A further 2,500 foreign prisoners, who could have been deported from Britain after their release from jail, have been allowed to stay, the Home Office admitted last night.
Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, was fighting to keep his job as police and immigration officers hunted for 1,023 foreign offenders who had not been considered for deportation, after being allowed to slip through the immigration net.
As the scandal erupted last week, Mr Clarke tried to defend himself by pointing out that 3,000 foreign criminals have been deported successfully in the past two years. But it has emerged that, over the same period, almost as many have been officially assessed and allowed to remain in the country, despite meeting the criteria for deportation.
Last night, the Conservatives called on the Government to say whether the 2,500 offenders are dangerous, under supervision and whether any of them have committed further offences.
Some were recommended by the Immigration Service for deportation at the end of their sentences, only for the decision to be overturned on appeal. Others were not deemed sufficiently undesirable to expel. The Home Office would not say how many fell into each category.
But it was clear that all 2,500 met the basic criteria for deportation: they were released in 2004 or 2005 having served a sentence of at least two years for European Union nationals, or one year for non-EU nationals; or else were recommended for deportation by their trial judge.
David Davis, the shadow home secretary, said: “The Government must come clean. They must tell people, especially victims, whether those offenders are under supervision, whether any are dangerous, and of any subsequent involvement by them in criminal activity.”
Decisions on whether foreign prisoners can stay in Britain are taken by the Immigration Service’s criminal casework team. A Home Office spokesman said its decisions take into account the seriousness of the offence, the length of the individual’s criminal record and the risk of re-offending. Questions were being raised over how many of the missing 1,023 criminals can ever be sent home, especially if they refuse to reveal their country of origin or raise legal objections to deportation on human rights grounds.
Desperate efforts are still being made by the Home Office to locate the 79 most serious offenders on the list. Mr Clarke claimed on Friday that “deportation or removal action has now been commenced in respect of 63”, but his officials later admitted that not all 63 had been traced and many may have disappeared. Last night, the Home Office could not say how many had been detained.
Labour MPs have privately said that if any of the 288 offenders, freed after Mr Clarke was told of the non-deportation problem in August last year, have gone on to commit rape or murder, his position will become untenable.
Five of the 79 most serious offenders have been convicted of further crimes involving violence or drugs since their release. Three are currently behind bars, one of whom is serving a sentence for actual bodily harm and was also accused of rape following his initial release. There was not enough evidence to prosecute, but the charge remains on file.
Separately, another of the freed offenders is being investigated following a rape allegation. Last night the Home Office, which initially said he had been freed after August 2005, said in fact that he was actually freed earlier and was not among the 288 key offenders.
Mr Clarke is pressing for EU nationals convicted in Britain to serve their sentences in their home countries, while Britons convicted on the Continent would be sent to British jails. The proposal is understood to be backed by Austria, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency.
Officials are also examining whether foreign prisoners can be considered automatically for deportation earlier in their sentences. Since the Home Office lost a test case in 2001, officials have been forced to delay consideration until prisoners are close to release, increasing the potential for error.