By Joseph Willits
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In Parliament yesterday, Immigration Minister Damian Green responded to an urgent question tabled by his Labour counterpart Chris Bryant after reports that 4,238 foreign criminals awaiting deportation were still committing crimes. In May of this year, 3,775 foreign criminals were awaiting deportation, but by September the number had increased by almost 500.
Green said that in 2010, the Government had "removed more than 5,000 foreign criminals, 43% by the end of their prison sentence", adding that "where there are barriers to early removal, the agency seeks to detain them to protect the public".
However, the removal of foreign criminals is effected by legal issues Green said, saying that the UK Borders Agency (UKBA) had to "operate within the law". The UKBA "must release foreign offenders when ordered to do so by the courts and release low-risk offenders where there is no realistic prospect of removal within a reasonable period". Green said that "challenges under human rights legislation, the situation in the offender’s home country, and lack of co-operation by the offender or his home Government in getting essential travel documents" could all delay the deportation process. Whilst the deportation process was still ongoing, "the UKBA works closely with the police and the National Offender Management Service to reduce the risk of reoffending".
The Government was doing everything it could "to increase the number and speed of removals"Green said:
"We now start deportation action 18 months before the end of the sentence to speed up the deportation process. We are chartering flights to remove foreign offenders to many more long-haul and challenging destinations. We will change the immigration rules to cut abuse of the Human Rights Act 1998. We will open more foreign national-only prisons, and we will be able to remove more European offenders through the prisoner transfer agreement."
However, Green's "rhetoric" was criticised by Chris Bryant who accused him of hiding figures without any plans to publish them. Bryant also asked Green to "confirm that the number of foreign national offenders deported has actually fallen this year by more 700", which he described as "an astounding figure". The exchange between Green and Bryant involved a certain amount of political blaming, with Green warning Bryant about "asking urgent questions about newspaper reports that he has not read very carefully" and against "distorting facts and figures to serve a political purpose".
The exchange prompted a comment from Mark Field MP (Cities of London and Westminster), who said:
"The general public will find it rather unedifying to watch this blame game, when what they want is to be protected from dangerous foreign criminals who should have been kicked out of the country."
Field also asked, "why, in his [Green's] 18-month tenure, there has not already been a move to alter the human rights legislation to which he referred?". Green apologised to Field for being "too slow for his taste in bringing reforms forward", but used the creation of a "consultation document some months ago suggesting changes to human rights legislation" as an example of reform.
Phillip Hollobone MP (Kettering) requested Green to "name and shame the three countries from which most of the foreign nationals in question come" and those which "are being the most awkward in facilitating their return to secure detention in their own countries". Green said that although the highest number of foreign criminals come from Nigeria and Jamaica, they were not the most awkward:
"I should pay tribute to both countries’ Governments, who are considerably more co-operative now than they were. I visited Nigeria recently, where I visited a prison, part of which had been built by the British taxpayer specifically to make it easier for us to return Nigerian national prisoners to Nigeria. That is the kind of practical action we are taking."
Using the example of a removal centre in his Dover constituency, Charlie Elphicke MP described people "who have been there for three years, being held in stasis after having served their sentence". He asked Green "to take all measures possible to get such people out of the system as quickly as possible" as "it seems basically unfair that they should be incarcerated when they have served their sentence."
Although Green did not directly answer Elphicke's question, he gave assurances that the Government "will keep people in detention after their prison sentence has finished only if they are thought to pose a danger to the wider community". He asked Elphicke to appreciate the fact that "if such people cannot be deported immediately … but they pose a danger to the British public, the best place for them is in immigration detention".