper report that he is relying on start not in May 2010 but in March 2009, so they cover a large period when his Government were in power. He appears to have forgotten that under his Government foreign national prisoners were freed on a routine basis without even being considered for deportation.. Indeed, let me give him some figures to show what has changed for the better.
Between 1999 and 2006, 1,013 foreign national offenders were released from prison without consideration for deportation. In 2009-10 the figure was 64 and in 2010-11 it was 28. Over the past two years, all 92 have been considered for deportation and 10 have already been removed—a stark contrast with the complete failure under the previous Government.
The hon. Gentleman asked about violent criminals. Again, I tell him in all friendliness that he should check his facts before he comes to the Dispatch Box. The report at the weekend mentioned three cases involving murder. I have checked the facts. One of those people was charged and acquitted, so was not a murderer at all. Of the other two, one was not only released from immigration detention under the previous Government, but committed the murder for which he was convicted under the previous Government. That is not the previous Government’s fault. People who commit murder commit a crime on their own responsibility. However, the hon. Gentleman should not attempt to distort facts and figures to serve a political purpose, particularly when he is on such weak ground.
Of the 90% of people who have been released by the courts, 60% were released under human rights legislation. We will change the immigration laws to stop the abuse of article 8 of the European convention on human rights.
Having failed with his question, the hon. Gentleman is now trying again from a sedentary position, non-stop. I invite him to lead his party in supporting our legislation, when it is brought forward, to change the Human Rights Act so that it better reflects the British people’s view of what human rights should be.
May I correct one canard that the hon. Gentleman has repeated a lot, which is that this Government propose to cut the number of staff at the UKBA by 6,500? It has been a matter of a public document for more than a year that in the current spending review period, we will cut the number by 5,200. Again, I gently tell him to stop using the 6,500 figure, because the first 1,300 of those people were planned to be cut by the previous Labour Government.
The general public will find it rather unedifying to watch this blame game, when what they want is to be protected from dangerous foreign criminals who should have been kicked out of the country. Will the Minister tell us why, in his 18-month tenure, there has not already been a move to alter the human rights legislation to which he referred? What impact does he think that legislation has had on the severity of this problem, which clearly has not come about since May 2010 but has been around for some years?
The problem has indeed been around for some years. As I said in my introductory remarks, we have taken a number of measures to make the system more effective, the most important of which was to ensure that every foreign national offender who is in prison starts having their deportation considered 18 months before the end of their sentence. That is the most effective way to ensure that we do not have hundreds of people or, as in some cases, more than a thousand people falling through the cracks.
My hon. Friend is right about human rights legislation. I apologise if we have been too slow for his taste in bringing reforms forward. As he will know, we produced a consultation document some months ago suggesting changes to human rights legislation. Given the tenor of the exchanges so far, I expect our changes to receive support from all sides of the House.
The Minister will know that the Home Affairs Committee’s last report on the UKBA emphasised that the crucial relationship in respect of foreign national prisoners was that between the Prison Service and the UKBA. Fifty per cent. of such people have been waiting for up to two years for removal. The Minister has used the 18 month figure several times. Could we not start looking at deportation the moment the prisoner enters the prison system?
Obviously, the practical point is that it depends on the length of the sentence. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, if somebody is sentenced to more than a year they are up for deportation at the end of their sentence, so what he suggests effectively happens. I am grateful to him for both the Committee’s thoughtful reports and the tone of his question, which gets to the heart of the matter. There has to be better co-ordination between the Prison Service and the UKBA. We have taken significant steps towards achieving that, and I am sure that more steps need to be taken in future.
In many cases the trial judge makes an order for deportation as part of the sentence, but a significant number of offenders destroy their passports and paperwork in an attempt to frustrate deportation. Would two things be possible? First, the trial judge could be invited to make a finding of fact at the time of sentencing about the citizenship of the offender. Secondly, to follow on from the question asked by the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, notice could be served on the offender’s high commission or embassy indicating that on completion of the sentence the individual would be deported to the country concerned, and inviting the full co-operation of that embassy or high commission.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those helpful and practical suggestions, some of which the UKBA already attempts to operate. He will be aware that most countries co-operate with the process entirely and are extremely helpful but, sadly, some countries are much less helpful. One measure that we are taking to ensure that the situation improves in the years ahead, as it needs to, is persuading Governments who are less keen than others on helping us with returns to be more helpful and co-operative about accepting their nationals back.
Successive Home Secretaries and Immigration Ministers have grappled with that suggestion. One problem is that we would need to know that offenders would be sentenced to some kind of equivalent term in their own country. Otherwise, we would have the terrible situation that somebody could commit a serious crime in this country in the full knowledge that the worst thing that would happen to them if they were caught and convicted would be that they were returned home free to their own country. I cannot believe that the right hon. Gentleman wants that to happen. That is why successive Governments have not taken that path.
I have seen people in the Dover removal centre who have been there for three years, being held in stasis after having served their sentence. May I urge the Minister to take all measures possible to get such people out of the system as quickly as possible? It seems basically unfair that they should be incarcerated when they have served their sentence.
I take my hon. Friend’s point, and he is assiduous in his work on the conditions at the removal centre in his constituency. I can assure him that this Government—like the previous Government, to be fair—will keep people in detention after their prison sentence has finished only if they are thought to pose a danger to the wider community. I am sure he will appreciate that if such people cannot be deported immediately for the reasons that we have been discussing, but they pose a danger to the British public, the best place for them is in immigration detention.
Is it not clear that the reason why the Home Secretary is not here to make the statement herself is that her Department is in such a shambles over matters relating to immigration control? Can the message be sent to her loudly and clearly that it is time she got a grip on her Department?
As I explained to Frank Dobson, it seems slightly perverse for anyone to want to send out a signal that if someone commits a serious crime in Britain, uniquely in the world they will get off with either no sentence or a very short one. We want people to know that if they commit a crime in this country, they will be caught and convicted. If they are convicted, they should serve a proper sentence. Of course it would be preferable if they could serve some of that sentence in their own country, and we have negotiated arrangements to that end with certain countries.
Following the murder of one of my constituents, and following the murderer’s being sent to prison, it was put to me by other constituents that this man—the murderer—might be a foreign national. I did not know whether that was true, so I wrote to ask the Minister. The Minister replied that he could not tell me and that the only way I could find out was to seek the permission of the murderer—no doubt because of human rights. Is not the Minister’s reply, and this situation generally, total nonsense? Sometimes it is the Member of Parliament who can track such individuals, to ensure that the Home Office is doing its duty.
I rather agree with the right hon. Gentleman. The amount of data protection that Ministers are required to observe may well seem absurd, and I can reassure him that I found it absurd as well. Indeed, those sorts of messages go out to Members of Parliament much less frequently than in the past, because I have changed the system.
Will the Minister share with the House what specific steps he will take to prevent the misuse of human rights law from stopping the deportation of dangerous foreign criminals?
As my hon. Friend will know, we produced a consultation document a few months ago. He will have to wait for the final verdict on the deliberations, but he will be as aware as I am that the pleading of human rights—in particular family rights, under article 8 of the European convention on human rights—has been distorted beyond all measure, principally by courts in this country in this instance, rather than by the European Court. We want to send much clearer guidance to our judges, so that they know where the balance should lie between the rights of the individual and the rights of the community, because that balance has got completely out of kilter.
Two were named in the weekend press, but they were not, in fact, the most awkward. Awkwardness is difficult to define. The two countries named were Jamaica and Nigeria, whose nationals account for most such prisoners. However, I should pay tribute to both countries’ Governments, who are considerably more co-operative now than they were. I visited Nigeria recently, where I visited a prison, part of which had been built by the British taxpayer specifically to make it easier for us to return Nigerian national prisoners to Nigeria. That is the kind of practical action we are taking.
Did not the Minister’s reply to my right hon. Friend Malcolm Wicks demonstrate exactly how he is failing in this job? He is just the mouthpiece for his civil servants, who are still pumping out the same old line. However, perhaps he can help us on a couple of issues on which he did not reply to the shadow Minister. Does he have a clue where the various prisoners are or how many are in the west midlands, for example?
At this moment it is quite difficult to say where every individual in this country is, or where any sub-set of those individuals is, because they may be travelling around. We put strict reporting arrangements on all who are released—both those released by the courts and the 10% released by the UKBA. We use electronic tagging and monitor them carefully so that we know where they are. That is why, as an example, we are in touch with all 92 individuals who were released without being considered for deportation over the last two years. We are pursuing deportation for all of them, and 10 have already been removed.
Opposition, who introduced the Human Rights Act and who now oppose its reform, to bring this matter up today?
I am always willing to welcome repentant sinners, so if Labour Members were to support our reform of human rights legislation, I am sure that we would be delighted.
Notwithstanding the Minister’s answers on the reform of the Human Rights Act, Britain has a good reputation historically for not sending people back if there is a reasonable chance that they will face torture or death. Will he guarantee that that will still be the benchmark against which we will be measured?
Of course that will remain the law. The hon. Gentleman takes a close interest in these matters, and I am sure that he will recognise that there is something absurd about a situation in which “human rights” has become a boo phrase, and in which many people in this country regard human rights as something that gets in the way of justice. That is nonsense—
I welcome the Home Office’s review of article 8 and the right to family life. Successful article 8 challenges to deportations are running at about 400 a year, and they include that of the man with no dependants who was convicted of killing my constituent, Bishal Gurung. Will the Minister tell the House when the Home Office review will report, and is he mindful of the evidence from the Lord Chief Justice and the President of the Supreme Court that changes of this nature would require primary legislation?
Obviously, we are mindful of all the representations we have received on the consultation. We will come to a conclusion within the next few months. My hon. Friend’s point is clearly a serious one, and we are looking carefully into the fastest and most effective method of achieving what I hope we all want to achieve.
Some of the reasons relate to the fact that fewer people are coming into the system. Also, there is an increasing cohort of people who have been here a long time and who are therefore able to have lengthy legal processes. All the points that I have already mentioned are used by individuals to delay the process.
The figures seem to show a sudden drop in the last two quarters, down from 1,339 to 936 and then barely above 1,000. There seems to be something going on that is more significant than a long-term trend. Will the Minister look again at why the number of foreign national offenders being removed seems to have dropped off a cliff edge in the past six months?
I do not accept that characterisation. Indeed, as the hon. Gentleman says, the figure went down and it has now gone back up again. As I explained to Nic Dakin, there are a number of reasons for the change, some of which are precisely related to the changes that we have introduced and will introduce to stop people using and abusing the legal system to enable them to stay in this country when they have no right to do so.