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Foreign National Prisoners

Volume 512: debated on Tuesday 22 June 2010

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Weir. I thank Mr Speaker for allowing me to have the debate and I congratulate the new Justice Minister on his well deserved appointment.

I have come here today, on behalf of my constituents in Kettering, to advance a proposal that would save Her Majesty’s Government quite a substantial sum of money and free up quite a large amount of prison space, and that would enable us to advance a sensible policy on law and order—putting criminals behind bars so that they cause less crime. The proposal is basically that we should send back to secure detention in their own countries the 11,500 foreign national prisoners in our jails.

Those 11,500 foreign nationals make up some 13% of the present prison population. It is a staggeringly large figure, and I understand that it has more than doubled in the past 15 years. The figures available to me show that in England and Wales, as of 30 June 1995, there were just over 4,000 foreign nationals in our jails. I believe that the latest figure is some 11,500. I should be grateful for the Minister’s confirmation of what the most up-to-date figure is.

I also understand that, on average, foreign national prisoners serve nine to 10 months in jail, including for some extremely serious offences, and that the numbers of foreign national prisoners are now so large that we have dedicated whole prisons to holding just them. I should welcome the Minister’s confirmation that HMP Canterbury, HMP Bullwood Hall and HMP Morton Hall are reserved, either entirely or almost entirely, for foreign nationals. This is a national disgrace. We cannot go on like this. We should arrive at a sensible situation in which we can return these people, who have done very bad things in our country and abused our trust, to serve out their sentences in their own countries.

It is no exaggeration to say that Britain has become the “United Nations of crime”. I understand that we are now paying for the board and lodging of criminals from some 160 countries, out of only 192 recognised countries; 80% of the world’s nations are represented in our jails, and there are some pretty nasty people. Apparently, one third have been convicted of violence or sexual offences and almost one fifth are guilty of drug crimes. Other offences include robbery, burglary and fraud. They come from some pretty exotic places. Apparently, 10 countries account for almost half these foreign offenders, with the leading countries in the league of shame, according to the numbers as of 18 December 2009, being Jamaica with 963, Nigeria with 752, the Republic of Ireland with 647, Vietnam with 620 and Poland with 617. By my reckoning, those top five countries as of last December accounted for 3,599 foreign national prisoners—one third of the total.

My contention is that we ought to send these people back to their country of origin. I am not a lawyer, and I am rather pleased that I am not a lawyer, but I understand that there are weighted meanings to words that most of us would regard as meaning the same thing. Repatriation, I understand, is different from deportation, which is different from removal, but to my constituents in Kettering, they all basically mean the same thing. We want these nasty people back in their countries of origin. I am not particularly fussed as to whether they are repatriated, deported or removed—I just want them there, not here.

I understand that until very recently, we did not really have any kind of prisoner transfer arrangements with any countries in the world. We then established some voluntary agreements so that prisoners could be transferred if they volunteered, and very recently we have just begun to look at compulsory transfer agreements. I would like to see more of those. I was pursuing the matter with the previous Government and not getting very far. I hope that with the enlightened good offices of the new and far-sighted Minister, we shall make rather better progress.

In the questions that I have asked so far, I have concentrated on the countries at the top of the list of shame, because that seemed a sensible place to start. I asked whether there were agreements in place with Jamaica. That is a Commonwealth country, to which we send very large amounts of development aid each year. My understanding is that a transfer agreement is in place. It was signed in 2007. However, it is still subject to ratification and also requires legislation in the Jamaican Parliament. I am unclear about whether it is a compulsory transfer agreement or just a voluntary one.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing such an important debate. Does he know that our coalition partners were far ahead of us on this issue? In their wonderful manifesto, “change that works for you”, they say on page 76 that they will

“Prioritise deportation efforts on criminals”.

Our coalition partners should be congratulated on that, and we should follow their lead.

I am grateful for that most helpful intervention from my hon. Friend, who I know has a prison in his constituency. I am sure that there are foreign nationals there as well. Of course, that is not the only policy from which we should learn a lesson from our coalition partners. It is a very helpful move forward.

Nigeria is second in the list of shame, with 752 prisoners as of December. I understand that we are looking for a compulsory transfer agreement with that country. Again, it is in the Commonwealth. I understand that a Bill is before the Nigerian National Assembly. I hope that we are using our diplomatic efforts abroad to encourage these countries to get a move on.

I also understand that at the end of last year, the United Kingdom brought into force the additional protocol to the Council of Europe convention on the transfer of sentenced persons. That took place on 1 November. Under the additional protocol, the United Kingdom can transfer prisoners, without their consent, to 34 signatory countries, provided that the prisoner is subject to a deportation order. The consent of the receiving state is required in each case. However, the written answer that I received on 1 February 2010 stated:

“To date no prisoners have been transferred under these arrangements.”—[Official Report, 1 February 2010; Vol. 505, c. 115W.]

Thirty-five countries are affected by compulsory prisoner transfer agreements, and of those 35, most are in Europe. There are 3,069 foreign national prisoners from the 35 countries in British jails, which is 28% of the total. The list of shame in this case is headed by the Republic of Ireland, with 647; Poland has 617; in third place is Romania with 357; Lithuania comes in fourth at 330; France is number five with 163—and so the list goes on. I also understand that we have an agreement for compulsory transfer with Libya but, to date, no prisoners have been transferred under those arrangements, although I understand that Scotland has been involved in sending prisoners back to that country even if England and Wales have not.

I should very much like to find out from the Minister the cost of keeping a prisoner in jail for a year; I understand that it is about £30,000 to £40,000. Given that there are 11,500 foreign national prisoners—again, the number is to be confirmed by my hon. Friend—that would imply that the cost to this country of keeping those nasty people in British jails is something between £300 million and £400 million a year. That is a substantial amount.

My hon. Friend is being extremely generous in giving way. Matters go further than he has described. Wellingborough prison is in my constituency, and it is overcrowded all the time. Its prison officers, who do a wonderful job, tell me that they never have enough time to work with prisoners and get them educated, so that when they go back on the streets, they reoffend instead of being model citizens. That is partly due to the overcrowding, which is caused by there being so many foreign national prisoners.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The purpose of prison, in denying people their liberty, is to be a punishment, but it is also to rehabilitate them so that, when they go back into the real world, they do not reoffend. If we are having to spend such a length of time dealing with people, many of whom do not speak English and do not understand our customs and how we do things in this country, it makes prison officers’ jobs, which are already very difficult, far more difficult and challenging. That will have an impact on the rehabilitation of British prisoners, who are likely to stay in this country for a long time.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way during his very powerful and important speech. Canterbury prison is in my constituency, and it is entirely composed of foreign prisoners. At stake is not only the cost, both financial and in management terms, of the prisoners, whose numbers almost trebled under the previous Government from 4,000 to 11,500, but the issue of deportation at the end of sentence.

We have several bad cases in my constituency. A woman who calls herself Sheena Daniels is perhaps the worst case of a person whom judges recommended for deportation. Somehow or other, she has claimed be a Zimbabwean—although I am told that she has a Nigerian name and a west African accent—and on the strength of that has finally received exceptional leave to remain. The judicial recommendation to deport has been abandoned, so that the community where she and her family have continued to commit criminal offences is suffering.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and what a shocking case that is. Sadly, I do not think that it is the exception; I would have thought that it was probably fairly typical. Let us get things clear. These people have come to this country. They have abused our trust. They have committed offences so bad that even our creaky, criminal justice system has actually sent them to jail. I very much doubt whether they ever serve their sentences in full, given that most British prisoners do not.

A few years ago, there were lots of such cases, and there was a scandal about people not being automatically deported to where they came from. It is therefore important that, if foreign national prisoners complete their sentences, they should be deported. In my view, they should all be deported, repatriated or removed—whatever the legal term is—at the end of their sentences. However, I would go further and say that in-sentence prisoners need to be sent back to their countries of origin because of the costs that we are having to pay to keep them in British jails.

If the coalition Government were to take sensible steps to address the problem, especially with our European partners and our Commonwealth compatriots, we could make real progress in freeing up the prison space that our country badly needs. We could then send more prisoners from this country to jail. We know that too many people are not going to prison because magistrates and others are under direction to try to keep them out of prison, as there is not enough space. Given that 13% of our prison population is made up of foreign nationals, it is obvious to me that if we tackled this issue sensibly, we could make real progress on a wide variety of fronts.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing the debate. He raised this issue on numerous occasions during the previous Parliament. He has found two occasions already to raise the subject orally with me, and I am delighted that he is going to hold this Administration to account with the same vigour as he did the previous one. I am grateful to him. This is an area where progress has been stuttering. The issue is bureaucratically complicated and difficult. I am as anxious as he is for progress and will welcome the regular spur that my officials and I will receive from Kettering to keep our focus and that of the bureaucracy—in the best sense of the word—on addressing the issue.

Foreign nationals who come to our country and abuse our hospitality by breaking our laws should face the full force of the law. If appropriate, they should go to prison. I share fully my hon. Friend’s frustration that foreign national prisoners who have no links to the United Kingdom are still not routinely transferred to prisons in their own country. As he said, a significant part of the purpose of prison should be the rehabilitation of the offender. That is not a duty owed by the United Kingdom taxpayer to foreigners in the same way as it is owed to our own citizens.

We currently hold 11,367 foreign national prisoners, of whom 7,824 have been convicted and are serving sentences of imprisonment, and who could be considered for transfer to their own country. In contrast, our posts overseas are aware of about 2,000 British prisoners held, of whom about half are thought to be sentenced prisoners. Yet in 2009, with this large number of foreign national prisoners in our prisons, we managed to transfer 41 back to prisons in their own country and we received 64 British prisoners back. While the proportions are striking, so is the feebleness of the overall number. I have asked my officials to pursue all possible options for increasing that number.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. The Minister referred to the numbers of prisoners who are incarcerated abroad; may I draw his attention to an issue at a slight tangent to this debate? A significant number of British citizens are on bail in European countries. They are not in jail, having not served trial. Many are there as a result of the notorious European extradition warrants. They are there for an extraordinary length of time, which is a problem for their families, who face a lot of hardship. Can the Minister work with officials to secure an agreement to allow them to serve bail in their home country?

My hon. Friend has put that on the record. It is separate from today’s debate. I do not want to pursue that because it will reduce the time I have to reply properly to my hon. Friend who secured the debate.

Transferring prisoners to their own country frees up prison places here and reduces the cost to the British taxpayer, but that is not the only reason for seeking their transfer. The Government want our prisons to rehabilitate prisoners better and enable them to lead productive, law-abiding lives following their release from prison. Just as I want to see British prisoners provided with work, education and training to reduce reoffending in this country, so a foreign national prisoner is more likely to be rehabilitated if he serves his sentence in his own country where he can undertake offender behaviour programmes and pre-release activities most suited to his needs and those of his host community. There are real difficulties associated with imprisonment in a foreign land, including language and cultural barriers and visiting difficulties, which make rehabilitation less effective. A prisoner serving his sentence at home is also more likely to receive help and support from family and friends. Transfer is in the best interests of not only the prisoner but the public in his country of origin.

Since the introduction of automatic deportation in 2008, foreign national prisoners who receive a sentence of imprisonment of 12 months or more can expect to be removed from the United Kingdom at the end of their sentence. Transferring prisoners during the course of the sentence ensures that the receiving state is aware of the prisoner and his offence, and is better able to protect the public when the prisoner is released. Information on previous offences is plainly helpful and welcomed by overseas jurisdictions.

Although there are sound public policy grounds for transferring prisoners to their own country, I accept that the numbers transferred are pathetically small. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering is aware, the United Kingdom has prisoner transfer arrangements with more than 100 countries, yet we only managed to transfer 41 prisoners from prisons in England and Wales while 64 returned here. It is apparently the first time that we managed to get more imports than exports. I am determined to do everything to ensure that the risible figure for transfers is increased.

There are a number of reasons why the figure has remained stubbornly low, which my hon. Friend probably already appreciates, and which need to be addressed and overcome. The vast majority of the transfer arrangements have been in place for some time and require the consent of the prisoner, without which the prisoners cannot be transferred. Prisoner transfer was initially conceived as a humanitarian measure, and I understand that it is for that reason that Parliament thought it right to make prisoner consent a prerequisite to transfer when passing the Repatriation of Prisoners Act 1984. That remained the case until 2006, when Parliament amended the Act to enable prisoners to be transferred without their consent. I have asked my officials to investigate the scope for renegotiating arrangements on the basis of compulsory transfer. Although we may not be able to achieve compulsory transfer arrangements in all cases, we should do so wherever we can, and there is some limited progress to report.

In November 2009, the UK ratified the additional protocol to the Council of Europe convention on the transfer of sentenced persons, which provides for compulsory transfer where a prisoner has been served with a deportation order. My officials are working closely with the UK Border Agency to identify suitable prisoners for transfer under the protocol. As an example, I expect the first prisoners, from Lithuania in this case, to be transferred later this year. No-consent arrangements have also been concluded with Uganda and Rwanda, but as my hon. Friend pointed out, they await ratification.

Work is also ongoing with the Nigerian Government to put in place a no-consent prisoner transfer agreement. My hon. Friend may be aware that legislation to amend Nigeria’s prisoner transfer legislation is currently before its National Assembly. Like the UK law before its amendment, current Nigerian legislation requires prisoners’ consent. I am grateful to the Nigerian Government for their willingness to engage with us on the issue, which I hope to discuss further with their Ministers during a visit by President Jonathan of Nigeria to the UK next week. In the meantime, we continue to pursue the option of voluntary transfers to Nigeria. To date, 22 prisoners have applied for transfer, and the applications are currently being considered by the Nigerian Government.

Although we support the principle of compulsory prisoner transfer, some countries maintain that sentences should be served where they were passed, claiming that rehabilitation can be achieved only if the prisoner wants to transfer. I disagree with that view, but where it is held, it is an obstacle to the compulsory transfer of a significant number of foreign national prisoners. However, we will continue to negotiate compulsory agreements wherever we can.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the European Union has agreed a framework decision governing the transfer of prisoners between member states of the Union, which comes into force next December. The agreement provides for compulsory transfer under certain defined circumstances: where the prisoner is to be transferred to the country of his nationality in which he is ordinarily resident, where the prisoner is to be transferred to the country of his nationality, to which he would otherwise be deported at the end of his sentence, and where the prisoner has fled and a sentence is transferred to his country of nationality for enforcement. Regrettably, the framework decision does not apply to sentences before its implementation, but we expect to see a steady increase in the numbers transferred after December 2011 and consequently a steady decline in the number of EU nationals held in our prisons after that date.

My hon. Friend has already drawn attention to the fact that the largest group of foreign nationals are Jamaican. In 2007, the United Kingdom signed a prisoner transfer agreement with Jamaica. I regret to say that it is a voluntary agreement, which was the limit of what was able to be negotiated at the time, and it has not yet been ratified. Changes to Jamaican legislation are necessary before ratification can proceed. I have asked my officials to investigate how we can work with other Departments here to help and encourage the Jamaican Government to progress with the agreement.

We will continue to press voluntary prisoner transfer arrangements where we cannot negotiate compulsory ones, and we will take action to encourage prisoners who could transfer but do not to apply for a transfer. I have asked my officials to look urgently at how prisoners can best be informed of the options available to them and encouraged to apply.

We are gradually increasing the number of prisoners transferred to countries outside the European Union. In addition to those seeking voluntary transfer to Nigeria, 25 prisoners have sought transfer to prisons in Pakistan. The transfer of the first four of those has been agreed and will take place in the next few weeks. Many foreign nationals in our prisons cannot be transferred to serve their sentence in their home countries, because there is no agreement in place. It is right that we seek to have prisoners who are subject to deportation action, or who have no entitlement to remain in the United Kingdom, removed as soon as possible at the end of their sentence.

We have inherited an overcrowded prison estate that is teetering on the edge of being able to keep pace with the demand created by those sent there by the courts. Moreover, one of the key factors is the large number of foreign nationals in our prisons, many of whom have no right to be in the United Kingdom. I therefore need no reminding of the importance of improving the situation by all appropriate means. At a time when we have been left with no money by the previous Government, we need to look carefully at how our resources are used and what can be done to target them more effectively. Our priority is to protect the public and focus our efforts on reducing reoffending. It is therefore right for us to consider how prison resources can be better focused on prisoners who will be released into the community in the United Kingdom, which will free up prison capacity currently taken by foreign nationals who will be removed from the country anyway. That is one way that we can help achieve our priority.

Provisions are already in place to help ensure that foreign national prisoners can be removed from the United Kingdom as early in their sentence as possible. The early removal scheme has been in operation in England and Wales since 2004 and gives the Secretary of State the power to remove eligible prisoners earlier in their sentence than would otherwise have been possible. Foreign national offenders who are serving a determinate sentence and who are liable to removal from the United Kingdom can be removed from prison and the country up to 270 days, or nine months, before the halfway point of their sentence, when they would normally be released. The period of early removal in each case varies depending on the length of the sentence being served, and the maximum of 270 days applies where the sentence is for at least three years. It will be proportionately less for shorter sentences. Prisoners must serve at least a quarter of their sentence before early removal can take place. In each case, removal is dependent on the UK Border Agency making the necessary arrangements. That can be affected if the prisoner appeals against removal or if there are difficulties in securing the necessary travel documentation.

The scheme does not apply to offenders serving life or other indeterminate sentences. However, all foreign national prisoners serving a determinate sentence who are liable to be deported by UKBA are considered for the scheme by the National Offender Management Service. It is important to remember that those offenders would be subject to deportation by UKBA on their release anyway.

Early removal under the scheme is not pursued for prisoners with outstanding criminal charges or further custodial requirements, such as an offender with an outstanding confiscation order. Such prisoners should not be permitted to avoid their liability by leaving the United Kingdom’s jurisdiction early. I would like to emphasise that foreign national prisoners who are removed or deported under the scheme are flagged on UKBA’s warnings index and can therefore be identified if they attempt to return to the United Kingdom.

UKBA will continue to seek to remove foreign national prisoners who have no right to remain here. Since 2007, some 15,000 foreign national prisoners have been deported. UKBA works closely with NOMS to ensure that prisoners can be removed at the earliest possible moment. In 2009, UKBA embedded immigration teams in nine prisons as part of the rationalisation of the foreign national prison population in the category C prison estate. The two hub and spoke prisons are Canterbury and Bullwood Hall, not Morton Hall, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering. This enables UKBA staff to gather nationality and identity information at the earliest opportunity with the aim of reducing the number of prisoners and increasing the removal and deportation of foreign criminals at the end of their sentence.