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Britain admits to major deportation debacle

Written by: Staff

LONDON, Apr 25 (Reuters) Britain today said it had freed over 1,000 foreign prisoners, including murderers, rapists and paedophiles, who should have been considered for deportation at the time of their release.

In a major embarrassment to the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair ahead of local elections next week, the Home Office (interior ministry) said it had no idea where the vast majority of the 1,023 convicted criminals were.

They were released over the past seven years and only a handful of them have been traced.

''I think it is a shocking state of affairs,'' Home Secretary Charles Clarke told journalists. ''The concern, possibly anger, that people will feel is entirely understandable.'' The revelation, prompted by questions from a parliamentary committee, will come as a severe blow to Blair's government at a time when it says it is tackling crime and has pledged to deport foreigners it regards as a security threat.

It is likely to play into the hands of the opposition Conservative Party as well as the fringe far-right British National Party (BNP), campaigning on an anti-immigration ticket for the vote on Thursday next week.

The BNP is expected to make gains in the ballot, the first electoral test for Blair since he won a third term in office.

The prime minister's standing appears to be on the wane. A poll published today showed support for his Labour party has slipped to a 19-year low and Blair himself has said he will not seek a fourth term.

The 1,023 prisoners had all served their terms and were entitled to release, but should, under prison regulations, have been considered for deportation before they were freed.

Around 160 of them were subject to specific orders from British courts which recommended their removal from Britain.

''We are undertaking detailed profiling of all 1,023 cases,'' Clarke wrote to the head of parliament's Public Accounts Committee, which had asked about the issue, adding the government was working with police to ''conclude the casework''.

Asked for the prime minister's reaction, Blair's spokesman said: ''You will hardly expect him to be pleased by this but equally he recognises that ministers have dealt with the issue and the problem.'' MINISTER WON'T QUIT Clarke did not say exactly how the oversight had come about and why it had gone on so long but acknowledged the prison service and immigration authorities were both at fault.

However, even though both bodies come under his jurisdiction, he refused to quit his job.

''I think one should be candid with failure (but) I don't intend to resign on this matter,'' he told reporters.

The prisoners included three murderers, two found guilty of manslaughter, nine rapists, and 12 sex offenders including five paedophiles. Others were jailed for kidnapping, assault and drug and immigration offences.

The Home Office said it did not know how many, if any, of the prisoners had reoffended since their release.

A Conservative member of the Public Accounts Committee accused the Home Office of ''a complete dereliction of duty''.

''There's been administrative chaos. There's no other way to explain it other than to say the system has largely broken down,'' Richard Bacon told Reuters.

Conservative shadow Home Secretary David Davis said: ''This serial incompetence beggars belief''.

''How many more times must we put up with the Home Office's abject failure to protect the public, and how many more times will they seek to duck responsibility for the issue?'' REUTERS SHB HT2340

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