Clarke refuses to resign over missing offenders

Key quote

"Surely the easiest people to keep tabs on are the ones you have just had under lock and key. This is an utter systemic failure." - Richard Bacon, Conservative MP for South Norfolk

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MORE than 1,000 foreign prisoners, including murderers, rapists and paedophiles, who should have been considered for deportation at the end of their sentences, were instead released into the community, Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, admitted yesterday.

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An unknown number may have been freed from Scottish prisons, as ministers admitted they had not traced more than 900 foreign former inmates.

Among the 1,023 foreign prisoners let out in the seven years from February 1999 to March this year were nine rapists, five killers and five paedophiles.

Another seven had served time for other sex offences and 57 for violent offences. There were also 41 burglars, 20 drug smugglers, 54 convicted of assault and 27 of indecent assault.

Mr Clarke admitted that he had considered resigning over the scandal, but ruled out doing so. However, Sir Menzies Campbell, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, described the Home Secretary's position as "fragile".

Revealing the figures yesterday, Mr Clarke conceded that the mistake was a "shocking state of affairs". He had pledged this week to make protecting the public from released, dangerous offenders his top priority.

"This is a failure of the Home Office and its agencies, which I do take full responsibility for," he said. But Mr Clarke insisted it was "not a resignation issue" and refused to blame the Immigration and Nationality Directorate or the Prison Service as the chief culprit for the releases.

"The concern, possibly anger, that people will feel, I think, is entirely understandable," the Home Secretary said. But rather than resign, he had decided it was his job to "put the situation right".

Ministers and officials are trying to track down the remaining 900 foreigners released without consideration of deportation.

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They have refused to name them, even though this would make it easier to find them. The Immigration and Nationality Directorate at the Home Office was too busy tackling spiralling asylum numbers to check the background of prisoners and indicated the failure was down to a communication breakdown with the Prison Service.

The blunder was exposed by a committee of MPs. Richard Bacon, the Tory MP for South Norfolk, asked how many failed asylum seekers had been released from jail without being deported. Yesterday, he said the oversight "beggars belief".

He added: "Surely the easiest people to keep tabs on are the ones you have just had under lock and key. This is an utter systemic failure."

Officials initially told him that 403 foreign nationals had been released between 2001 and August 2005, but officials then discovered that the figure since 1999 was at least 1,023.

David Blunkett, home secretary from 2001 to 2004 when many of the foreign nationals were released, said he found the failure "astonishing", as the government had tightened the law in the Criminal Justice Act 2003: "My view is heads should roll. There are too many people in the system who simply don't care. I fully support Charles Clarke in getting to the bottom of this."

The Scottish Prison Service distanced itself from the row. A spokesman said it was for the immigration services to tell it whether a prisoner should be considered for deportation.

The arrangements for identifying and removing prisoners "had not kept pace" with an explosion in the foreign prison population over the past ten years, Mr Clarke said.

No10 blamed the affair on a "breakdown in communication" between government agencies, but said Tony Blair had "full confidence" in the Home Secretary and in Tony McNulty, the prisons minister. "It is unreasonable to expect ministers to know what is going on in every nook and cranny in their department," Mr Blair's spokesman said.

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Of the 6,951 prisoners in Scottish jails, just 85 were foreign nationals, said the spokesman.

"We deported a dual Spanish/French national last week," the spokesman added. "It appears that our system is working."

• The Home Office has spent more than 229 million on outside consultants since 2000, the government has admitted.

In a Commons written answer, the minister, Baroness Scotland, said: "The use of external consultants in the Home Office provides the department with specialist knowledge, skill, capacity and technical expertise that is not otherwise available in house."