My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given earlier today by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary to an Urgent Question on foreign national offenders. The Statement is as follows:
“I am grateful to the National Audit Office for its report on managing and removing foreign national offenders. As the report makes clear, this is a problem which 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 we have removed 22,000 since 2010. I also want to make it plain that, as in so 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 we inherited. Chief among them, as the NAO report makes clear, are the legal barriers we face. The countless appeals and re-appeals which 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 to clamp down on such abuse. New powers from that 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 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 that do have an appeal right, they will be able to appeal only once. These new powers are radically reforming the deportation process by rebalancing human rights law 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 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 the 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 to ensure that we continue to build on that system”.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Answer. The principle of deporting foreign criminals is one on which we all agree, but the Government need to take responsibility for the mistakes and failures of the system happening now. When the PM said that deporting foreign criminals was a major priority he did not add, “But only in five years’ time after new legislation”. Today we are deporting fewer foreign criminals than in 2010—and more criminals are absconding and the Government have no idea where they are.
The National Audit Office has identified that a third of the failures are due to basic bureaucratic mistakes in the Home Office. In 38% of cases, the forms were not even filled in correctly, and in a number of cases no one bothered to book the flights home. It is clear that we need less rhetoric, greater competence and better management. Given the necessity of European and international co-operation to deal with this problem, what impact does the Minister consider that the Government’s obsession with opting out of EU criminal justice measures has had on tackling it?
I accept the view of the noble Baroness that the Opposition share our desire to see progress in this area, and the systems have to be robust to deliver that. It was clear that the UK Border Agency, which was introduced by the previous Government, was not delivering the effectiveness we wanted, and that is the reason we now have an Immigration Enforcement command with search teams that go out looking for people who abscond. It is also why the Human Rights Act, which forms the basis of many of the appeals and re-appeals, has been built upon by the Immigration Act. It now narrows down the number of routes for appeal from 17 to four. Of course, these measures have all taken time to come into effect, but as the NAO reports in its opening summary, over the past two years—since these measures have come in—the number of deportations is once again increasing, so they are beginning to have an effect. That is not to suggest any complacency whatever. We need to make sure that we continue to build on the measures so as to keep the British public safe.
My Lords, the Liberal Democrats want a fair immigration policy; clearly, we believe that foreign criminals who should be deported should not remain in this country. Will the Minister say how many of these dangerous foreign criminals are at large as a result of multiple appeals against deportation, and how many are at large due to Home Office incompetence?
My Lords, my noble friend, of course, has great expertise in this area and will know that the basis on which we collect data is not quite as finely siloed as that. We recognise that there is a major problem here: it is a cause for public concern and it needs to be addressed. The measures that we are putting forward—to reduce and replace the appeal/re-appeal conveyor belt, by which many of these prisoners are attempting to work the system; and to ensure that we have better information at the point of entry into this country by signing up to the Schengen information system and the European Criminal Records Information System—are the approach that we should emphasise.
My Lords, in 1999, as Chief Inspector of Prisons, I recommended that anyone who was ordered deportation as part of a sentence should have that deportation processed while they were in prison, starting on the day that they arrived there, so that on the day that they finished their sentence they went straight to the air field and out. That is what is practised in other places such as the UAE, as I saw. If they can do it, why can we not? When are we going to start acting properly? Furthermore, there is also a practice of sending people who are sentenced to deportation to immigration detention centres at the end of their sentence. That is precisely where they should not be, because they infect the people in the immigration centre with the wrong ideas, having been in prison.
The noble Lord puts his finger on a very pertinent point. One of the problems is that, through the immigration appeals process, hearing a case in the immigration tribunals can actually be longer than the sentence. Therefore, the prisoners can sometimes be released; they are released on bail in certain circumstances. We have to be very careful of that. One of the provisions in the new Immigration Act is the ability to be able to say, “The appeal process does not take place in the UK. It should actually take place in the country from which they came”. That is a positive step forward, along the lines that he suggested.
My Lords, we have bilateral arrangements with a number of countries about prison transfers. Is it not possible to look again at these arrangements to make sure that foreign nationals serve their sentences in the country of their origin, thus relieving pressure on resources and staffing in the United Kingdom?
My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. We are now taking part in the European prisoner transfer agreement; it relies on the country being willing to take the offender back into the prison system. There is another element to consider, in relation to non-EU countries: we need to make sure that the prisoner will actually serve in that country the sentence handed down to them and that they will not be allowed out early, as has happened in some countries when prisoners have been returned.
Will the Minister help me on one point? Could he emphasise a little more clearly than he has done that it is firmly the policy of the Government to re-enter—that they now wish to go back into—the 44 matters that they opted out of from the 144 on the original list for opting out? Things like the Schengen information exchange and the European arrest warrant are fundamental to the operation of any sensible system as far as deporting foreign criminals is concerned.
I hear that. The Government will make their announcements in due course. Of course, just because we are not part of the Schengen agreement in terms of the movement of people does not mean that we cannot share information. That will be helpful not only to this country but to the countries in the Schengen area.
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Smith told us that on occasion people have not been deported because the airline tickets have not been booked. Will the Minister tell us how many cases of that have taken place, and whose responsibility should it be to book those tickets?
I think that the figure was taken from a couple of case studies mentioned in the NAO report; they are not actually grouped. But we absolutely recognise that there needs to be better co-ordination across government and that is why we now have a cross-government team that comes under the National Security Council taking this issue seriously, taking it forward and introducing the measures that we have put forward.
My Lords, when I served as a Member of Parliament, I had a large proportion of asylum seekers in my constituency of Glasgow Springburn. What would happen was that the asylum seeker would say, “I seek asylum” and therefore they were looked at. Can I get the assurance that when asylum seekers are seeking asylum, they are checked to see whether they have been serious offenders in their previous country?
That is certainly the intention and the process. If I may, to make absolutely sure that I have given the noble Lord the accurate information, I will check on that and write to him. But that is certainly the case and nothing we are putting forward at present will mean that the genuine asylum seeker who is at risk of serious and irreversible harm will be deported while their case is being heard.
My Lords, if the Minister is unable to answer the question posed by my noble friend, will he please write and put a copy in the Library? We need to know accurately how many people were involved.
We will certainly make investigations into that and get the information required, and do as the noble Baroness suggests.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister, who has been very helpful in his answers. But the point that I made in my original question, and was made by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, was about the Schengen information system that the Minister himself referred to as being important and the fact that the Government have not signed up to that; we have been having a debate about opt-in, opt-out again. I repeat the question: does the Minister consider that the Government’s obsession with opting out of EU criminal justice measures has had an impact on tackling this problem, particularly in relation to the Schengen information system that he referred to?
I do not accept that that is the case. We are already, and have been for some time, part of the European criminal information system, which carries a lot of information; in fact, the UK is one of the heaviest users of that system. We now want to strengthen it further and it seems a very sensible step to be part of the Schengen information system as well.