Clarke: foreign criminals have reoffended

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The Independent Online

Charles Clarke's chances of surviving as Home Secretary are fading after he admitted that at least five foreign offenders went on to commit violent and drugs offences after their release.

He said an accusation of rape had been made against a sixth offender and two more allegations of sex offences were being investigated.

The admission increases the pressure on Mr Clarke after the Home Office revealed 1,023 foreign inmates had been freed without deportation hearings over the past seven years. The admission led to a desperate trawl through police, prison, probation and immigration records to track down the 79 most serious offenders. Details of the remaining 944 offenders are still to be disclosed.

In a letter last night to the Commons Speaker and the opposition parties, Mr Clarke said: "This search has to date revealed five cases where an individual has been convicted since their release from prison of offences relating to drugs, violent disorder, grievous and actual bodily harm. In one of these cases an allegation of rape was also made and although there was insufficient evidence to prosecute, this allegation still lies on the file and if further evidence comes to light then prosecution for rape may be considered."

Mr Clarke also admitted that the checks had uncovered "a small number" of other police investigations that could lead to prosecutions. Most were minor offences, but two of them were accusations of sex crimes. In a further setback for Mr Clarke, one of those alleged offences was committed by someone released since he personally became aware of the problem.

The Home Secretary acknowledged that further offences would be uncovered as police inquiries continued. Although no cases have been discovered of foreigners committing murder, rape or sex offences, last night's disclosures led to more calls for Mr Clarke to resign.

However, the Home Secretary vowed to press ahead with reform to his department, which he has acknowledged is "seriously dysfunctional".

He said: "We will learn the lessons to make whatever further changes are needed to improve the quality of what we do across the whole Home Office."

A senior Home Office source said: "He took the responsibility to sort this out and he will."

The disclosure about the failed deportations marked a grim chapter in the most disastrous week for the Blair govenrment since Labour won power in 1997.

Labour MPs believe it leaves Mr Clarke the most vulnerable of the three senior ministers battling to hang on to their jobs. The others are John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, who has confessed to an affair with a civil servant, and Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary, who was booed by nurses as she defended NHS reforms.

In a further blow to Mr Clarke, an ICM poll for BBC2's Newsnight last night showed public support for the Home Secretary in free fall. It found 64 per cent felt he should quit, while only 24 per cent backed him to stay. Among Labour voters, opinion was more evenly divided, with 45 per cent saying he should resign but 47 per cent wanting him to stay.

Mr Clarke said that of the 79 serious offenders, 13 had committed "the most serious offences" - murder, manslaughter, rape and child sexual offences.

Deportation action had begun against 63 of them. Six offenders are now in custody pending deportation, with further arrests expected "later today and over the weekend".

David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "The fact that Mr Clarke has had to initiate deportation action in 63 out of 72 cases demonstrates the magnitude of his failure to protect the public. None of his actions were initiated until this week - 10 months after the fourth warning was given to the Government."

Should the Home Secretary quit?

* STEPHEN POUND, Labour MP for Ealing North - NO

"My view is that if you are in a storm you don't change the man at the wheel. He is the best man to be doing the job of sorting out this problem. He is also extremely highly respected in the Labour Party which is very important."

* NICK CLEGG, Liberal Democrat MP - YES

"Five serious crimes would not have happened if it wasn't for the incompetence of the Home Office. Others will surely come to light. "

* LORD RAMSBOTHAM, former Chief Inspector of Prisons - NO

"During Charles Clarke's time in office he has been under the most intolerable pressure by having responsibility for justice and for homeland security.

"This should be a wake-up call to the Prime Minister that no one person can be expected to fill both these roles."

* DAVID DAVIS, shadow Home Secretary - YES

"This reinforces the need for Mr Clarke to go. His position is untenable. He should take responsibility for what has been a massive failure"

* FRANCES CROOK, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform - NO

"He is the first Home Secretary who has indicated he is really keen on solving the problems of the overuse of prison.

"This is a media feeding frenzy which brings together two categories of people that some tabloids love to hate: foreigners and criminals."