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Foreign National Offenders

Volume 617: debated on Tuesday 29 November 2016

[Sir Alan Meale in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the return of foreign national offenders to prison in their own country.

I am grateful to you, Sir Alan, for your time in the Chair, to Mr Speaker for granting me permission to hold the debate, and to my constituents who have sent me here to articulate their concerns. I welcome other hon. Members to the debate, and declare myself open to as many interventions as they care to make.

My main contention is that there are too many foreign national offenders in prison in this country and that they should be in prison in their country of origin. I invite the Minister to update the House on the latest figures, first on the number of prisoners in our jails. I think it is something like 85,000, which basically means that our prisons are full to bursting. It is good that we catch people who do bad things and lock them up, but my understanding is that more than 10,000 of those 85,000—something like 12%—are foreign national offenders. At a time when our prisons are full to bursting, when we, by the Government’s own admission, do not have enough prison officers and when public expenditure is tight at best, it seems that we need to redouble our efforts to ensure that we send those foreign national offenders back to their own countries.

It would be an honour and a privilege to give way to the former Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Earlier today, the Minister gave evidence about this very issue to the Justice Committee and I asked him a question about it. Does the hon. Gentleman think it is inexcusable that there are 4,270-plus EU nationals in our prisons? If there is one group of prisoners we should return to their country of origin it is prisoners from EU countries, because they are costing the British taxpayer £169 million. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is essential, as part of the Brexit negotiations, that we get that problem sorted out once and for all?

I do think we should get the situation sorted out once and for all. I pray in aid the excellent report by the right hon. Gentleman’s previous Committee, which looked into the issue. I quote, I think, from that report:

“The public would expect our membership of the EU to make it easier to deport European offenders, but this is clearly not the case, and we continue to keep thousands of these criminals at great and unnecessary expense.”

There is in place an EU prisoner transfer directive, which means that countries can compulsorily return prisoners to their country of origin within the European Union. The last time we managed to wheedle a figure out of Her Majesty’s Government on how many EU nationals we had returned to their country of origin, I think the number was 101—pathetically low. Legislation, in the form of that directive, exists with which to do that, but we are simply not getting on with it. Perhaps the Minister in his response will confirm how many EU nationals are in our prisons, how many we have returned to their country of origin, and why we are not sending thousands more of these individuals back.

I have to tell the House that, beside EU nationals, there are representatives of 160 nations from around the world in Her Majesty’s prisons. Not only are we a cosmopolitan society at large, we are also a cosmopolitan city in Her Majesty’s jails.

Would my hon. Friend also like to elicit the numbers for Jamaica? I believe they are the highest in the world.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. The figure I have for Jamaica is 567, and I, like him, would like the Minister to update us.

In a minute, I will come to a list of shame, of those countries that have the most foreign national offenders in our prisons.

The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that dissident republicans continue to wage a very violent campaign in Northern Ireland. These are individuals who claim they want to achieve a united Ireland through violence. At present, some of them are relaxing at Her Majesty’s pleasure in Maghaberry prison in Northern Ireland. Does the hon. Gentleman have any facts and figures relating to such prisoners who have requested to go back to the Republic of Ireland?

I do not have the answer to the hon. Lady’s question, but I hope that the Minister does, because he is paid to have that sort of information. I can tell her, however, that according to my figures, southern Ireland—Ireland—has 783 nationals in UK prisons and is No. 2 on my list of shame.

Some 80% of the world’s nations are represented in our prisons. A third of those prisoners have been convicted of violent and sexual offences, a fifth of drug offences, and others of burglary, robbery, fraud and other serious crimes, yet we have the privilege of paying for them to stay in our country. The National Audit Office, in a report just a couple of years ago, looked at how much that is costing our nation. The average annual cost of incarcerating a prisoner is £33,000, so the very least this costs us is something like £330 million a year. The National Audit Office estimated that if things such as police costs, Crown Prosecution Service costs, legal aid costs and prison costs were added in, the total bill would be between £769 million and £1 billion a year, with its median estimate being £850 million.

I come now to my list of shame, the list of the top 10 nations, according to the latest figures I have, on the basis of how many of their nationals are in our prisons. At No. 10 is Nigeria with 385, No. 9 is Somalia with 430, No. 8 is India with 458, equal sixth are Lithuania and Pakistan with 471, No. 5 is Albania with 472, No. 4 is Jamaica with 567, No. 3 is Romania with 629, No. 2 is Ireland with 783 and No. 1 is Poland with 951.

I will be delighted to give way to both Members, but I feel I should give way to Rochdale first.

I thank the hon. Gentleman, not least for securing what is a very important debate. He mentioned Pakistan. People will remember Shabir Ahmed who is serving more than 40 years for raping dozens of children as part of the Rochdale grooming gang. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that he should be deported to Pakistan to see what he thinks of prison there?

That is a very sensible suggestion. I am not aware of all the details of the horrific crimes that that unpleasant gentleman has committed, but I do not see why British taxpayers should pay for him to be in prison—Pakistani taxpayers should. In fact, I would go further. I take the view that if a foreign national in this country commits a crime for which they are potentially imprisonable, they should be deported and banned from ever returning, whether they are in prison or not.

I felt that I had walked into an early edition of “Top of the Pops” when the hon. Gentleman did the countdown from 10 to one—I suppose that from his point of view it is “Bottom of the Pops”. In respect of that list, with one or two exceptions they are either EU or Commonwealth countries. We would expect, as far as the Commonwealth countries are concerned—Nigeria, Jamaica and the others—that Ministers would be able to elicit a better deal than the one they have. Only yesterday, the Polish Prime Minister was in the country. I asked the Minister this question earlier in the Justice Committee meeting. Should this issue not be the No. 1 concern when our Ministers are meeting the leaders of other countries? It would save the British taxpayer a lot of money and would enable those countries to imprison their own citizens. We would be happy to take back our prisoners who are in their countries.

As always, the right hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. From the list of 10, four are EU countries and four are Commonwealth countries. He is absolutely right. I hope that in the Prime Minister’s discussions with the Polish Prime Minister yesterday, she raised the fact that Poland was top of the list of shame and asked the Poles what they were doing to take their citizens back. I understand that Poland has a derogation from the EU prisoner transfer directive until this month. I hope that the Minister will get on to his Polish counterpart at the end of the month to say that we look forward to triggering the proposals that have become live.

Those top 10 nations account for 5,617 prisoners, but we have imported—I am afraid this is absolute truth—a wave of crime from eastern Europe with the accession of eastern European countries to the European Union. Poland has 951 of its citizens in our jails. In 2002, before Polish membership of the European Union, there were 45 Poles in prison in this country. I urge the Minister to get on with it, but I also urge him to speak to his counterpart in the Department for International Development. My list of shame of 10 countries could be cross-checked with the 28 countries that receive large amounts of aid from DFID. Indeed, I asked a few years ago how much aid we give in total to Jamaica, Pakistan, Nigeria, Somalia, India and Bangladesh, and the answer in that year was almost £1 billion, yet those six countries provide us with almost 3,000 foreign national offenders. It costs us more than £100 million a year to incarcerate those people in our jails, yet we are giving those countries £1 billion in international aid assistance.

I think we should do more things such as those we are doing in Jamaica, where we are using international aid money to build a prison to which we can return its nationals. That is a sensible use of the international aid budget. In Jamaica, we signed an agreement in 2015 to build a 1,500-bed prison. It will be built with British taxpayers’ money, and Jamaican nationals in prison in this country will go back to prison in Jamaica as soon as it is completed. Will the Minister urge DFID to look for similar arrangements in the other five countries that I mentioned?

Perhaps more worrying than those foreign national offenders in prison is the very large number of foreign national offenders who are in this country, but not in prison. Alarmingly, it takes the Home Office 149 days on average to deport a foreign national offender. That is simply too slow. The latest figures I have are for March this year. They show a total of 5,895 foreign national offenders living in the community awaiting deportation. These dangerous people are not even in prison. They are free to go about their business on our streets. Of that 5,895 FNOs, 84% have been at large for more than one year and 30% have been at large for more than five years. That is a national scandal. Very large numbers of those individuals will have committed further offences in this country since they have been outside prison. My contention is that those foreign national offenders also need to be deported. If they are not going to be in prison, they need to be walking the streets of their country of origin, not those of our country.

This is an alarming state of affairs, and I am looking to the Minister—he has a solid reputation for being enthusiastic about his portfolio and being skilled and articulate in arguing the case to get things done—to knock heads together in his Department and the Home Office to say that it is not good enough. The previous Prime Minister said to the Home Affairs Committee that the Government’s performance was not good enough, and I am sure the present Prime Minister would admit that. The issue is costing British taxpayers more than £800 million a year. Almost 5,000 foreign national offenders are at large on our streets. Some 10,000 are in prison in this country when they should be in prison in their countries at the expense of their own taxpayers. My constituents in Kettering are looking to the Minister to get it sorted out.

I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) for securing this afternoon’s debate. I know he has raised the issue before. The debate has raised a number of issues that I will try to tackle in turn. I welcome an opportunity to highlight the Government’s approach and the progress we are making.

Let me say at the outset that the House should be in no doubt that the Government are absolutely committed to increasing the number of foreign national offenders removed from our prisons. Any foreign national who comes to our country and abuses our hospitality by breaking the law should be in no doubt of our determination to deport them. Increasing removals is one of our top priorities. When I was appointed, the Prime Minister certainly made it clear to me that it was a key priority for the Department. All FNOs sentenced to custody are referred to the Home Office at the earliest opportunity to be considered for deportation.

My hon. Friend asked for an update on the numbers. Overall, since 2010 we have removed more than 33,000 foreign offenders from prisons, immigration removal centres and the community. In 2015-16, we removed 5,810 FNOs, which was the highest number since records began. That represents good progress, but there is certainly a lot more that can be done, and I am ambitious to do more. My hon. Friend asked for clarification. FNOs make up 12% of the overall prison population, with 4,180 EU nationals in prisons and immigration removal centres. He went through a list of his top 10. Without going into too much detail, I can confirm that Poland holds the highest number of offenders. Ireland is second and Romania is third.

The primary responsibility for the removal of FNOs sits with the Home Office. It is the Home Office that can remove someone from this country. The Ministry of Justice and the National Offender Management Service support that work by setting the policy and administering the removal schemes. As I am sure everyone present will recognise, the removal of an FNO requires a co-ordinated and sustained approach across Whitehall. My hon. Friend alluded to that. My Department works closely with the Home Office, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development. Only last week I met ministerial colleagues from those Departments to agree a programme of work to increase FNO removals.

We have got oodles of time to explore the nitty-gritty of the issue. My understanding is that it is regularly on the agenda of the National Security Council. Can the Minister confirm that? Can he confirm how often the NSC meets to discuss the issue? Can he confirm that he is able to attend those meetings to press the case, given that the Prime Minister said to him that it is one of her top priorities?

I can confirm that I have met the Minister for Immigration twice in the past two months. He has the levers to remove people. I met him only this week. We have widened the meeting to include Ministers from the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development. We have got an ambitious programme and clear actions to take forward. We have agreed to meet as often as possible to give the issue the ministerial attention it deserves. In addition, we are making sure that when other Government Ministers meet Ministers in countries with which we have a concern about foreign nationals, this issue is included as a top priority in their briefing pack to raise with and get feedback from Ministers of those Governments, so that we can act on that.

Will the Minister do all that he can to ensure that Shabir Ahmed is deported to a prison in Pakistan?

I am certainly willing to look at that case. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I cannot make a decision here about who gets deported and under what terms; we have to look at the case very carefully. If he writes to me, I am willing to look at that with the Immigration Minister and the Home Office.

I intervene with reference to dissident republicans. Terrorism is not an issue that is devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly; it is a responsibility for this Government, thank goodness. I would like the Minister to reply to my earlier question. How many dissident republicans—who wage a violent campaign and who have murdered, bombed and shot people in Northern Ireland and elsewhere—have requested to return to prisons in the Republic of Ireland? Since they want a united Ireland, surely one can understand that they would wish to go back to prison in the Republic of Ireland.

I thank the hon. Lady for her very forcefully put question. I do not have those data to hand, but if they are available—I look to my officials—I will be happy to write to her with the detail.

There is a huge amount of activity under way on each stage of the FNO process, from the point of arrest to appearance in court, being given a prison sentence and removal back to the home country. For example, the Government have introduced clauses in the Policing and Crime Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, that will strengthen police powers with regard to early identification of nationality and will require anyone appearing in court to state their nationality. Those provisions are designed to help to speed up early identification of FNOs and so assist with their quick removal from the UK.

Will that include the production of their passport? Telling the court their nationality is very important, but the production of the passport is absolutely critical. Is that included in those measures?

I believe that is included in the process that I have outlined. In other initiatives, my Department is currently working on proposals to introduce a new fast-track appeals process that will apply to all detained foreign offenders. That process will make sure that appeals are determined as efficiently as possible, so that foreign offenders may be removed from the UK more quickly.

We have also strengthened our ability to deport foreign offenders through new powers introduced by the Immigration Act 2014, which contains a discretionary power allowing us to deport first—the FNO can appeal later. That means that foreign offenders cannot delay their removal with frivolous appeals and are instead required to appeal from abroad, but only if the Home Secretary certifies that removal pending the outcome of any appeal would not risk serious irreversible harm following their return. More than 4,100 foreign offenders have been deported under that new provision since it came into force in July 2014, with many more going through the system.

In terms of wider cross-governmental work, which I have touched on, I am determined that we make extensive use of the influence and worldwide reach of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development, which my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering so articulately focused on, so that we can bring our relationships to bear in discussions, to make sure that we fast-track the process.

I want to ask the Minister two things. How many foreign national offenders have we sent back to EU countries under the EU prisoner transfer directive and how many compulsory transfer agreements do we have with other non-EU countries?

If my hon. Friend bears with me, I will come to those facts in my speech. Wider cross-governmental work means that there is a focus on countries in which DFID operates and for which we hold large numbers of FNOs in our prisons, such as India, Pakistan, Nigeria and Somalia.

I am sure hon. Members will appreciate that the barriers to returning FNOs to their countries of nationality are both varied and complex. That is why the action we take must be tailored to each specific country. To that end, I am working closely with my ministerial colleagues, with work ranging from Ministers pressing the issue with foreign Governments every time they travel overseas, to supporting other countries with our aid spending in order to increase FNO removals from our prisons.

The early removal scheme is our principal mechanism for removing FNOs from our prisons, especially those on shorter sentences. Under the scheme, offenders are returned to their home countries and are barred from entering the UK, potentially for life. In 2015-16, we removed more than 2,000 prisoners via that scheme. That is around 95% of early removals from prison. It is worth highlighting that although that number of removals is very welcome, I am working with the Home Office—I see the Immigration Minister has just walked in, which shows how closely he takes an interest in this important matter—to improve the removal mechanism still further and ensure that it is working as effectively as it possibly can. We have more than 100 prisoner transfer agreements with countries and territories around the world.

How many compulsory transfer agreements do we have? My understanding is that something like 95% of those removals are voluntary. In other words, they require the permission of the prisoner himself.

I am about to make a point about the compulsory and voluntary nature of removals. Where an agreement is in place, prisoners can be transferred on a voluntary basis or on a compulsory basis, meaning that their consent is not required. Most of the agreements we have are necessarily voluntary—which is the point my hon. Friend touched on—due to the standard of prison conditions and the treatment of prisoners in many parts of the world.

Our approach is that we will seek to secure compulsory transfer agreements wherever possible. We have one in place with EU member states, as well as with a number of other countries, such as Albania, the home country of one of the top nationality groups in our prisons. It is worth saying that we are working closely with Albania in particular to improve our prisoner transfer agreement in order to remove more FNOs from our prisons. For that reason, the Minister for Courts and Justice, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald), recently met the Albanian Justice Minister to reinforce the importance of returning FNOs as quickly as possible. In terms of compulsory agreements, which my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering asked about, we currently have compulsory agreements in place with Somalia, Libya, Rwanda, Albania, Nigeria and the EU. That is the factual answer to his question.

The most recent published statistics, from June this year, show that we have transferred 102 prisoners back to their home countries since the EU PTA came into force. We continue to see increasing numbers of transfers as member states become more familiar with the processes. I am determined to maintain that progress and build on it. The number of transfers should of course be seen within the wider context of our work to remove FNOs. The early removal scheme is only one mechanism. It is the most successful one, and 2,000 people were transferred under that scheme last year.

We are working across Government to consider options for securing transfers of EU nationals once we leave the European Union. That is one of the key Brexit priorities for the Ministry of Justice and we have made that very clear to the Department for Exiting the EU in terms of our negotiating position. Although it would not be appropriate for me to provide a running commentary, I hope that what I have said underscores how important the issue is for the Department. I am particularly focused on returning FNOs to those member states for which we hold large numbers in our prisons, such as Poland, Romania and Lithuania in particular.

It is worth bearing in mind that there are also, of course, British nationals detained in prisons overseas—the current figure is roughly 2,046. We are thinking of savings, but in that context there would be a bit of going backwards and forwards.

The time available for today’s debate only allows for an overview of the numerous initiatives and policies under way. I am willing and available to meet with hon. Members who want to look at our processes in more detail and contribute to them. Wherever possible, we will always look to remove those who have broken our laws and will continue to work with Governments across Europe and the world to increase the number of prisoners removed. Be in no doubt that the Government are absolutely committed to reducing the number of foreign national offenders in our prisons, which is why each year we are increasing the numbers of people removed.

Question put and agreed to.