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Prisons (Foreign Nationals)

Volume 550: debated on Tuesday 18 September 2012

The UK Border Agency removed 4,649 foreign national offenders from this country in 2011, but there is, of course, much more to do, so we are seeking to negotiate more compulsory prisoner transfer agreements and to improve administrative processes so that foreign national offenders are removed at the earliest opportunity. We also hope to reduce the flow into the criminal justice system through conditional cautions and to reduce the number already serving prison sentences through the early removal scheme and the tariff-expired removal scheme.

We would all like to welcome my hon. Friend to his new position and wish him the very best.

Over the last decade, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of foreign prisoners detained in our prisons. Many people in South Staffordshire feel that we are having greater trouble deporting these prisoners because of the European convention on human rights. What my constituents want to know is: what is my hon. Friend going to do to reverse that trend?

My hon. Friend and his constituents are right to be worried. It is true that foreign national offenders will continue to challenge deportation under article 8 of the ECHR, but he will be pleased to know that this Government have changed the immigration rules. New rules came into force in July this year so that only in exceptional circumstances will family life, the best interests of a child or private life outweigh criminality and the public interest in seeing foreign national offenders deported where they have received a substantial sentence. That is a better balance between the interests of foreign criminals and the interests of the British public in being protected from them, which have been neglected for far too long.

May I, too, congratulate and welcome the entire Justice team on their elevation, and wish well those right hon. and hon. Members who have been relieved of their duties?

The Prime Minister said in 2010 that he would

“personally intervene to send back thousands of foreign prisoners”

and alleviate the strain on our overcrowded and overstretched prisons. The last Government negotiated prisoner transfer agreements with more than 75 countries. I know that the Justice team and the Prime Minister believe in taking personal responsibility, so will the Minister tell us with how many countries this Government have finalised a prisoner transfer agreement over the last 28 months, and how many thousands of prisoners have been transferred during that period?

I think that the right hon. Gentleman knows how difficult this exercise is. He knows perfectly well that prisoner transfer agreements are a matter of negotiation, and he also knows that compulsory transfer agreements are much more valuable than voluntary ones. Most of the agreements that he has described his Government as having achieved are voluntary, not compulsory. This Government will attempt to negotiate more compulsory agreements, so that we can continue to send home foreign offenders whom we do not want in our prisons.

Now that we have a fresh, dynamic new regime at the Ministry of Justice, may we please move the subject of foreign national offenders to the top of the Ministry’s agenda? There are more than 10,000 foreign nationals in our jails, and that is far too many. Jamaica, Poland and Ireland are the three countries that send most foreign nationals to our jails, but we have compulsory transfer agreements with none of them. Please will the Ministry get on with negotiating compulsory transfer agreements, so that these people can be sent back to their countries of origin?

Let me say again that I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s concern. He has spoken out about this a number of times. However, I have at least some good news for him. European Union nationals account for about a third of foreign national prisoners. A European Union prisoner transfer agreement came into force in December last year, and EU countries are implementing it this year. I hope that that will not only help to remove foreign national offenders, but rank as one of the very few measures coming out of Brussels of which my hon. Friend wholly approves.