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Foreign National Offenders (Removal)

Volume 586: debated on Wednesday 22 October 2014

I am grateful to the National Audit Office for its report on managing and removing foreign national offenders. As the report makes clear, this problem has beset successive Governments. Let me begin by being clear that foreign nationals who abuse our hospitality by committing crime in this country should be in no doubt of our determination to remove them from it. We removed more than 5,000 foreign criminals from the UK last year, and have removed 22,000 since 2010. I also want to make it plain that, as in many other areas, it falls to this Government to tackle the problems of the past. Quite simply, the Home Office did not prioritise the removal of foreign national offenders before 2005.

It will take time to fix the problems that we inherited. Chief among them, as the NAO report makes clear, are the legal barriers that we face. The countless appeals and re-appeals that have been lodged by criminals attempting to cheat the system cost us all money and are an affront to British justice. That is why we passed the Immigration Act 2014 to clamp down on that abuse. New powers from the Act came into force this week to cut the number of grounds on which criminals can appeal their deportation, from 17 to four, and to end the appeals conveyor belt in the courts. From this week, criminals can no longer appeal against a decision that their deportation is conducive to the public good.

These reforms build on other measures that we introduced in the summer, which are already speeding up the deportation process. In July we introduced new powers to stop criminals using family life arguments to delay their deportation. We have also changed the law so that, where there is no risk of serious irreversible harm, foreign criminals will be deported first and have their appeal heard later. For those who do have an appeal right, they will be able to appeal only once. These new powers are radically reforming the deportation process, rebalancing human rights laws in favour of the British public rather than the criminal.

We are also pursuing joint working between the police and immigration enforcement. Operation Nexus has helped us to remove more than 2,500 foreign nationals during its first two years, including 150 dangerous immigration offenders considered by the police to represent a particularly serious threat. Alongside tougher crime-fighting measures, improved protection at the border and greater collaboration between police and immigration enforcement officers, the Immigration Act is helping us to deliver an immigration system that is fair to the people of this country and legitimate immigrants, and tough on those who flout the rules. The Home Office will look at the NAO’s recommendations carefully and work with the other agencies involved as we continue to build that system.

When people come to Britain, they should abide by the law, and the whole House wants to see foreign criminals being deported. The Prime Minister told us that more of them would be, and promised that that was a major priority for his Government. Instead, fewer foreign criminals are being deported each year than was the case in 2010. There were 375 fewer deportations, a drop of 7%, and fewer deportation orders are being served; there has been a drop of 6% since 2010.

It is no good blaming appeals and human rights. The National Audit Office has found that more than a third of failed removals were the result of factors within the Home Office’s control. They include failures to fill in the forms, failures to get the necessary papers and even failures to book the plane tickets that were needed. It is no good blaming the last Government either, because the NAO audit of this Government’s action plan has found poor use of IT, a lack of communication, failure to use the powers available, cumbersome and slow referral processes, inefficiency in processing, over-complicated arrangements and an action plan that it says

“lacks a sufficiently joined-up and structured approach.”

Nearly 40% of cases had avoidable processing delays.

More foreign criminals have disappeared, too. About 190 absconded last year, and there has been a 6% increase since 2010, yet according to the NAO report, there are only 11 staff working on 700 cases, 10 of whom are very junior. Why does the Home Secretary have so few staff working on such important cases? Will she publish the details of the crimes that those 190 people committed?

The NAO also says that we have worse systems than other European countries for preventing foreign criminals from coming in in the first place. The warnings index has not been modernised, and we are one of only four countries in the European economic area that is still not part of the Schengen information system. Our joining it was delayed because of the Home Secretary’s decision to exercise the opt-out on co-operation with Europe and because she is faffing around with her Back Benchers over opting in and opting out. This is putting border security at risk.

The Government are simply not doing enough. Let us take the case of the convicted killer Rohan Murdock who was able to stay in this country in 2012 because, in the judge’s words, the Home Secretary did not “put up a fight”. So it is no good blaming the past or the others; she has been Home Secretary for four and a half years. The system is still failing on her watch and fewer foreign criminals are being deported than when she started. The tough talk is simply not enough. When will she start putting up the real fight we need to get more, not fewer, foreign criminals deported back home?

I have to say to the right hon. Lady that that is a staggering response from the representative of a political party that is still debating whether it even needs to respond to the public’s concerns about immigration. I am sorry that she adopted the tone she did. This is a serious subject and we need to recognise and accept the challenges and respond to them. But the NAO report makes it clear, as I said in my opening statement, that this is a long-standing problem—her party did not face up to it when it was in power.

The report also makes it clear that, unlike the Labour party, we have a plan to deal with the problem, and that plan is working. We have removed 22,000 foreign national offenders since 2010. The NAO report makes it clear that the time taken to deport FNOs is reducing. It notes that the number of removals increased by 12% over the past two years,

“largely because of a change in the Department’s approach to deportation”.

It praises Operation Nexus—the work between the police and the immigration enforcement command—which has helped us to remove more than 2,500 foreign nationals in its first two years. We are the first Government to adopt a cross-government strategy on dealing with foreign national offenders. We want to increase the number of removals, reduce the number of foreign offenders in the UK and tackle the barriers standing in our way. Again, the NAO recognises that removing foreign national offenders

“continues to be inherently difficult”.

The report makes it clear that our efforts have been “hampered” by a “range of barriers”, including the law.

The main problem we face is the rise of litigation; we have seen a 28% increase in the number of appeals. That is why we have made the changes that I have set out in the Immigration Act to cut the number of appeals and why we have made it possible for someone to be deported before they can appeal. Those are the most significant changes to deportation appeals since 1971 and far more than we ever saw from the Labour party when it was in power for 13 years. But those things can take us only so far and we are also faced with the impact of the human rights legislation passed by the right hon. Lady’s Government. Only the Conservatives want to scrap the Human Rights Act and fix our relationship with the European Court of Human Rights, which is why we need a majority Conservative Government.

I do recognise that we face challenges and that we have some issues relating to processes to address. That is why I scrapped the UK Border Agency—Labour’s creation—and since then we have seen a change in the attitude being taken by immigration enforcement. But we will not turn these things around overnight. We have expressed our desire to rejoin the Schengen information system, because it can be a tool we can use in dealing with these FNOs. But we have moved on from the days before 2009 when, under the previous Labour Government, there was no mechanism to trace absconders—there is now a team to do that.

I have to say to the right hon. Lady that if she is going to take on an immigration issue, she really needs to look at her party’s record before she does so. Her party opened the floodgates; her party sent out the search parties and said there was no obvious limit to immigration; and her party passed the human rights legislation that made it difficult to deport foreign criminals. The Opposition still will not say that the level of immigration is too high, they still will not say it has to come down and they still defend the Human Rights Act. Perhaps when she says sorry for those things, the public might start to listen to her.

Is it not common sense that a foreign national should not be released from prison until they can be taken straight to an airport and deported? If any law, such as the Human Rights Act, is preventing that from happening, may I suggest that the Home Secretary comes forward with the necessary legislation and dares the other parties to vote down something that is such common sense to the British people? Is it not also time we started fingerprinting and taking the DNA of foreign nationals who want to enter this great country? Surely that is a small price for them to pay in order to keep people in this country safe from criminals.

My hon. Friend is always willing to come forward with practical proposals on this matter. Steps have been taken to deal with those who would otherwise be released from prison, and to ensure that foreign national offenders who are subject to deportation orders are not being released into open conditions. On occasion, immigration judges do release foreign national offenders into the community, and release them on bail, so it is not simply a question of what is happening in relation to people who are in our prisons already. I recognise my hon. Friend’s concern and say that we will continue to look at the measures that we can take to improve our ability to deport these foreign criminals.

The Home Secretary is right that successive Governments have failed to get a grip of this complex issue, but will she look at some of the Select Committee’s recommendations? For example, when a foreign national is arrested, their records should be checked by the Association of Chief Police Officers’ Criminal Records Office. Fewer than half are currently being checked. On sentence, an e-mail should be sent to the Home Office from the courts; it should not be a fax that is put on the records manually. Finally, the warnings index is just not fit for purpose. We need to sign up to one or two of the databases that will allow us to know who is entering our country, so that we can, if necessary, prevent them from coming here in the first place. Will she please consider those sensible recommendations, which we have made in the past?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his points. The Home Affairs Committee has considered this issue on a number of occasions and has taken it very seriously, and we look at the proposals that it makes. Next month the Met will be introducing the full checks against the ACPO Criminal Records Office, so action is being taken in that area. Of course it is under this Government that the links between immigration enforcement and, initially, the Metropolitan police through Operation Nexus were put in place, and that has meant that we have seen more than 2,000 foreign criminals being removed from this country. Operation Nexus has expanded into other parts of the country, and I hope that we see it expanding throughout the United Kingdom. In relation to stopping people coming here in the first place, we have been working on agreements with other countries. Membership of the European Criminal Records Information System, which has been part of the 2014 debate and is one of those areas that we wish to opt back into, is an important part of the process.

The Home Secretary is completely right in saying that there are inherent problems in the law, and also that the whole matter is very challenging. I am glad to note that the repeal of the Human Rights Act is now being reintroduced, having pushed it through when I was shadow Attorney-General in the years 2001-03. Will the Home Secretary please acknowledge that an even bigger problem is the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which is enforceable by the European Court of Justice? The other day, the European Scrutiny Committee said that the only way to deal with these problems in the European Communities Act 1972 is to amend it. If we do not do that, we will end up having continuing legal problems of the kind she has identified and no solution.

My hon. Friend makes a point that he has made on a number of occasions on the Charter of Fundamental Human Rights. I am afraid that he will not get a different response now from that which he has had either from me or other Ministers in the past. The Government believe that amending it will not change the position. He refers to the Human Rights Act and as shadow Attorney-General he did work on this matter. Repealing the charter was a Conservative party manifesto commitment before the last election, and that will be repeated as we move forward to the next election.

May I remind the Home Secretary that, although it is true for certain that we did introduce the Human Rights Act, the Conservative Opposition—she was in the House at the time I think—supported that Act on Third Reading and wished it well. The Conservatives may have had second thoughts since then. Secondly, notwithstanding the Human Rights Act, the numbers of people now being deported, as the National Audit Office report makes clear, have gone down, not up on her watch. How does she explain that, notwithstanding the fact that there has been a ninefold increase, from 100 to 900, in staff working on this issue?

I have acknowledged that we need to do more in this area, but one cannot look at what has happened over the past few years without considering the increasing number of appeals. A 28% increase in appeals means a significant delay in the ability of the authorities to deal with many of these cases and deport the individuals. Under this Government, we are changing that and, as I said earlier, this week the measure in the Immigration Act that reduces the grounds for appeals from 17 to four has kicked in. I am sure that will have a real impact on our ability to deport people and to deport them more quickly.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will not be surprised to discover that many of my constituents were deeply shocked when they learned that they had been living close to a convicted murderer, a Latvian builder who had come to live in this country. That all came to light during the tragic search for the murdered schoolgirl, Alice Gross, and Mr Arnis Zalkalns has now been found hanged. Nobody knew about his background, not even the police, which must surely be unacceptable. What will be done to improve information sharing so that people are aware of such backgrounds? Is it right that people with a murder conviction are free to come and live in our country in such a way?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue and I know that it affects not only her constituents but others who are concerned about such cases. Our thoughts continue to be with Alice Gross’s family after the appalling tragedy that occurred. We are making efforts to ensure that we can get better information about people who come to this country and that we can exchange information to enable us to take action before people come here. We have some arrangements already to identify people of interest entering the UK and, obviously, passengers are checked against certain watch lists. When the UK is made aware of foreign offending, Border Force officers can take action to use that information to exercise their powers to refuse entry. We have been one of the biggest users of the European criminal records information system and we are scheduled under the opt-in proposals to connect to the second-generation Schengen information system, SIS II, which will further strengthen our ability to detect foreign criminals at the border, especially those who are the subjects of European arrest warrants. We are also driving other efforts across Europe to ensure that other countries participate, that we can get those criminal records and that we can take appropriate action that protects the British public.

According to the report, the Government have spent £167,000 on each and every foreign criminal they have managed to deport. Why has it taken the National Audit Office to quantify that spending and what will the Home Secretary do to ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent more effectively?

Of course we need to ensure that taxpayers’ money is being spent effectively, but the taxpayers’ money that is being spent on these individuals is spent through police arresting them, through the criminal justice system taking them through the courts and through putting them in prison. I think that taxpayers would think that charging, prosecuting and imprisoning people was a good use of their money.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the National Audit Office report highlights a number of different causes for the failure to deport and that there is no doubt that the Immigration Act, which she passed through this House, ought to make a significant impact on many aspects of that, particularly in relation to challenges and appeals? Will she undertake to give the House some updates as we come into the spring on how well that is operating in changing things? May I recommend that in doing that she should reflect carefully on whether the manifesto pledge contained in the Conservative party document published at the last party conference is worth pursuing? I must say to her that I think that it will prove singularly ineffective in reaching the further objectives that some people have suggested it might achieve.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his comments. He is absolutely right: I believe the Immigration Act will make a difference. The reduction in the number of appeals only kicked in this week, but since July there have been 100 cases of people being removed under the non-suspensive appeals ruling in the Immigration Act, which means that we have been able to deport them before they have a right of appeal in the UK. They have a right of appeal, but it will be from outside the United Kingdom.

On the other matter that my right hon. and learned Friend raises, we have obviously set out proposals to change our relationship with the European Court of Human Rights. I have been very clear all along that no option should have been off the table, including coming out of the European convention, if that is what it took to restore the situation. We have made proposals that we expect will deal with the relationship with the European Court, which is a crucial issue for not just the Home Office but the British public.

Home Secretary, when I go into a restaurant for a steak, it is known where the animal was born, what field it grazed in, what other cattle it grazed with, every time it was moved and who killed it. If such traceability is possible for cattle, how is it that this country cannot trace hundreds of dangerous criminals who should have been deported years ago? Does the Home Secretary really feel and understand the frustration felt out there in the community?

Of course I understand people’s frustration on the issue. It is this Government who have put in place a specific team, for the first time, to trail and find those absconders and it has been successful in two thirds of the cases it has dealt with. Obviously, we want that to improve but at least we have taken that step.

Paragraph 3.19 of the NAO report talks about the benefits of the EU prisoner transfer agreement. The Ministry of Justice estimates that there will be a further 4,500 removals and £110 million saved. Does the Home Secretary agree that such close working with the European Union is an essential part of what we have to do to deal with the problem and that people who would like to walk away from the European Union will make it much harder?

The prisoner transfer agreements are an important element of dealing with the issue. As my hon. Friend will know, there are still some countries in which we need to finalise the agreements and their approach. The prisoner transfer agreement is an important step and a useful tool and that is why it was one of the measures on the list of those to which we wanted to opt back in.

My constituent Elsie Giudici’s son was murdered in the most brutal way by a foreign national in his property in Scotland last summer. His mother has contacted me, concerned that it later transpired that the foreign national had a lengthy history of serious violent crime in his own country. The Home Secretary said that this is a serious issue and I believe that it is. The NAO report states:

“Current information held in the UK on foreign nationals who have committed…crimes in their own countries is less complete than most European countries.”

Will she therefore please explain why that is the case and why, four and a half years after she took office, the situation has not improved?

Absolutely. That was a serious and terrible case and our thoughts are with the hon. Gentleman’s constituent. We want to ensure that we have the maximum information available on which to act in relation to those with a violent history who try to come into this country and to ensure that we act properly to remove foreign national offenders. Our ability to do that will be improved by tools such as the Schengen information system, which is already being used by other European nations. We have said that we want to be able to opt back in to the system and to start to use it, which we have not been able to do up until this point.

The report highlights the case of a sex offender convicted in 2000 as an overstayer who, far from being deported, was given indefinite leave to remain in the country in 2005. The offender is still in the country because of the appeals process that my right hon. Friend has documented. Can she give me an assurance that under this Government people who have been convicted will not then be given indefinite leave to remain?

We obviously want a process in which it is possible to deport such people quickly, and that is part of reducing the number of appeals and introducing what are called non-suspensive appeals, which mean that, except in certain circumstances, we can deport them first and they have to appeal from the country to which they have returned. If we can get the system as we intend it to be, people will be removed more quickly. One problem in the past was that people not only made many appeals but stayed in the country for so long that they built up other rights under the then immigration system. That is what we are trying to change.

Will the Home Secretary amplify her response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper)? Given that the NAO report states that 36% of failed removals in 2013-14 were the result of factors considered by the Department to be within its control, I do not think that her previous answer will suffice.

The number of people whom it has not been possible to remove in any particular year is the result of a whole range of issues, and I have to say to the hon. Lady that I have recognised over the years that a change has been needed in the way we deal with those issues. That is precisely why I abolished the UK Border Agency and created the immigration enforcement command within the Home Office. I fully accept that there is more work to do, for example on the links between the Home Office, the courts and the prison system, to ensure that information flows are absolutely up to date so that action can be taken at the appropriate time.

Is it not right that on this, as on so many other matters, we are clearing up Labour’s mess? After all, we got rid of Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada where Labour failed to do so. Is it not also right—I know this as a lawyer—that we got rid of the 17 routes of appeal that Labour established, thereby feeding the legal process? We would also like to get rid of the Human Rights Act, another Labour creation that is causing much of the problem.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have had to deal with the system we inherited. We have made significant changes to it, which are already starting to show progress, and I am sure we will see considerable progress in future as a result of further changes we have made, particularly on the legal side, as he indicates, such as reducing the number of routes of appeal from 17 to four.

Does the Home Secretary not realise that the report states that more than one in three of the failures to deport are the result of failures within her Department? The Government have been in control for four and a half years now. Can she tell us the precise date when they will stop blaming the previous Labour Government, or the next Labour Government, and take responsibility for this ineptocracy of their own creation?

The hon. Gentleman might like to note that the report states that over the past two years removals have increased

“largely because of a change in the Department’s approach to deportation…following concerted caseworking efforts and a change in the Department’s approach…to ensure that all FNOs are considered by a central team for removal, not just those who met the deportation criteria.”

We are taking action. As I have just said, we will continue to look at what more we can do to carry on making progress and ensure that we deal with the challenges we face.

It is interesting to note the lack of interest from Labour Members in their own urgent question. I welcome the increase in the number of foreign national offenders deported since 2011-12. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that under the new powers in the Immigration Act there will be a reduction in the number of appeals and that many more people will be removed in the months ahead?

My hon. Friend puts his finger on one of the key points: the number of appeals that have led to delays in deportation until now. We are reducing the number of routes of appeal significantly, from 17 to four. We have also introduced the ability to deport people before they appeal so that they are out of the country when they do. As I said in answer to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), there have been 100 removals prior to appeal as a result of that change in the system.

When a foreign national approaches the immigration desk at a point of entry into our country, if a message flashes up on the immigration officer’s screen stating, “This person is of interest to us or is a foreign criminal”, does that officer have any more power to stop that person, or even to deport them, under the current law?

When certain information about an individual is available, the systems in place at the border enable UK Border Force officers to stop them entering the country. What is crucial, of course, is that we have a proper exchange of information with other countries on the criminal records of individuals so that we can act on it.

Can the Home Secretary confirm that approximately 400 of the missing foreign criminals arrived in the country under the previous Labour Government?

It is certainly true that a number of cases still in the system predate this Government’s coming to power in 2010, but we continue to work on those cases, as we do on the most recent ones.

My constituents cannot understand why someone who comes to this country and commits an offence that requires imprisonment is not automatically deported. It is true that things were a mess under Labour, but it is not good enough to say that we are tweaking the system; we have to get to grips with the problem. Why not just deport these people and worry about what the European Court says afterwards?

One of the changes we have made in the Immigration Act is to give us the power to deport people before they appeal, except in certain circumstances where to do so would lead to serious and irreversible harm, and I think that goes straight to the heart of what my hon. Friend is saying. However, there are cases where it is genuinely difficult to deport somebody because of lack of documentation, difficulties in being absolutely clear about their nationality, or problems with the country to which we wish to deport them actually accepting them.

Some of the higher profile cases in my constituency, particularly in Goole, relate to people who came here under the previous Labour Government’s policy of unlimited immigration from EU accession states. What I and my constituents cannot understand is how any EU national who has a criminal record can get here in the first place, or how they can remain here once they commit an offence. Is it not time that these ridiculous rules on the free movement of labour were torn up so that the system works for British people and my constituents?

I will make two points in response to my hon. Friend. First, in relation to dealing with those from the EU who have committed criminal offences, being able to exchange information and know who they are is one of the first steps. That is why the Government have said that we want to rejoin the European criminal records information system and connect to SIS II so that we have that information at the border and can act on it. Secondly, he is absolutely right that the whole issue of free movement, as the Prime Minister said earlier, is one that we feel we need to address. It is something we have been dealing with over the past four and a half years in Europe. We have made some progress in relation to criminal activity, such as sham marriages and so forth, but abuse of free movement is something we need to deal with.

The Home Secretary is being incredibly generous to the Opposition. May I ask her to take herself back to her first days in office and clarify for the House just what a mess she inherited and had to work to sort out?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is exactly the point I was making earlier. Labour has so far refused to apologise for the mess they left on immigration: the fact that they sent out “search parties”; that they have never said that the number of people who came into this country over their period in government was too high; and that we inherited a system in the UK Border Agency that needed radical change. It is no good them just carping about one or two things now. Until they say sorry for what they did, nobody will listen to them.

Bill Presented

Electronic Cigarettes (Advertising and Legal Age of Purchase) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Geraint Davies, supported by Nia Griffith, Mrs Siân C. James, Sir Alan Meale, Jonathan Edwards, Chris Evans and Liz McInnes, presented a Bill to prohibit the advertising of electronic cigarettes; to prohibit the sale of electronic cigarettes to persons under the age of 18; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 January 2015, and to be printed (Bill 107).