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Imprisoned Foreign Nationals

Volume 586: debated on Wednesday 15 October 2014

It is a huge pleasure to serve under your distinguished chairmanship, Mr Caton. I thank Mr Speaker for granting me the honour of securing today’s debate. I welcome to the debate my right hon. Friend the Minister, who serves in both the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. I know that he takes a great interest in these important matters.

My contention on behalf of my constituents in Kettering is that far too many foreign national offenders are being held in British prisons. Do not get me wrong: it is excellent that so many criminals are being caught and sentenced, but such people need to serve their sentences in secure detention in prisons in their own country, because the cost to the British taxpayer is north of £300 million a year. At a time of severe constraints on public expenditure, that is far too large a bill to ask British taxpayers to pay.

My understanding is that England and Wales have a prison population of something like 85,000 prisoners; no doubt the Minister will be able to update the House with the very latest figures when he responds. I understand that 10,834 of those 85,000 are foreign national offenders; again, I am sure that the Minister will want to provide the House with the exact figures. I am a bear of little brain, but I estimate that that means that foreign national offenders make up something like 13% of our prison population.

Both the number of foreign national offenders and the total number of prisoners in British prisons have increased markedly since the early days of the previous Government, thanks in large part to the tougher criminal justice policies pursued by the previous Conservative Government, the previous Labour Government, and the current coalition Government. That is a good thing; criminals are being brought to justice and are serving longer in prison, and my constituents support that. However, having almost 11,000 foreign national offenders gives us huge problems. Our prison system is basically full, yet 13% of prisoners are foreign nationals. Public expenditure is tight, yet we are spending more than £300 million a year on these people. I understand that a number of Her Majesty’s prisons are devoted entirely to housing foreign national offenders. I am sure that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I understand that HMP Canterbury and HMP Bullwood Hall are devoted entirely to housing foreign national offenders.

Our jails are host to foreign criminals from 160 countries around the world; indeed, 80% of the world’s nations are represented in British prisons. Something like a third of them have been convicted of violent and sexual offences, a fifth have been convicted of drugs offences, and others have been convicted of burglary, robbery, fraud and other serious crimes. Although 160 countries are represented in our prisons, something like 57% of the total foreign national prisoner population comes from just 12 nations.

I shall read out the list of shame: top of the polls is Poland, with 938 foreign national offenders in our jails; second is Ireland, with 779; third is Jamaica, with 737; in equal fourth place are Romania and Pakistan, each with 547; sixth is Lithuania, with 502; seventh is Nigeria, with 469; eighth is Somalia, with 430; ninth is India, with 426; 10th is Bangladesh, with 276; 11th is Albania, with 275; and 12th is Vietnam, with 247. I am sure that the Minister will correct me if any of those numbers are wrong or should be updated, but those 12 countries have the biggest national populations in our prisons, making up 57% of the total—that is 6,174 prisoners.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing such an important debate and addressing an issue that affects a lot of us. Does he agree that one way to resolve the problem is to use the budgets of both the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Justice to improve prisons in countries such as Jamaica—I have visited Kingston prison, where some UK nationals and almost 1,000 Jamaicans were being held—thereby allowing prisoners to be returned to a human-rights-compliant jail in their homeland?

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention; he knows a lot about the subject, and I congratulate him on taking the initiative to visit the prison in Kingston. There cannot be many Members of the House who have visited Kingston prison, so I applaud my hon. Friend for his endeavour. He makes an extremely sensible suggestion, but I must say that I do not think that my constituents in Kettering are particularly fussed about the human rights of foreign nationals who commit crimes in this country. However, I understand that, as things stand, we operate under human rights legislation introduced by the previous Government and are not allowed in law to deport criminals to non-human-rights-compliant prisons.

It would make sense to use the huge and increasing international aid budget to build suitable prisons in countries that provide us with a large number of prisoners. That is a good idea. Indeed, earlier this year I asked the then Minister of State, Department for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), how much we give in aid each year to Jamaica, Pakistan, Nigeria, Somalia, India and Bangladesh. The answer was that for 2012—one year—we gave them £973 million. Those six countries provide us with 2,900 foreign national offenders, which is more than a quarter of the total number of foreign national offenders. It costs this country more than £100 million a year to incarcerate these people in our jails. It would be a good idea to spend some of that £973 million on building prisons in those six countries.

What my hon. Friend is describing is not a novel idea. The Government have supported similar ideas in other countries: I believe that Haiti is one such case, and the Jamaican example is the one that is closest to happening. I hate to say it, but the project has stalled because there have been difficulties with the MOJ and DFID budgets and with driving the matter forward through civil servants and Ministers, and there have also been problems with getting agreement with the Jamaican Government. Nevertheless, where there is a will to deport these gentlemen, there is definitely a way.

That is absolutely right. In that regard, I have great hopes for my right hon. Friend the Minister, because I am sure that if something can be achieved, he will achieve it. I would go so far as to say that we should make our international aid to these countries conditional on their acceptance of a prison-building programme—we should not give them international aid if they do not co-operate with us on this issue.

Again, I would be happy to be corrected if I am wrong, but I understand that we have been pursuing a compulsory prisoner transfer agreement with Jamaica for ages, but it is still subject to ratification by the Jamaican Government. We have only a voluntary prisoner transfer agreement with Pakistan. We have, at last, a compulsory prisoner transfer agreement with Nigeria, and I hope that the Minister will tell the House how many hundreds of Nigerians await deportation to that country. We do not have a prisoner transfer agreement of any sort with Somalia or Bangladesh, and we have only a voluntary prisoner transfer agreement with India. These six countries provide us with 25% of our foreign national offender population; we give them the best part of £1 billion a year in international aid; yet they are not co-operating with us in any sensible, meaningful way on taking back their nationals who have committed criminal offences in this country.

There is good news on EU criminals in our jails—it is not good news for them, but good news for us as British taxpayers—because there is now an EU-wide compulsory prisoner transfer agreement, whereby EU nationals convicted and imprisoned in our country can be sent back against their will to their country of origin. That applies so long as prisoners come from another EU state. However, my understanding is that only 14 of the EU states have ratified that legislation. Again, I would welcome an update from the Minister on that.

Poland, which is top of the list with almost 1,000 of its nationals in our prisons, has a specific derogation from accepting prisoner transfers under that EU agreement until the end of December 2016. That is an absolute outrage. Why should we pay to accommodate criminals who have come to this country from Poland? Poland should be securing those people in secure detention back in Poland, at the expense of Polish taxpayers. It is okay for there to be no restrictions at all on eastern Europeans coming to the United Kingdom; apparently that is fine—more than 1 million people from eastern Europe live, work or claim benefits in this country—but we are not allowed to send back to eastern Europe, and Poland in particular, nationals from those countries, including Polish nationals, who have been convicted, found guilty and imprisoned for serious criminal offences, and who are incarcerated in jail in this country. My constituents in Kettering, and I suspect most of the population at large, are outraged that this situation has been allowed to develop.

I am sure we can all agree that this is a serious issue that needs to be tackled; indeed, some distinguished figures have said as much. The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice told me in November 2012:

“The prisons Minister…and I have met our Jamaican counterparts during the last few weeks. We are focusing our efforts to negotiate compulsory transfer agreements on the countries where the problem is greatest.” —[Official Report, 13 November 2012; Vol. 553, c. 165.]

That is great, but we still await these compulsory transfer agreements.

The Prime Minister said to me on the Floor of the House in July 2013:

“We have held specific National Security Council discussions about prisoner transfers and about foreign national offenders, because I think that we need to do much better in getting people out of our jails and back to the countries where they belong. We are making some progress, but it is hard work. This European Union agreement is a potential benefit for us and we have to do everything we can, both at the European Council and bilaterally with other countries, to get them to sign and implement. That is a programme that the Government are very much working on.”—[Official Report, 2 July 2013; Vol. 565, c. 773.]

That was in July 2013, but not much progress has been made since then, because the figures I have show that in March 2013 there were 10,735 foreign national offenders in our jails, whereas I think the latest number is 10,834.

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice said to me in June:

“This is a matter of great concern to Ministers. We are also seeking to speed up the formal deportation process through the Home Office. We need to reduce the numbers significantly, but it is proving to be a more stubborn and difficult task than any of us would wish.”—[Official Report, 16 June 2014; Vol. 582, c. 852.]

That is right, but we need to co-ordinate our efforts as a Government to tackle this problem. That is why I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims is in his post, because he has a desk not only in the Home Office but in the Ministry of Justice, and so is uniquely placed to knock heads together in the two Departments to ensure that action is taken.

I am not a lawyer, and I am rather proud of that fact. I do not understand all the legal niceties about the differences between deportation, transfer, removal and repatriation. Apparently, all these terms have highly technical and specific meanings, but basically my constituents in Kettering and I want to see these foreign national offenders removed from here to there, and incarcerated at the expense of their own taxpayers.

More than that, once those people have left our shores, we want them to be banned from ever returning. That is why I introduced a Bill in the last Session of Parliament, called the Foreign National Offenders (Exclusion from the United Kingdom) Bill, which would exclude those people from the UK once they had been found guilty of a criminal offence on our shores and basically been forced to leave. I do not see why they should ever be allowed back into our country once they have been found guilty of, and imprisoned for, a serious offence.

This is an issue of serious concern. If we get it right, we would not only free up almost 11,000 spaces in our overcrowded prisons but save the British taxpayer north of £300 million every year. Some of the most senior politicians in the land have said that they recognise that this issue is a problem, and that they want to solve it. I say to them, through my right hon. Friend the Minister, that they have had long enough to do that, so please will he put a rocket under this issue to ensure that it is tackled once and for all?

I apologise from the outset for several reasons, Mr Caton, not least because, if my voice gives out, I might splutter and cause germs to be spread around the room. However, I thought it was important that I attended this debate, even though I am clearly not the Minister responsible for this issue. I apologise on behalf of the prisons Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who is in prison today; he is visiting a prison and will be released later today. Indeed, I am not a Minister from one of the many other Departments that are involved in this difficult, multi-Government task.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this debate. I have known him for many years and he will know that probably 90% of what he has said is not only factually correct but is something that I agree with in principle; in fact, I agree with him on nearly everything he said, and so do the Prime Minister and the Government. The frustration that he can hear in my voice was in his voice; I share his frustration.

In the meeting I had with officials this morning to ensure that I stuck to the line and read the speech, which I will not do, I was very surprised—as an MP and just an ordinary member of this country, and not as one of the great and the good—about some things that are being done. I am not a lawyer either, and if I was I think I would still find it mind-bogglingly difficult to work out why, in many cases, things do not happen.

I will just clarify one point. As usual, my hon. Friend was very accurate with his figures. He was absolutely spot on with the figure of 10,834; that is the latest figure that I have. That proves that parliamentary questions and everything else are working. He has asked many, many questions on this issue on behalf of his constituents and I expect more questions to come through—quite rightly so.

Do we keep foreign nationals in specific prisons? Yes, we do. That is because it makes it much easier to work out, one, how we deport them at the end of their sentence and, two, how we work on compulsory as well as voluntary transfers to foreign prisons while they are serving their sentence.

In his speech, my hon. Friend covered myriad different areas and I will try to cover as many as I can; if I cannot cover them all, as usual I will write to him after the debate. He asked about Canterbury prison and Bullwood Hall. I know Bulwood Hall very well; it is not far from where I used to live in Essex. It used to be an establishment for juvenile ladies many years ago, and when I was a fireman we went there on a regular basis, whenever the inmates decided to set fire to parts of the building. The two facilities specifically for foreign nationals are Maidstone and Huntercoombe. It is important that we clarify that. I have asked whether we have specific wings in other prisons for foreign nationals, so that we know where they are and have the right information to enable us to liaise well on how they are dealt with.

My hon. Friend said the situation with Jamaica is not what we would like it to be—absolutely spot on. I think we would all expect Jamaica to be in a position by now to take Jamaican nationals who have broken the law in this country. My note says that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is working to restart discussions. I am not going to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes and say that the discussions are in full flow. However, there are issues to discuss. I assure my hon. Friend for Kettering, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), that, across Government, we are doing whatever we can. I will, as Policing and Criminal Justice Minister, put whatever rocket I can under the separate Departments. It is a challenge in itself having to deal with two completely different Departments, although it works well, because it allows me to ask why a lot more often.

The 10,834 figure is right, and it is also correct that it is down from 11,153, but it is not fair to say that all those people would just disappear, should we put in place some of the plans that we agree should be put in place, not least because my police officers—I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering, a special constable in the British Transport Police—arrest an awful lot of foreign nationals, who are then convicted because they have broken our law and are put in our prisons. Some are going out as others are going in. For instance, in 2013-14, 5,097 were deported and in 2012-13, 4,539 were deported. It is an in-out situation. I am sure my hon. Friend accepts that.

It is not just about what we would like to do. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham said that we cannot deport people to a prison, because that is not acceptable under human rights legislation. I am sure that both my colleagues know my views on that. I agree completely with the Prime Minister that we need to have a bill of rights for ourselves and we should ensure that our judges abide by that, not by legislation that is now used in the European Court of Human Rights for a purpose it was never created for.

The Department for International Development is paying for improvements in countries that we have been alluding to, particularly Nigeria, although it is not paying for brand new prisons, because that would not be right in most cases—although it might be right to do so in some countries. I was in Washington earlier this month at the global summit on child online protection from paedophiles, an important thing that we do that we cannot do in isolation. Sadly, I missed the Conservative party conference, which I have not done for many years. However, I did bump into the Nigerian Justice Minister, who recently agreed not only with our officials, but with our Ministers, about taking back nationals. Nationals will start going back to Nigeria later this year.

We are leading the world in what we are doing in this regard. Most countries are not doing this and are not even trying to do it, because it is particularly difficult. We need—our rationale should be—to ensure that Departments, including the Home Office, the Foreign Office, DFID and the Ministry of Justice, work together to make sure that we get as many to go as possible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering was right to say that his constituents would not understand this subject unless they were legally trained or took a particular interest in it, because of all the different narratives out there: voluntary, non-voluntary, compulsory, end of sentence or end of the statutory part of the sentence. For instance, with regard to longer sentencing, in most cases we do not even start to consider releasing people until we are getting close to 18 months before it would be possible in any circumstances for them to be released. That is probably understandable, because of the sheer amount of work that needs to take place. If that were done too early, we may find ourselves in a situation a bit like the one we have seen in Jamaica, where we thought we were in a position to do something, but were not.

In a nutshell, we would like as many foreign nationals as possible in our prisons to serve their sentence in their country of origin. That would be slightly difficult if they had dual passports; I will not discuss that in this debate, as it is a separate issue for debate. We want as many people as possible to go at the end of their sentence. It is also important that our friends in Europe fulfil their commitments. I do not know why Poland got a derogation to the end of 2016: it seems to have negotiated pretty well on lots of different things on joining this wonderful club. There are 18 countries that have implemented the provisions, but many of the countries that my hon. Friend mentioned in his list of shame have not. Interestingly, Jamaica was at No. 1, but is now No. 3. There is a lot of work to do on implementing this—we have done very well in Jamaica with the compulsory side of things—in other parts of world, as my hon. Friend said. To date, we have transferred 31 people to countries inside the EU agreement—this is purely the EU; not the EU and connected countries—which is a tiny number, but it is a start. That is something that we need to work on.

I do not think that anyone in the House would disagree that we should not let people who have committed a crime abroad into this country. Most other countries in the western world have the same attitude; Australia and America are classic examples. We are working on that. Information transfer is particularly difficult, especially with some of the newer member states. For instance, I understand that information from other EU countries is not transmitted directly to us, but to the EU, and then disseminated to member states. Clearly, that is not working well. We need to work harder at that.

The truth of the matter—I return to what our Prime Minister has said—is that we need to have better control of who is going in and out of this country. That is an issue, particularly in respect of EU treaties, although it is a negotiated position that I agree with. There are probably members of the coalition who do not agree with that position, but I do. One thing that we can do for all our constituencies is ensure that we know who is going in and out of our country and decide who does so. Once they are in this country and they commit a crime, the full force of the law needs to come down on them, and that is probably where my side of things is involved, through the police and the criminal justice system.

I agree that we need to work much harder, because this matter was ignored for too many years. It used to be a case of saying, “They committed a crime in the UK, so they end up spending their time in the UK.” Of course, they have human rights and family rights, and all the other different things. It was fantastic to read about a case recently where the judge—for the first time, I think—said, “No, that’s not what that legislation was implemented for. This person’s human rights are not going to be affected by this and I do not agree with the way that it has been implemented before.” I think that if more judges were doing that, we would all be a lot happier.

More work needs to be done. I am sure that we will get increased pressure from my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering. I will certainly do my bit, even though I fully admit that it is probably the police and criminal justice system, which is in my portfolio, that is filling up the prisons. However, once justice has been seen to be done, as many of these people as possible need to be in their country of origin. If prisons in those countries are not quite up to the standard of prisons in this country, but they meet the human rights requirements, so be it, and there they should go.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I apologise that I am not the Minister with full responsibility. I have answered as many questions as I can, as candidly as I always try to do. I will write to my hon. Friend responding to questions that I have not answered. I hope that I feel a little bit better in the morning than I do at present.

Sitting suspended.