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House of Commons Hansard
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Foreign National Offenders: Prison Transfers
19 February 2019
Volume 654

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered prison transfers of foreign national offenders.

It is a joy to see you in the Chair, Sir Edward. I thank Mr Speaker for granting me this debate, and I welcome the Minister and his team to the Chamber.

Believe it or not, we have something like 160 nations of the world represented in our prisons. About one third of those individuals have been convicted of violent and/or sexual offences, about one fifth have been convicted on drug charges, and others have been responsible for burglary, fraud, robbery and other serious crimes.

[Ian Austin in the Chair]

Some years ago, the National Audit Office did an estimate of the cost to the British taxpayer of incarcerating those people in our jails, and came out with a cost per year per prisoner of something like £33,000. When we add to that the cost of the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, legal aid and other things, the total bill could be something between £750 million and £1 billion a year. The National Audit Office came down somewhere in the middle of that range, and estimated the annual cost to the taxpayer to be about £850 million a year. That assumes that there are about 10,000 foreign national offenders in our jails.

I first ask the Minister, given that he is attended by a galaxy of civil service talent, who no doubt have the numbers at their fingertips, what is the present prison population today? Of the total number of prisoners, how many foreign national offenders do we have in our prisons today? I reckon the present prison population is something like 85,000, and that there are about 10,000 foreign national offenders in our prisons. Of those 10,000, what proportion come from the European Union—I think the figure is about 4,000—and how many come from non-EU countries?

Can the Minister confirm these estimates of what I call the list of shame—the top 10 countries that are represented in our prisons? I reckon that No. 1 is Poland with about 950. No. 2 is Ireland with 750. No. 3 is Romania with 630. No. 4 is Jamaica with 550. In joint fifth, sixth and seventh place are Albania, Lithuania and Pakistan with about 475 each. No. 8 is India with 450. No. 9 is Somalia with 425. No. 10 is Nigeria with 400. In total, I reckon that the top 10 nations in our prisons total something like 5,580 foreign national offenders. My contention is that those people should not be incarcerated at Her Majesty’s pleasure; they should be in prison in their own countries at the expense of their own taxpayers. Her Majesty’s Government are not doing nearly enough to send those people back to prisons in their own countries.

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I thank my hon. Friend for giving way very graciously. I hope he will be pleased to know that in my constituency we have a prison at Huntercombe that exists to house foreign national prisoners in the process of transferring them back to their own countries. That has gone down terribly well with the locals, who wanted to see those prisoners transferred back. They can go to say goodbye to them, waving as the coach takes them back to the airport. It is close to Heathrow airport, so the transfer can be made easily.

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I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I will give way to him again if he knows—I do not expect him to, but if he does—the number of prisoners at HMP Huntercombe. The nation needs to know. Perhaps the Minister will advise us in his response how many prisoners are held there pending deportation. I am pleased for my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) that he has such a facility in his constituency, and that it is popular with his constituents, but my contention is that the prison is not large enough. We need to send a lot more of these people back, and quickly.

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The operational capacity of the prison is about 1,300.

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That is about 13% of our foreign national offender population at any one time, so we need at least nine more Huntercombes if we are to deport these people back to the countries from which they came.

No doubt the Minister will tell the House today that since 2010 some 45,000 foreign national offenders have been removed from the UK, including 6,000 in the past year. My first reaction to those numbers is, “My gosh! Given the extent to which foreign nationals commit crimes in this country, thank goodness they are being caught; the number who commit offences but are not caught must be even larger.” We have a real problem on our hands, with such a large number of foreign nationals committing crimes in this country.

No doubt the Minister will tell the House that prisoners are transferred in four main ways. The Government maintain that the main method to remove foreign national offenders from prison is what is called the early removal scheme. Will the Minister give us more detail on what that scheme entails? I hope that it does not mean that prisoners’ sentences are cut short and they are just deported to be at liberty back in their countries of origin, because that is not the point that I am making. These people should be sent back to their own countries and kept in prison there, until their sentences have been completed. Last year, I understand that some 2,000 were removed under that scheme.

No doubt the Minister will then tell us that prisoner transfer agreements are in place, falling into three main categories, the first of which is the EU prisoner transfer framework decision, which EU member states signed up to between December 2011 and December 2015. There are 27 EU member states to which we can send prisoners and which can send UK prisoners back to us. Amazingly, since the scheme first went live in December 2011, two EU nations have still not ratified their membership of that framework decision: Bulgaria and Ireland. I suggest that Ireland spends less time trying to cause problems for this country with the Irish backstop and more time on ratifying the prisoner transfer directive, which is now eight years old.

Under the EU prisoner transfer framework decision, since it has been inaugurated, we have only sent back 357 EU national offenders, out of an EU prison population that is in the order of some 4,000, as I am sure the Minister will tell us. The top three are the Netherlands, to which we sent back 141, or 39% of the total; Romania, 56, or 16%; and Poland, 35. I point out to the Minister that we have sent 56 Romanian nationals back to prison in Romania, but at any one time we have about 630 Romanians in our prisons; and we have only sent back 35 Polish nationals, but at any one time we have about 950 in our prisons. Furthermore, of the 27 signatories, to 10 we have sent no prisoners back at all.

Of course, this is a two-way process, and we are entitled to receive UK nationals who committed offences abroad back into this country. We have taken back a total of 100. The largest number—40—came from Spain, nine have been returned from Germany, and nine from Italy. It seems to me that the scheme, despite having been in operation for eight years, is not working very well.

However, it is working better than the additional protocol to the prisoner transfer framework decision, to which 13 other countries are signed up: Georgia, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Norway, Russia, Serbia, San Marino, Switzerland, Turkey and Ukraine. It was confirmed to me yesterday in a written parliamentary answer that we have transferred to the countries adhering to the additional protocol the grand total of zero foreign national prisoners. We have sent no foreign national offenders at all back under the additional protocol. It is absolutely and completely useless.

The third category we have is bilateral prisoner transfer agreements. The same parliamentary answer listed six countries, out of the 160 nations represented in our jails, with which we have compulsory prisoner transfer agreements. In other words, we can send foreign national offenders back to those countries without their permission—it is compulsory for them to go back. Those six countries are Albania, Ghana, Libya, Nigeria, Rwanda and Somaliland. The Ministry of Justice helpfully listed the dates on which those six prisoner transfer agreements came into force. The oldest goes back to 2009, and the latest came into force in 2017. For one country—Somaliland—the Department has no information about when the agreement came into force. The answer states, “Not Available”. Can the Minister confirm whether we have a compulsory prisoner transfer agreement with Somaliland?

We have sent back a grand total of 25 foreign national offenders to those six countries, one of which is Nigeria. We have something like 400 Nigerians in our prisons at any one time. We have sent back one Nigerian under the compulsory prisoner transfer agreement. That simply is not good enough. I suggest that the Minister takes the lead on negotiating effective compulsory prisoner transfer agreements with countries for which we hold a large number of foreign national offenders in our jails.

Let me give two examples. Pakistan is seventh on my original list—in fact, it is joint fifth, sixth and seventh with Albania and Lithuania. There are something like 475 Pakistanis in our jails at any one time. Nigeria is tenth, with 400. We should use our foreign aid budget to build prisons in those countries so we have a place to send those people back to. Pakistan and Nigeria are among the five biggest recipients of UK aid in the world. We give something like £400 million a year to Pakistan and £330 million a year to Nigeria in international aid. It seems to me that if we have, by law, to spend that money on international aid—I do not agree with that, but it is the law of the land—we should use it sensibly, by trying to reduce the £1 billion annual cost of incarcerating foreign national offenders in our prisons.

I understand that the Government are seeking to build an additional wing on a Nigerian prison, at the cost of some £700,000. Is that correct? Has that wing been completed and is it operational? Given that we have sent back only one Nigerian, presumably he is living in luxury in that 112-bed facility somewhere in Nigeria. Do we have plans for any more?

Do we have any plans to build prisons in Pakistan? There are almost 500 Pakistanis in our jails, and they should be held in prison in Pakistan at the cost of taxpayers there, rather than taxpayers here. Will the Minister negotiate more compulsory prisoner transfer agreements? Will he make sure that they are effective and that we send back more than the 25 prisoners who we have sent back under the agreements so far? Will he speak to the Department for International Development to use aid money to build modern prisons in those countries so we can return more foreign nationals?

I will allow the Minister some time to reply, so finally, once we have sent those people back, will the Minister liaise with the Home Office to make sure that they cannot return to this country? It is one thing to send them back to prison in their own country, but we should ban them from ever returning and darkening our shores again. Surely that would be fairly straightforward for the Government to do and my constituents would certainly welcome it.

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On a point of order, Mr Austin. May I correct the record? I said that the capacity of Huntercombe was 1,300; it is actually 480. I read the wrong figure.

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Thank you.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) for securing the debate. He has raised the issue tenaciously on previous occasions, most recently at Justice questions earlier this month. He and his constituents attach great importance to it and, as always, he acts as a powerful and strong voice in Parliament for the people of Kettering.

As always, the debate raises a matter of huge importance and is an opportunity to update the House more fully than would be possible in a single parliamentary answer. Rightly, increasing the removal of foreign national offenders is one of the Government’s top priorities. All foreign national offenders sentenced to custody are referred by the Prison Service to immigration enforcement as quickly as possible to be considered for deportation action.

As all hon. Members present are aware, 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 its hospitality by breaking our laws should be in no doubt about our determination to punish and remove them.

My hon. Friend raised several statistical questions. He rightly alluded to the fact that since 2010 we have removed more than 45,000 foreign offenders from prisons, immigration removal centres and the community. In 2017-18, as he stated, we removed almost 6,000 foreign national offenders, of whom 2,000 came directly from our prisons. That represents good progress, but the Government are determined to do more.

My hon. Friend asked some specific questions. The current overall prison population is 82,236, which is a little shy of what he thought but in the same ballpark. The latest statistics that I have are that foreign national offenders make up 9,090 of that—roughly 10% or 11%—and EU foreign national offenders make up 3,943 of those.

My hon. Friend touched on his top 10. His fabled statistical brilliance has slightly changed, because our order and numbers are different, but if it is helpful, I will briefly run through them. The latest list puts Poland in first place, with the highest number, then Albania, Romania, Ireland, Jamaica, Lithuania, Pakistan, Somalia, India and Portugal. In terms of the stats that sit behind each of those, if I do not manage to answer every question he has raised today, I am happy to write to him.

As he is aware, the primary responsibility for the removal of foreign national offenders rests with the Home Office immigration enforcement team, with my Department supporting its work by setting the policy for, and administering, early removal schemes from our prisons. Prisoner transfers are a matter for my Department and fall within the portfolio of the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart). I will certainly pass on to him the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering about negotiating further such agreements and the form of those agreements.

Before I turn to the specific issue of prison transfer agreements, I want to highlight the substantial cross-Government work under way to increase foreign national offender removals. A lead Minister’s group that meets quarterly is in place. It focuses on the removal of foreign national offenders and brings together key Departments to ensure a co-ordinated approach. We continue to work hard to improve and speed up every part of the removals process, right from the point at which a foreign national offender first comes into contact with criminal justice agencies up to their removal back to their home country.

For example, as my hon. Friend will be aware, the Government introduced new requirements through the Policing and Crime Act 2017 so that anyone appearing in court now has to state their nationality. It is designed to speed up early identification of foreign national offenders and therefore assist with speedier removal. In other initiatives, my Department is working with the Home Office on ways to speed up the immigration appeal process for foreign offenders held in prison, and to ensure that appeals are determined as quickly and as efficiently as possible so that foreign offenders with no right to remain here may be removed quickly.

We are also working to concentrate foreign national offenders within fewer prisons in our estate. As has been mentioned, we have already created two foreign national offender-only prisons, one of the first countries in the world to have done so, with the benefit of concentrating foreign national offenders and allowing the Prison Service better to address the specific needs of that cohort of offenders. Importantly, it also allows the Home Office better to deploy its immigration enforcement teams, which need access to the prisoners to undertake the deportation process.

As my hon. Friend highlighted in his speech, there are different routes by which foreign national offenders can be removed from this country. The first that he touched on is the early removals scheme, which is our principal mechanism for removing foreign national offenders from prison. Under the scheme, offenders are returned to their home countries and are barred from returning to the UK, potentially for life. In 2017-18 we removed more than 2,000 prisoners through the scheme; that is about 95% of early removals from prison. I am keen that we should not lose sight of our success in removing such a large number of foreign offenders.

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I am listening closely to the Minister. Can he clarify whether the 2,000 a year who are returned under the early removals scheme are then at liberty in their country of origin, or are they behind bars?

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My hon. Friend is clearly clairvoyant, because my next note addresses exactly that point. Under the transfer agreements, the mechanism allows us to transfer a sentenced prisoner during their prison sentence so that they will continue to serve that sentence in a prison back in their home country. Importantly, the agreements are reciprocal and allow the return home of British nationals from overseas prisons. We have more than 100 transfer agreements—he mentioned 160, which is roughly in the right space overall—with countries and territories around the world. Depending on the type of agreement that is in place, prisoners can be transferred either on a voluntary basis, meaning the consent of the prisoner is required, or on a compulsory basis, meaning their consent is not required. To address a point that my hon. Friend specifically raised, under either type of agreement, including the compulsory one, the receiving country still has the right to accept or refuse the prisoner; the country receiving them still has to agree to accept them even if the prisoner does not have a say in that process.

To focus briefly on the EU prisoner transfer agreement, that is the most effective transfer agreement to which the UK is a signatory, largely because, going back to my previous point, there are limited grounds on which a receiving member state can refuse to accept a prisoner transfer request. Our departure from the EU will therefore have an impact. As the prisons Minister said earlier this month, if we leave the EU without a deal there is the risk of a decline in the number of transfers to and from the EU, because we might be forced to fall back on older transfer mechanisms that could prove less effective.

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The Minister says that under the EU prisoner transfer agreement there are limited grounds for a country to refuse to take their prisoner back. There are 950 Polish nationals in our jails, and Poland has taken back only 35. Is the Minister telling us that Poland regularly has 915 good reasons not to take prisoners back? It seems that this agreement is not as effective as the Minister makes out.

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I will make two points. The first is a statistical point because latest figures show that there are 787 Polish prisoners, although my hon. Friend’s point about the number and scale still stands. I was about to come to the other legal and procedural reasons for why transfers can take a long time in this country. In that context, I wish to touch on the suggestion made previously that the prisoner transfer agreements are in some sense not working, and that our prisons are full of prisoners who could be transferred. As my hon. Friend is aware, many of our transfer agreements are necessarily voluntary, not just for the country receiving them but for the prisoners themselves. That is due to the poor standard of prison conditions and the treatment of prisoners in some parts of the world, and our obligations under those agreements as well as our human rights obligations.

For our compulsory agreements, we target transfer at those offenders who are serving lengthy prison sentences. Transfer can take place only if all appeal routes have been exhausted, a deportation order is in place, and there are no legal concerns about the prison system to which the prisoner will be moved. Consequently, when all those factors and process points have been taken into consideration, the number of prisoners who are eligible for a swift transfer might not be as high as my hon. Friend might wish, and in some cases the process could take longer than the prison sentence being served.

We are, however, working to increase the number of transfers wherever possible, and our current agreement with the EU has enabled the transfer of 357 prisoners to EU prisons, with each transfer freeing up several years of cell space. Transfer numbers continue steadily to rise now that most member states have implemented that agreement and operational processes are bedding in. Such transfers therefore play a role in managing our prison population and ensuring that capacity is available for offenders who have been sentenced to custody.

I will also highlight a number of successes for our transfer agreements with countries outside the EU. In late December we signed an agreement with the Government of Pakistan to restart the voluntary prisoner transfer process between our countries. Given that Pakistani prisoners are one of the top 10 nationalities held in our prisons, that progress is welcome and I thank all Departments who worked on that issue for their support. We also have a prisoner transfer agreement with Albania, which is another of the 10 most common nationalities in our prisons. A transfer agreement has seen 24 Albanian prisoners transferred, and there is ongoing engagement with Albanian authorities to improve that mechanism and speed up and increase transfer rates. The prisons Minister met the Albanian Justice Minister earlier this month to discuss co-operation on that issue, and an agreement was reached to continue with close co-operation.

I am conscious that only a short amount of time is left, so I shall conclude by saying that whether removal is through the early removal scheme, prisoner transfer, or deportation after an offender has completed their sentence, the key point is that we continue to work to remove those who have broken our laws and have no right to be here. I suspect my hon. Friend will continue to champion and push hard on this issue—indeed, I suspect we may well debate it again in the coming weeks and months—but he should be in no doubt that that the Government are committed to that agenda, and to increasing the number of foreign national offenders who are removed from this country.

Question put and agreed to.