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British Official Apologizes for Prisoner Releases

Home secretary says he will address the failure to deport foreigners who served their terms. Despite the outcry, Blair rejects his resignation.

April 27, 2006|Vanora McWalters | Special to The Times

LONDON — British Prime Minister Tony Blair stood by his beleaguered home secretary this week, refusing to let Charles Clarke resign despite revelations that his office had set free more than 1,000 foreign prisoners who should have been deported after serving their sentences.

"I do apologize. I have apologized, I continue to do so," Clarke told Parliament.

But Clarke also insisted that it was up to him to sort the problem out.

The prime minister's office said Wednesday that Blair had rejected Clarke's offer to resign, which was made Tuesday when the issue gained widespread attention.

The 1,023 convicted criminals, including murderers, rapists and pedophiles, were released over the last seven years. All had served their prison terms and were entitled to be released. However, under prison regulations, they should have been considered for deportation before being freed.

About 160 of them were subject to specific court orders recommending their removal from Britain.

Clarke has known about the Home Office's mistake in handling the prisoners since July and informed Blair about the problem in December. Nearly 300 of the foreign nationals released without proper checks were set free after Clarke became aware of the issue.

The home secretary told reporters Wednesday that he had offered to quit on an earlier occasion as well as this week.

The government has blamed what it calls an administrative error on a lack of communication between the prison service and immigration authorities. Clarke has described it as a "shocking state of affairs" and promised to remedy it.

Blair told lawmakers that he regretted the lapses, which came to light during an examination of Home Office statistics by a committee of Parliament. But he said new procedures had been put in place.

That was not enough to appease the opposition Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, which continued to demand Clarke's resignation. David Davis, the Conservative shadow home secretary, told Clarke "that because of the culpable failure to protect the safety of the public, your position is untenable."

The controversy over prisoners is one of many confronting Blair's increasingly troubled government, now in its ninth year in office.

In Bournemouth, on England's south coast, Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt was booed and heckled by nurses when she insisted that the subsidized National Health Service had had what she called its "best year ever," despite record deficits and 13,000 job cuts.

The tabloid press, meanwhile, made gleeful fun of Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who was revealed by the Daily Mirror to have been having an extramarital affair with one of his secretaries for two years.

These were expected to swing more votes for opposition parties in the May 4 municipal elections, in which Blair's Labor Party was already expected to suffer losses. Anti-immigration right-wing politicians are likely to gain most from the Home Office fiasco.

Clarke was expected to address Parliament again before the end of the week. He told lawmakers Wednesday that 83 of the former prisoners were back under Home Office watch and being considered for deportation, 53 were to be deported and 14 had been expelled.

Police are seeking the others.

The failure of systems within the Home Office was "deeply regrettable," Clarke told Parliament, saying his priority was "to set that right."

"It's clear that the increasing numbers of cases being referred for consideration led to the process falling down," he said. The Home Office runs prisons, police and probation services, and its management style has come under attack many times.

Davis said the home secretary's stance revealed "a disturbing neglect for public safety at the heart of this government."

David Ramsbotham, who as chief inspector of prisons from 1995 to 2001 was an outspoken critic of Home Office practices, said he had alerted the department five years ago that the numbers of imprisoned foreign criminals were increasing.

"At a time when we are told that we are at war with terrorism, following events such as those that took place in New York on 11 September 2001, and in London on 7 July last year, it is entirely understandable that the public should react strongly to the report that over 1,000 foreign nationals have been released from prison, into the country, when all were candidates for possible deportation," Ramsbotham wrote in the Guardian daily. "Inflamed reaction has, in some cases, almost bordered on hysteria."

But it was important, he said, to not lose sight of what he labeled the real issue: a trendy government "obsessed with innovation, initiative and change."

"No one could possibly accuse the Home Office of lack of output: The number of bills, new crimes, operating instructions, new organizations and initiatives is positively legion," Ramsbotham wrote. "The problem is that they are not all properly thought through before introduction."

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