Race Awareness

Hundreds of foreign criminals set free to wander the streets, the deputy prime minister sleeping with his secretary, the minister for health silenced by heckling nurses. For Labour, it seems, things can only get wetter. By Jonathan Ungoed-Thomas, Richard Woods, Daniel Foggo, David Cracknell, Isabel Oakeshott, David Leppard, Abul Taher, Robert Booth, Jonathan Milne and Will Iredale

In the early hours of the morning Kevin Ford, an immigrant from Jamaica, parked his car alongside a red Rover near a nightclub in Spital Hill, Sheffield, and pulled out a revolver.

One bullet shattered the Rover’s windscreen. Another ricocheted into the darkness. A third hit one of the car’s occupants, a man called Alton Chambers, seriously wounding him.

“Now go and inform,” crowed Ford, who had apparently suspected Chambers of grassing on him. As he sped off that night in June 2004, Ford left Chambers haemorrhaging blood in the road; his victim was saved only by emergency surgery and lost a third of his liver.

Within days detectives had traced Ford to London where he was arrested by armed police. That success, though, was tempered by a shocking discovery: Ford should not have been in the country at all.

Not only was he wanted for rape and murder in Jamaica, but he had also been previously imprisoned for a sex attack in Britain. Yet he had not been deported on his release — and nobody seemed to know why.

One officer in the South Yorkshire police recalled last week: “We sent Ford’s fingerprints to Jamaica and established that he was wanted for the rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl with learning difficulties in Kingston.

“He had then come to Britain, committed a sex attack in this country and been imprisoned. He was an illegal immigrant, so clearly he should have been reviewed for deportation when he was in prison. Instead, they let him out. We never got to the bottom of why.

“He was released and then tried to kill someone. We had to arrest him at some cost, then there was a trial with even further costs and now he is serving a sentence of up to 30 years with the taxpayers having to pay again.”

Like the rest of the estimated 10,000 to 12,000 foreign criminals in Britain’s jails, Ford is costing taxpayers about £38,000 a year.

However, the most galling question is: how could the authorities have failed to deport such a murderous psychopath in the first place? Last week Charles Clarke, the home secretary, revealed that 1,023 foreign criminals had been released from Britain’s prisons between 1999 and 2006 without any consideration being given to their deportation as the law now requires. Among them were murderers, rapists, violent assailants and burglars.

On Friday Clarke was forced to admit that an as yet uncertain but frightening number had gone on to commit further serious crimes.

Of a sample of 79 of the most serious offenders whose cases had been reviewed by the Home Office, five (6%) were guilty of further offences relating to “drugs, violent disorder, grievous and actual bodily harm”.

One of those had also been involved in a suspected rape but was not prosecuted because of insufficient evidence. Two other allegations of sexual offences relating to the initial 79 are still under investigation.

These are the crimes that police know about or that have been checked so far. The Home Office still has no idea how many other rapes, robberies or burglaries have been committed by the remaining 944 foreign criminals who have been released without being considered for deportation. “More than 50% of people released from prison reoffend within two years,” said one expert last week.

If those figures were replicated among the missing foreign criminals, hundreds of new crimes would be committed.

Clarke and the Home Office were in denial on Friday, still portraying the affair as an administrative cock-up instead of a failure of leadership. “I have apologised and I continue to apologise,” Clarke said. “The genuine shortcomings which have been revealed will be repaired and we will learn the lessons to make whatever further changes are needed.”

Not good enough, said David Davis, the Conservative shadow home secretary. The scandal, he said, had revealed how Clarke’s leadership of the Home Office had “done exactly a reversal of what the Home office’s job is — to protect the public”.

Yesterday it was clear what could be achieved when the political will was there. Police were raiding addresses across the country, rounding up foreign criminals for potential deportation.

However, for the victims who had suffered from crimes committed after these offenders were not deported, it was months, even years too late. Clarke was hanging on to office — but by his fingertips.

In new Labour’s heyday, Downing Street would have fought back to regain the political initiative. Now the party machine seemed helpless and Tony Blair was at the mercy of events. And they certainly came thick and fast last week.

John Prescott, the supposed symbol of “honest” old Labour, was exposed as an adulterer who had betrayed his wife of 44 years. Lurid pictures showed Prescott, 67, cavorting at office parties with his diary secretary, a 43-year-old blonde called Tracey Temple. No wonder Prescott’s own staff had described his department as comparable with a “pantomime horse”.

Then Patricia Hewitt, the health secretary, was humiliated by the nurses who are supposed to have benefited from the billions that the government has poured into the health service.

As Hewitt attempted to extol NHS reforms to the nurses’ party conference, they heckled her so much that she had to abandon her speech.

If this was not enough, the parliamentary public accounts committee last week revealed that the Treasury was wasting £2 billion on tax credits that should not have been paid.

Meanwhile, at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, they were failing to pay £1 billion owed to desperate farmers.

As the evidence of incompetence mounted, Blair tried to brush it all aside. “It’s just the way it is,” he said, with a rictus grin for the cameras. “You do the job, you get on with doing the job.”

This weekend there was worse to come. Temple signed up with Max Clifford, the PR guru, who promised further lurid revelations. “Don’t you think she’s entitled to stand up for herself?” he said, claiming that she had been badly let down by Prescott. “She wants the truth out there.”

Clifford was the sleaze- broker who did so much to trash the last Tory government. With a reputed price tag of £250,000, he was now offering the dirt on new Labour. The sense of incompetence and drift was pervasive. And nowhere was it stronger than in the Home Office.

BLAIR and his ministers have spent years rearranging the deckchairs at the Home Office, beginning in 2001 with a new permanent secretary called John Gieve.

It was an unusual move. Although fiercely bright and with years of experience in the Treasury, Gieve — a scion of Gieves & Hawkes, the Savile Row tailors in London — had never run a department before. Suddenly he found himself in charge of the toughest beat in Whitehall.

The Home Office has about 70,000 staff and a budget of £13 billion. Gieve had not managed anything on that scale. He sensibly set about ditching “peripheral” duties so that the department could, as he put it, “focus on our central role of building a safe, just and tolerant society”. The key operations were to be “immigration, prisons, probation and police”.

Blair and his ministers, especially David Blunkett, talked tough on crime and asylum seekers. But the reality on the ground — despite Gieve’s reforms — was that the Home Office remained riddled with a jobsworth culture of political correctness.

One source who worked alongside Blunkett, the former home secretary, until 2004, said: “At a senior level you have people who are steeped in the ways of the civil service and are extremely cautious. On the frontline there are some staff who just seem to go to work, shuffle some papers and then go back home again.”

Some do not even make it to work. In the prison service, the 45,000 staff were taking an average of 15 days off sick a year — almost 50% higher than the rest of the civil service. As a result the service was losing each year the equivalent of a year’s work by 3,000 staff.

Yet the working day for prison staff is just seven hours and 12 minutes in London — and flexi-hours mean that they can start and finish pretty much as they like.

Inside the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND)absenteeism was also rife, according to a former employee, and the atmosphere was so bizarrely muddled that it was “Kafkaesque”.

“The complex layered hierarchy was unfathomable,” said Steve Moxon, who worked for the IND in Sheffield until he was dismissed two years ago for leaking details to The Sunday Times of how immigration applications were being passed without proper checks. “The worst sin appeared to be initiative. What everyone did and was expected to do was watch their back.”

The organisation seemed riven by conflicting aims. It was charged with controlling immigration, yet ministers saw immigration as economically useful. While some officials were meant to crack down on false asylum claims, others were ensuring that nobody’s rights were infringed.

“Human resources in the Home Office is of gargantuan size,” said Moxon. “An HR ethos of political correctness rules above all, intimidating the very people whose working life it is supposed to enhance.” In 2004 the IND alone had 540 HR staff.

An inquiry by MPs conceded that some of these HR staff were needed to train new recruits. But Moxon said: “Two weeks of inept training was all I received. The only type of training that interested management was in political correctness.

“Our schedules were awash with race awareness days, diversity weeks and asylum seminars. We had training days on transsexuals — how often is the average immigration case officer going to meet a transsexual?” While Gieve, under the direction of Blunkett, could never be accused of failing to indoctrinate staff in the language of human rights and political correctness, more basic training was lacking.

The home secretary has the power to deport any foreigner who is deemed “not conducive to the public good” — and those convicted of crime were obvious candidates. The prison service and IND were supposed to co-operate closely to get shot of them.

In September 2003, Blunkett invoked new powers and declared that foreigners guilty of serious crimes would no longer be able to use the rights of refugees to avoid deportation, no matter the length of prison sentence they received.

“It is unacceptable that those seeking the protection of the UK should abuse our hospitality,” he said.

So in theory, when a foreigner was convicted of a crime and jailed, the prison was meant to inform the IND. The IND was then supposed to plan for the prisoner’s release and be ready to make a decision on whether to deport him or not. Ministers were supposed to sign off on the deportation decisions.

Simple? Not for the Home Office.

One former prison governor last week explained how the system really operated. “When a prisoner arrives the only document that comes with them is a holding warrant,” he said.

“It states where they were tried, the name they were tried under, what they were found guilty of and what the sentence is. It doesn’t even have their nationality on.

“You then contact the police to build up their file and you tell the IND of every foreign prisoner that arrives. But sometimes you never establish their nationality if they are not prepared to tell you.”

Even if the prison does manage to inform the IND of a foreign criminal, it is no guarantee of any action.

“You send one communication and you don’t hear anything,” said the former governor. “Then you jog their memories and you still don’t hear anything. In the end you just assume that you hear from them only when they want to take action over prisoners.

“The other foreign prisoners you release or face being sued for not letting them out on the right date.”

His account was confirmed by Brian Caton, of the Prison Officers Association, who said: “Often what happened was that the prison would write to the IND saying that a foreign detainee is about to be released. But when the IND never sent a reply, the prison would assume that the IND had assessed the prisoner and allowed him to be released. It’s a real systemic failure.”

SARAH, a 40-year-old nursing auxiliary from Sheffield, knows the true cost of that failure. In September 2004 she left a nightclub in the city and began walking home. A man followed her and, having skirted round the back of some flats, suddenly appeared in front of her.

“I didn’t know him at all and I’d never seen him before,” said Sarah, who spoke last week on condition of anonymity (her name has been changed). “Until he got two or three feet away I didn’t know he had a knife and he was in my face by then.

“He said something like ‘I’ve been watching you’. He spoke good enough English, although he insisted on an interpreter later in court.

“He pushed me backwards, I was stumbling and that was it. I was on my back. Even without the knife, I would have been unable to run away.”

He raped Sarah in bushes by the side of the road and then followed her. He was, she said, “chatting as if he knew me”, still carrying the knife. Eventually he left her and she made her way home where, dazed and distraught, she telephoned her boyfriend, who called the police.

Within a week a man called Abulrahman Osmam was under arrest and his DNA matched. He was subsequently jailed for nine years.

However, for Sarah the arrest and sentence were little comfort. She discovered that Osman had committed previous serious crimes and would not have been stalking the streets had the Home Office done its job properly.

A 31-year-old from Somalia, Osman had first come to the UK in his twenties seeking a new life. Britain had offered him the chance — and he repaid it by turning to crime.

In September 2001 he robbed a 16-year-old boy in Sheffield and was sentenced to three years in jail. When he was released, little more than a year later, he was allowed to remain in Britain.

In December 2003 he was found in possession of a knife. In July 2004 he was arrested for threatening behaviour. The same month he exposed himself to a woman in the street.

He was clearly dangerous and sexually predatory: the sort of convicted foreign criminal that the Home Office has the power to deport as “not conducive to the public good”. Yet the home secretary and the immigration service had done nothing, leaving him free to attack again.

Yesterday the Home Office said Osman had been considered for deportation after his release in 2003 but that he had been allowed to remain in the country.

“Why should he even have a choice as to whether he stays?” Sarah said. “This man should not even have been in the country. It has taken me a long time to get beyond this and it is something that will always be there.”

If foreigners commit crimes, she believes, they should be deported, either straight away or as soon as they leave prison. “They (asylum seekers) say they are in fear of their lives in their own country; well, what about people who have a right not to be in fear in this country? “Charles Clarke should resign. The whole lot of them who were involved in this mistake should go.”

WHY did the government not act sooner to stop the haemorrhage of dangerous foreign offenders into the community? There were plenty of warning signs — both inside the Home Office and in parliament — but Blair, Clarke, ministers and officials failed to take effective action.

The fundamental problem was that as immigration rocketed under Labour, the number of foreigners committing crimes and entering Britain’s jails also rose sharply. But no proper systems were in place to monitor them and ensure that they were being considered for deportation.

As early as 2002 Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons warned: “There is an increasing number of foreign nationals in UK prisons . . . as yet policies and practices are not sufficiently developed . . . we have found some prisons do not know how many they hold.”

In January 2004 the inspectorate said that the prison service had an “institutional blind spot” for foreign prisoners: “This was not helped by the dilatory attitude of the immigration service which, unless pressed, was not monitoring those liable to deportation.”

By May that year one in eight of the criminals in Britain’s jails was a foreigner: nearly 10,000 people at any one time. An IND unit called the criminal casework team (CCT) was charged with handling those being released. Yet in 2003-04 it had just 34 staff, according to the National Audit Office.

The government’s lack of grip or urgency was revealed in September 2005 by Paul Goggins, a Home Office minister. Asked about foreign prisoners and deportation, he told the Commons: “Information on the number of persons held in prison who are subject to deportation orders is not . . . available except by examination of individual case files, at disproportionate cost.”

If Goggins and his officials had bothered to look, they would have discovered that scores of foreign criminals were being released each month without any attempt to deport them.

Was it incompetence or a quietly deliberate policy? According to a senior Whitehall insider, Home Office ministers were far from keen to issue deportation orders on foreign criminals, fearing they would promptly claim asylum and bring down the wrath of the prime minister.

Blair had committed the government to halving the number of asylum claims, which were running at 90,000 a year. The Home Office was so desperate to reach this target that it bypassed proper checks in an effort to clear a backlog of ordinary asylum claims.

When that scandal emerged, the immigration minister, Beverley Hughes, was forced to resign.

Last week a former senior figure in the IND claimed similar manipulation went on over prisoners. “There was an unwritten rule that immigration officers could not go to prisons because senior officials knew that most of the prisoners up for deportation would claim asylum,” said the source.

“This was one of several ‘creative’ solutions thought up by senior officials to please ministers. “By not addressing the issue of people coming out of prison who were likely to claim asylum, the official figures would be reduced. That was definitely the bottom line.”

The insider said he was informed of the policy in early 2004 by Tracy Thornton, the IND’s director of regional immigration operations. It was, he claimed, condoned by senior officials in the IND’s removals and enforcement directorate which was responsible for deporting foreign criminals.

The home secretary at the time was Blunkett, who took a particular interest in the immigration service — at least in the case of a visa for his lover’s nanny. But he was distracted by his affair with a married woman and resigned in December 2004.

Clarke was parachuted in as his replacement. Clarke now claims he knew nothing about the foreign prisoner scandal until later. But in January 2005 the inspector of prisons again issued a warning: “In spite of the growing number of foreign national prisoners, there is still no national strategy.”

The inspector warned of “poor communication between the Immigration and Nationality Directorate and individual prisons, and inefficiencies within IND itself”. There appears to have been another factor: fear. The most important foreign prisoners to deport had been convicted of serious violent offences. Yet, according to an internal prison document, these were exactly the criminals that immigration officers did not want to be given by the prison service — because they were difficult to manage. So hundreds were being let go without any attempt to deport them.

The first Clarke really knew about the fiasco, he claimed last week, was when the National Audit Office reported last July that the CCT was failing to deport large numbers of foreign criminals.

By October he knew that hundreds had been released incorrectly. But instead of stopping prisoners avoiding deportation, the Home Office began to release even more without proper checks.

This might have continued unchecked were it not for a backbench Tory MP, Richard Bacon, a member of the parliamentary public accounts committee. He harried the Home Office with questions, demanding proper figures.

Clarke and Gieve still had no idea of the scale of the problem. The permanent secretary told the committee, inaccurately, that only 403 foreign criminals had been released without being considered for deportation.

This inaccuracy was par for the course. The Home Office had already miscalculated payments for prison staff, the administration of the Criminal Records Bureau and the size of its planned new head office.

The Home Office financial accounts were also in such a mess that nobody was quite sure how much money it was spending or where it was going.

Gieve, now Sir John Gieve, has since moved on to become deputy governor of the Bank of England.

Ministers were no better. Tony McNulty, a Home Office minister, blustered his way through a parliamentary answer on foreign criminals. “We are looking to ensure that foreign national prisoners liable for deportation are removed promptly,” he told parliament in November.

That month 34 foreign prisoners who should have been considered for deportation were simply let out with no checks by the IND. In December the number rose to 49.

While the convicts were happily vanishing, senior managers from the IND were indulging in an exercise worthy of David Brent, deluded manager of The Office. More than 20 attended a “visioning workshop” organised by RSM Robson Rhodes, the management consultants.

They were told to use “images, words and models” to make flip-chart presentations about how to improve the IND. Some drew smiley faces, one a big umbrella. Another drew a picture of some lips and a hand with the caption “Saying what we’ll do; doing what we say”. If only. Dave Roberts, a senior IND official, wrote the slogan “Migration is good for Britain”.

Roberts, who is known as the “eternal flame” apparently because he never goes out, is head of the IND’s removals directorate. His task is to deport people, not let them in.

THE prisoner scandal raises broader issues beyond the immediate bungling of the IND.

What should Britain do with immigrants who commit crimes: do they forfeit the right to stay in this country? Should taxpayers foot the bill for overseas criminals in British prisons? In three jails, foreign criminals now form the majority of inmates — and the prison system is full to bursting.

The prevailing culture appears weighted towards the rights of foreign criminals. Even violent criminals can appeal against judges’ recommendations or deportation decisions by the IND, as the case of Hikmet Bozat, a Turkish Kurd, illustrates.

In 1993 Bozat and two accomplices, from a group fighting for Kurdish independence from Turkey, petrol-bombed five buildings in London. The attacks were against the Turkish embassy, a community centre, airline offices and two Turkish banks.

Jailing Bozat, the judge recommended deportation on his release. But far from being deported after leaving prison in 2002, he won the right to stay in Britain and now lives in north London.

“I am doing well. I’m not involved in anything. I do not wish to discuss that,” he said last week when asked how he had managed to stay living in Britain.

AS Clarke stood up to address an audience at the London School of Economics on Monday, there was no sign that he realised that the prisoner scandal was about to erupt. Quite the opposite. He lambasted the media, accusing it of abandoning “any requirement to examine the facts and check them with rigour”.

The next day, when his officials had finally shown some rigour of their own in response to Bacon’s prodding, Clarke was forced to admit that 1,023 foreign criminals had been improperly released back into the community.

He then compounded his problems by saying that “very, very few” had been released after he became aware of the problem.

It soon turned out that the real number was 288, prompting David Cameron, the Tory party leader, to accuse him in parliament next day of misleading the public — parliamentary code for lying.

There could not have been a worse day for this to happen. Blair, who was cornered into admitting that he had not known the full scale of the shambles when he rejected Clarke’s offer of resignation, was suffering his own Black Wednesday.

That morning’s Daily Mirror had dished the dirt on Prescott, who was now nowhere to be seen. He had scuttled off to explain his infidelity to his devastated wife.

Just minutes after Blair dashed out of the Commons, leaving Clarke to explain the mess to MPs, he was hit with another blow. Television bulletins began broadcasting the footage from Bournemouth of Hewitt’s humiliation by the nurses.

That evening, at a party to celebrate 10 years of Progress, the new Labour magazine, Gordon Brown tried unsuccessfully to lift spirits by highlighting Labour achievements over the past decade. One guest said: “There was an extraordinary mood — almost disbelief really. It was hard to focus on any of that after what had happened.”

Gloomy Labour MPs compared the crisis with the dying days of John Major’s regime. One cabinet minister said: “We’re into the endgame now. It cannot go on.”

Others tried to shrug off the troubles. The humiliation of Hewitt had been unfair, they said. Despite its problems the health service was receiving massive investment and doctors and nurses had been awarded big pay rises.

Prescott’s antics were “just embarrassing”, said one MP: “The pictures are awful. But affairs aren’t that big a deal to the public these days.”

A YouGov poll for The Sunday Times at the end of the week showed, however, that 58% of respondents think the government is on its last legs and 57% think it is “sleazy and incompetent”. Labour party canvassers admitted that the release of foreign convicts without deportation checks is also proving “an issue on the doorstep” ahead of this week’s local elections.

Even before Black Wednesday, Professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher of the Elections Centre, Plymouth University, found the Tories running at a national equivalent vote share of 35% in recent council by-elections. Labour had 28% and the Liberal Democrats 27%.

The implications for Blair are obvious. Yet inside No 10, the prime minister and his advisers were still desperately trying to wish the whole mess away. Aides were briefing that the release of prisoners had been misunderstood.

“People don’t seem to understand that these guys are the same as any other ex-cons,” claimed one aide. “They just happen to be foreign.”

But that, to many voters, is exactly the point.

Source: The Sunday Times, 30th April 2006

Bliar’s Britain

World White Web Index