Deportation of Foreign National Offenders

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:20 pm on 7 February 2024.

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Photo of Michael Tomlinson Michael Tomlinson Minister of State (Minister for Illegal Migration) 5:20, 7 February 2024

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I pay tribute to my good friend, my hon. Friend Rachel Maclean, for the way in which she conducts herself in this place and for the passion and common sense that she brought to this debate. This debate is topical and timely, and I pay tribute to her for her foresight in applying for it—many weeks ago, I am sure, yet the time is right. It is probably one of those debates where more time would be helpful. The British public rightly expect our immigration system to work for them. We serve the public and our constituents, and that includes having a firm approach to those who abuse our generosity.

Let me address some of the points that were made by Jim Shannon and my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch. It is right that we as a country have a long and proud tradition of welcoming the stranger, of welcoming those who are in need, to our shores, but it is only fair that we ask for something simple in response, which is that they play by our rules and are law-abiding. I do not hesitate to say that fairness is at the heart of this debate. The Government are absolutely clear that foreign nationals who seek to take advantage of our generosity or abuse our hospitality by committing crimes should be deported.

Let me turn to the legal framework that underpins this, because that might answer one or two of my hon. Friend’s points. Essentially, two systems—two statutes—are used. The first is the UK Borders Act 2007, where a deportation order must be considered when a foreign national has been convicted of an offence and received a custodial sentence of more than 12 months. She mentioned the threshold of 12 months. There is a system under the Immigration Act 1971 whereby, if someone is sentenced to below 12 months, they can also be deported when it is conducive to the public good. We cannot go into the details of that now, but it is interesting to note that there is no definition of that and therefore there is great flexibility, as my right hon. Friend Priti Patel knows. Suitable discretion is given to the Home Secretary in those circumstances.

As this debate has shown, however, circumstances arise where people seek to prevent deportation. There are some good reasons for that: for example, an offender might need to stay here to face the consequences of a court case. I was grateful to my right hon. Friend, the former Home Secretary, for majoring on the victims of crime, who are absolutely at the heart of this issue. That is why it is right that some foreign national offenders stay here for the first part of their sentence at least. But it is also right to say that there are legal challenges, late appeals and re-documentation barriers intended to frustrate the deportation process.

My right hon. Friend Sir Simon Clarke tempts me to go down the ECHR line and to address that. It is right to say that we have international obligations under not just the ECHR, but the refugee convention, and that because of those obligations, some deportations have not been able to take place. However, the Government are determined to do everything we can to ensure that foreign criminals are deported, making our communities safer. Perhaps there will be another time when we can debate the niceties of articles 8 and 3 in more detail.

Let me come to the statistics, which my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch mentioned. We removed more than 16,500 foreign national offenders between January 2019 and September 2023. There was a dip, and she is right to challenge me on that point. It was not just because of covid but, at about that time, there was a dip. She will be pleased to know—as will you, Mr Gray, and others in the Chamber—that, since then, the returns of FNOs have been increasing. They went up by 19% in the past 12 months. That is a good start, but I am determined to take her point seriously and to take that further.

The hon. Member for Strangford asked me whether this is a priority of the Government. Yes, it is, and he will hopefully be reassured in that regard by the increase of 19% in the past 12 months. He and others may also be reassured to hear what we have done in the past two years. My right hon. Friend the Member for Witham will know better than most about the Nationality and Borders Act, although my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch knows it well. Legislation was introduced to increase the relevant period to ensure that we can remove more foreign national offenders, and do so earlier. That is good for the taxpayer and in regard to the space in our prison estate, and it is fairer to society.

It is also right to say that the Nationalities and Borders Act was opposed by Labour. The Labour party so often opposes—every single measure that is brought in to tighten our borders is opposed by Labour. I will come back to that point and others that Stephen Kinnock made. The measures under that Act were taken to make it easier and quicker to remove foreign offenders. We have also increased the number of caseworkers. My right hon. Friend the Member for Witham will know how important that is to make sure that we can carve through the numbers and prioritise those we need to remove.

Let me come back to the infamous letter of February 2020 that so many right hon. and hon. Members mentioned. When the shadow Minister stood up and attempted to criticise the Government for the robust actions that they have been taking in this regard, in his wide-ranging speech—it ranged far beyond what one might consider to be the strict and narrow confines of this particular debate—he exposed the fact that Labour have voted time and again against every single measure that the Government have introduced to strengthen our borders. And not only that; the Leader of the Opposition signed a letter calling for criminals and foreign offenders not to be deported.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Witham will also know about another such instance. In December 2020, another charter flight to Jamaica was due to remove murderers and those convicted of attempted rape, burglaries and the supply of class A drugs. Despite lobbying, campaigns and pressure to make sure that the flight did not leave, it did leave safely. It is with some cheek, dare I say it, that the shadow Minister stands up and complains about the Conservative Government’s actions, when the leader of his party is signing letters asking for foreign national offenders to stay in this country.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch for bringing this matter to the Chamber’s attention. I encourage her to repeat her attempt: may we have another debate on this subject, because it is so timely? We perhaps need more time and more opportunities for others to contribute. I will sum up this debate by saying that this is a matter of fairness. Foreign nationals who abuse our hospitality and commit crimes in our country will be caught, they will be punished, and, where appropriate, they will be removed.