Home Office cover-up

Home Office suppressed details of crimes committed by foreign nationals as pressure mounts on Clarke to go

By Francis Elliott, Sophie Goodchild and Marie Woolf

Published: 30 April 2006

The pressure on Charles Clarke to resign intensified last night following allegations that he tried to cover up the true scale of the threat posed by foreign prisoners wrongly released on to Britain's streets.

The Independent on Sunday can today reveal that the Home Secretary withheld detailed information about the serious crimes committed by 79 convicted criminals who should have been deported following their release from British jails.

With claims that public safety could have been jeopardised by the refusal to name the men being hunted, the IoS can reveal that a list of offenders passed by Mr Clarke to the Association of Chief Police Officers includes four kidnappers, two murderers, eight rapists, 13 sex offenders, two killers convicted of manslaughter and 50 violent offenders.

Although Mr Clarke admitted on Friday that 13 of the "most serious offenders" had convictions for murder, manslaughter and child sex offences, he withheld the other crimes committed by the released foreigners. Five of the 79 have re-offended and two more are under investigation for alleged sex offences, one of whom was released after Mr Clarke was told about the scandal.

Kyle Bester, a Zimbabwean national who was sentenced to five years for rape, was the first prisoner to be identified after he was re-arrested on Friday night. He was being held at Belmarsh high-security prison.

Last night, police and immigration officers were desperately trying to establish the whereabouts of other released offenders. Police detained an undisclosed number of criminals on the serious offender list yesterday, but would not givedetails.

With Tony Blair's government braced for further disclosures today about ministerial behaviour, David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said yesterday that at "every stage" the Government had battled to keep the true facts of the prisoner release crisis concealed. "The public can no longer have confidence in a Home Secretary who covers up the facts and particularly the facts of his own failure ... We have had to drag the numbers out of them."

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, added: "They are salami-slicing into the statistics. It's difficult for me to work out where cock-up ends and cover-up begins."

The allegations of a cover-up will push to the limits the support of Downing Street, which was last night facing further revelations about John Prescott's affair with his secretary, who has reportedly sold her side of the story for in excess of £100,000.

The deluge of negative publicity prompted one cabinet minister to tell the IoS that Mr Blair was "in the endgame". Another senior MP said disastrous results in Thursday's local elections could prove the "tipping point" for mutinous Labour backbenchers desperate for a change at the top.

But it is Mr Clarke's career that is in more immediate peril. Mr Blair appeared to cut his Home Secretary adrift in an interview with the News of the World last night, refusing to rule out sacking him. He said: "It depends on what happens, what the reasons are." Mr Blair also said he had been "pretty angry" when he found out about the fiasco.

The Home Office's top civil servant has blamed the bungle on staff being unable to cope with the huge rise in the number of foreign prisoners in British jails. A letter from Sir David Normington, the permanent secretary at the Home Office, circulated to staff this week, refers to the crisis as "deeply regrettable".

The memo, a copy of which has been seen by the IoS, said: "The foreign national prisoner population is at record levels and it is clear that while an increasing numbers [sic] of cases have been referred for consideration, we have not kept pace with that rising demand." It adds: "This is clearly a situation that all of us would rather have avoided."

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