Despite increased resources and the introduction of tougher powers, the Home Office has made “slower progress than expected” in managing foreign national offenders in the UK and in removing them to their home countries.
Today’s report published by the National Audit Office (NAO) highlights the fact that the number of foreign national offenders in prison and the numbers deported from the UK have remained broadly unchanged since 2006.
Across that period, the number of foreign nationals in prison in the UK increased slightly (by 4%) from 10,231 to 10,649 despite a ten-fold rise in the number of Home Office staff working on foreign national offender casework.
In the wake of an initial surge in the numbers removed from 2,856 in 2006-2007 to 5,613 in 2008-2009 (following the problems in 2006 when the Home Office discovered that 1,013 foreign national offenders had been released without being considered for deportation), removal numbers have now declined to 5,097 in 2013-2014.
With regard to prevention and early action, according to the NAO “the Government did relatively little” before December 2012 to tackle the problem of potential foreign national offenders entering the UK. A new 2013 Action Plan focused efforts on this aspect of prevention but, suggests the NAO, it lacks “a structured and informed approach”.
The Home Office is looking at better use of intelligence databases and has changed its immigration rules, but progress in modernising its border information system – designated the Warnings Index – has been slow. Indeed, the NAO estimates that £70 million could be saved every year if all early identification opportunities were duly seized and acted upon.
Barriers to removal are “considerable”
Today’s NAO report recognises that the barriers to foreign national offender removals are “considerable”. These barriers include foreign national offenders exploiting legal and medical obstacles to their removal. However, the spending watchdog identifies measures and opportunities for making progress which are not being maximised.
An analysis of 1,453 failed removals in 2013-2014 indicates that at least one third might have been avoided through “better co-ordination of the bodies involved” and “fewer administrative errors”.
Following a change of approach from April 2013 onwards, all foreign national offenders are now considered for deportation. This has increased removal numbers from 4,722 in 2012-2013 to 5,097 in 2013-2014.
The time taken to deport foreign national offenders has also reduced from an average of 369 days in 2012-2013 to 319 days come 2013-2014. However, according to the NAO, delays in starting cases and an over-reliance on form-filling mean that there remains “considerable scope” for speeding up the process.
Greater use of early removal schemes could also save money. The NAO estimates that the 37% of foreign national offenders who left as part of the Early Removal Scheme in 2013-2014 saved £27.5 million by reducing the average number of days spent in prison by 146.
The Home Office and the Ministry of Justice do not use cost data to manage foreign national offenders, but the NAO estimates that, during 2013-2014, public bodies spent no less than £850 million on managing and removing these offenders. That figure equates to around £70,000 per offender.
The NAO states that, since 2006, the Home Office has made “limited progress” in removing foreign national offenders who’ve completed their sentences. By the end of March this year, more than one-in-six foreign national offenders living in the community (760, in fact) had absconded. This figure represents a rise of 6% since 2010.
Furthermore, 395 absconders have been missing since before 2010. 58 of them are designated ‘high harm individuals’.
Despite the 2006 crisis, the Home Office did not keep records of foreign national offenders released without consideration for deportation before January 2009. The Department estimates that 151 such offenders have been released without consideration since that point in time.
Commenting on today’s report, Amyas Morse – head of the National Audit Office – stated: “It’s no easy matter to manage foreign national offenders in the UK and to deport those who have completed their sentences. However, too little progress has been made, despite the increased resources and effort devoted to this problem.”
Morse added: “The Government’s focus on preventative measures and early action is promising, but it has only just started to exploit these options. The Government needs to build on the momentum of its recent Action Plan, in particular taking advantage of relatively inexpensive and straightforward opportunities to make progress.”
Foreign national offenders in the UK: the top line statistics
Foreign national offenders in England and Wales serving in prison and living in the community after prison pending removal action (as at the end of March 2014)
Foreign national offenders removed from the UK (during 2013-2014)
The NAO’s estimate of public spending on managing and removing foreign national offenders (during 2013-2014)
Foreign nationals in the prison estate in England and Wales as at 31 March 2014 (of whom 2,600 were on remand or not sentenced)
Proportion of arrested foreign nationals on which police carried out an overseas criminal record check through the ACPO Criminal Records Office (2013-2014)
1 in 25
Foreign national offender files arriving at the Home Office to start processing for removal which have sufficient identity documents
Number of days (on average) foreign national offenders are removed from the UK after the end of their sentence in 2013-2014
Prison days saved (on average) as a result of foreign national offenders being removed as part of early removal schemes in 2013-2014
Proportion of foreign national offenders removed from the UK which were part of early removal schemes (2013-2014)
Foreign national offenders living in the community pending removal at the end of March 2014
1 in 6
Foreign national offenders living in the community that had absconded at the end of March 2014
Departmental estimate of foreign national offenders released from prison without being considered for deportation (January 2009-March 2014)
Comment from the Committee of Public Accounts
The Committee of Public Accounts is appointed by the House of Commons to examine “the accounts showing the appropriation of the sums granted to Parliament to meet the public expenditure, and of such other accounts laid before Parliament as the Committee may think fit”.
Margaret Hodge MP – current chair of the Committee of Public Accounts – has commented on the NAO report.
“The Committee of Public Accounts has said that deporting foreign national offenders would be the best way of reducing the cost of the prison system,” declared Hodge, “and yet the Government’s performance in reducing the number of foreign national prisoners continues to be frustratingly poor. I’m astounded that the number of foreign nationals in prisons has increased to 10,649 since 2006 and that, of those released, 760 currently waiting to be deported have disappeared and around 150 are thought not to have been considered for deportation.”
The MP continued: “It’s appalling that only 30% of potential foreign national offenders in custody were searched on immigration databases to see if they had committed crimes overseas.”
In addition, Hodge said: “All this is despite the ten-fold increase in the number of officials working to deport foreign national offenders, from fewer than 100 officials to over 900, and an estimated £850 million of taxpayers’ money spent on managing and removing foreign national offenders in 2013-2014. It beggars belief that the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice are managing the removal of foreign national offenders without knowing basic costs and how best to target their resources.”
As far as Hodge is concerned: “Government is not helping itself. The continued use of outdated IT and too much reliance on form-filling means that crucial checks and information gathering are not happening at the right time. Given its poor track record, Government will need to take huge strides in order to improve its management of foreign national offenders through its still-evolving 2013 cross-Government Action Plan.”
Officials from the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice are due to appear before the Committee on 5 November.