Friday, April 28, 2006
Beneath the foreign prisoner debacle
A huge backlog in expelling (would-be) migrants from Britain has emerged to widen the scandal of foreign prisoners being released into the community. An Immigration Service official responsible for a full range of deportation and 'removal' cases yesterday said that the backlog now runs to 'several years'.
The 'frontline' staff of the Immigration & Nationality Directorate within the Home Office are known to have been suffering from very low morale for some time, and a serious lack of both training and numbers, as well as all the red tape that takes officers away from duty for long periods as soon as any suspect is apprehended. Officials are now complaining that their work is 'pointless' in that it is endlessly frustrated, not least through the working of the Human Rights Act, which repeatedly delays or prevents enforcement action.
The intervention of MPs on behalf of migrants living within their constituency is a particular problem. MPs, whether of the Government or opposition party, in effect wear two hats that can come into conflict. On the one hand they have to toe the party line on immigration policy, but on the other, they have to service the needs of individual constituents. Inevitably all of these individuals become exceptional cases, because, as all immigration advisors know, in the end all cases are at 'the Secretary of State's discretion'. Lobbying the local MP usually obliges him/her to support thin arguments as to why an exception should be made and various legal delaying tactics. Inevitably the conflict is most apparent for Labour MPs, because even apart from political considerations, it is in Labour constituencies where most, and the more desperate (would-be) migrants have come to live.
Of the 'foreign prisoners' released instead of being deported, the regulations are that all of them should be at least considered for deportation as a matter of course, and as from 2003 (when David Blunkett introduced new regulations) anyone who has served a year or more in prison should be sent back to their country of origin automatically. An Immigration Service source revealed that some of the ex-prisoners are here illegally -- that is, that they have not gone through application channels -- but many who have complied with normal procedures will have been given 'indefinite leave to remain' status by the IND. This is not what it seems. The 'leave to remain' is in reality for five years, and only after this can the applicant apply for a British passport. The five-year period is expressly so that each applicant's fitness to remain permanently can be assessed. If this is found wanting, then what would otherwise be a straight progression to citizenship can be blocked. These migrants are therefore 'on the books' of the Home Office, and it is not clear why the IND blames the Prison Service for why it cannot account for their whereabouts.
There is a further big question mark as to whether those 'removed' have actually been deported. As a now retired Immigration Service official explained: deportation is a Secretary of State's direction that carries with it a prohibition on re-entry, normally for three years. By contrast, 'removal' is merely an administrative term that does not necessarily mean that someone has been expelled from Britain. It has not been clarified whether even those ex-prisoners have been deported or merely 'removed'. That the Home Secretary and spokesmen from Government and the Home Office generally continue to use 'removal' and 'deportation' interchangeably is highly misleading. Of course, it would be convenient to use the term 'removal', if in fact an ex-prisoner merely had his application for immigration rescinded and had been earmarked in the system for expulsion.
John Tincey of the Immigration Service union has long complained about the farce of trying to expel people. Two years ago he summed up what was then a dire situation: "From what our members say I would be very surprised if we were removing more than 12 people a month who really do not want to go home". Stories of migrants left at airports simply to disappear back into Britain are explained by lack of staff (two officials are required to be escorts on a flight) and airlines refusing to carry problem passengers. Apart from some flights chartered by the IND for the purpose of sending some migrants home, at best the jury is out that there has been an improvement on anything like the scale that the Government claims.
The pretence that knowledge of the problem of foreign prisoners is recent is also empty. It has been known for several years that even where deportation is along with imprisonment actually part of the sentence, migrants are held for months after the custodial element has been completed. (This exacerbates the serious problem of prison overcrowding and would seem to explain at least in part the breakdown in communication between the IND and the Prison Service.) Back in January 2004, in the annual report by the chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers pointed to foreign prisoners being the Home Office's "institutional blind spot"; that the Immigration Service 'unless pressed, was not monitoring those liable to deportation. In many prisons we found many prisoners well beyond sentence with no idea when they might be released and go home." It was in this report (and not this week) that it was first revealed that 1,200 prisoners were officially classed as being "of unknown nationality", and many more were recorded as British but in fact were merely pretending to be so. Then in July 2005, the National Audit Office reported that the Home Office was unable to deport prisoners upon serving their sentences and that instead they has been released.
This latest immigration scandal shows yet again that information is prized out of the Home Office with great difficulty. Despite the repeated intervention of the Information Commissioner, the Home Office is still refusing to abide by the new Freedom of Information law in withholding documents about the systematically illegal backlog clearance exercises that were exposed (by myself). This is what led to the resignation of Beverley Hughes two years ago, and the start of a string of immigration debacles. The Government is still declining a specific request made in January 2005 (as soon as the Act came into force) of copies of communications to/from the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, and his then Immigration Minister, Beverley Hughes. It is expected that ministers and top civil servants knew about and orchestrated the failure to apply immigration rules. An enquiry at the time (the Sutton report) had concluded that it was all down to relatively junior management, but the true picture can be found with a closer look at the report together with other documents that emerged through the Home Office's enquiry into my 'whistle-blowing'. The excuse not to disclose is that it is against the 'public interest' to make available any further details. What consideration could trump coming clean about what was indisputably serious illegal activity, the Home Office has also refused to explain.
That the Home Office has been shown to be unconcerned about criminal migrants - the most unworthy of all categories of immigrants - can only confirm that the department is unconcerned about all of the other aspects of the immigration problem, and that there would seem to be systemic failure within the IND. As the former Home Secretary David Blunkett remarked this week: "there are too many people in the system who simply don't care".