Foreign prisoners crisis still costing millions
Jamie Doward, home affairs editor
Sunday August 27, 2006
Taxpayers are paying millions of pounds to continue to detain more than 1,000 foreign prisoners who have already finished their jail sentences.
The revelation of the additional periods of detention – which in some cases can last for months – has alarmed prison reform groups and raised questions about the government's commitment to turn round the ailing Home Office at a time when concerns about overcrowding continue to rise.
It is also likely to prove embarrassing for the Home Secretary, John Reid, who in May charged immigration minister Liam Byrne with producing a plan to resolve the foreign prisoners crisis within 100 days. That deadline expires this Friday, amid claims from those working within the prison system that the problems continue.
Research by the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) suggests that more than 1,200 foreign nationals have passed their release date but are still being held while officials struggle to process their deportation papers. Around 700 of these are in prison, with the remainder in immigration removal centres. It costs around 40,000 a year to keep someone in prison, suggesting that the situation is costing the government almost 4m a month.
Around 20 foreign nationals are being held at Liverpool prison and a similar number in London's Belmarsh. Many foreign nationals have been in prison for more than two months, Napo reports. A number of cases came to light of British passport holders being held because they had foreign-sounding names, while several were being held after completing sentences for minor offences such as non-payment of fines.
'The situation has gone from one extreme to the other,' said Napo's assistant general secretary, Harry Fletcher. 'The log jam is making overcrowding even worse. There is a clear need for more staff but a reluctance by the department to increase the number of civil servants. The two positions are clearly incompatible.'
There are nearly 10,000 foreign nationals in Britain's jails, 13 per cent of the prison population. Immigration court sources suggest only 30 per cent of those subjected to deportation proceedings are currently returned to their country of origin. Napo estimates the backlog will not be cleared until the autumn and warns that prison and probation staff are struggling to cope with a problem that has seen hundreds of staff transferred from processing asylum applications to sorting out the foreign prisoner crisis.
The burgeoning prison population is an acute concern for Reid. The prison service has drawn up plans for criminals serving sentences of between four weeks and four years to be released 10 days early.
In an email to staff, Phil Wheatley, the service's director-general, said the early-release scheme was a precautionary measure and that it 'will only be introduced if it becomes absolutely necessary'. However, it is thought that Tony Blair is worried that the scheme will play badly with the public.
Reform groups have long been concerned about how the system treats foreign prisoners. 'Many foreign-national prisoners are in bureaucratic limbo,' said Geoff Dobson, deputy director of the Prison Reform Trust. 'They are held in our overcrowded prisons long beyond their sentence expiry, often in extreme distress, with their needs unrecognised.'
A Home Office spokeswoman said the department had introduced an eight-point plan to help ease the backlog. This includes better information sharing between the Immigration and Nationality Directorate and the prison service and an automatic presumption that foreign-national prisoners should be deported, which should speed up the legal process and prevent people being held beyond their sentence.