At least 150 released foreigners were serious offenders

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Indy Politics

The number of most serious offenders involved in the foreign prisoners scandal has risen to at least 150, the new Home Secretary John Reid revealed today.

He disclosed that the final figure may increase to "several hundred" if armed robbers are included in the most serious criminals category.

During a visit to the nerve centre responsible for tracing the 1,023 offenders who were released without being considered for deportation, Mr Reid said 75 in the most serious category had now been found, detained or were under surveillance.

Mr Reid said: "As a result of the work that has been done I am informed that the number of released prisoners who fall into the category of having committed the most serious offences is not 90, it could be as high as 150 and, indeed, depending on what definition you use if you were to include in that armed robbery it could be several hundred.

"The numbers who have committed the most and more serious offences has increased as we have studied the cases.

"This is a moving picture as we discover more and more.

"But we are also detaining and discovering more and more.

"Of the 90 most serious offenders, we have now detained or have under surveillance about 75 of them."

He added: "I approach this with a great degree of humility, which is why on my first day I'm here to learn.

"I do know my duty. It is to address and resolve the mistakes that have been made, which is why today I am giving updated figures and I am saying that they could become even worse."

Mr Reid also revealed that several more of the released criminals have been found to have re-offended.

Asked for an update on how many had committed more crimes since being freed, the Home Secretary said: "Several have re-offended and they have been added to the list.

"This is a moving picture. There is not a static chart on someone's wall."

He said that "as we speak someone could be re-offending".

Mr Reid paid tribute to his predecessor Charles Clarke for admitting that mistakes had been made and "taking responsibility for remedying them".

The Home Secretary visited a 60-strong team of police, probation, prisons and immigration staff in Portsmouth who are working on tracking down the 1,023 foreign offenders.

Mr Reid said: "The Home Office is obviously a pretty daunting challenge for any minister.

"But at the moment I think it is even more daunting.

"The most important and urgent issue in front of us is obviously the issue with which people here are dealing, and that is to trace the 1,023 foreign nationals who were released from prison without consideration for deportation.

"It's so important that I came here on the first day in the job to learn from people here how this process of detection, detention and deportation is going, and obviously to signal to the public that I regard this as my highest priority right at the beginning because the protection of the public is the first duty of the Government."

Asked if he could guarantee that all 1,023 would be found, Mr Reid said: "I can give the guarantee that we will move heaven and earth to ensure that that is the case.

"I will also be as open as possible with the public."

Asked about the pressure which is reportedly being put on Mr Blair by Labour backbenchers to set a date for stepping down, Mr Reid said: "The Prime Minister today will be addressing the press, the public and the Labour Party."

He declined to give a view on Labour MPs who may be pressing for the Premier's departure, adding that he was focusing on the problems at hand.

On the issue of throwing offenders out of the country, he said: "The vast majority of the 1,023, probably three-quarters, will face deportation and an even higher proportion of those who have committed serious offences will."

He stressed that the team at Fratton police station in Portsmouth were working "flat out" on the problem.

Former home secretary Mr Clarke first revealed that there were 79 offenders among the total who had committed the most serious crimes - murder, manslaughter, rape and child sex offences.

In a statement to MPs in the Commons last week, Mr Clarke revealed that a further 11 former prisoners convicted of those offences had been uncovered in the files.

Mr Reid has now indicated that approximately 60 further cases in the most serious category have been identified.

He also indicated that he thought armed robbery should be included in the most serious category, which would boost the total even further.

He said: "We now have another 60 we want to detect and detain as urgently as possible because that additional number has resulted from the additional work done over the past week.

"On top of that, personally I would consider anyone involved in an armed robbery even if it hadn't involved any violence, as a serious offence - so there could be even more."

He said of his predecessor: "I think Charles Clarke was a big man, a big politician, who I think behaved very honourably both in his conduct in his admission of mistakes and in his openness in addressing them.

"I would like to pay tribute to Charles Clarke for this reason."

Asked if he felt he was the right man to take over and address the long-standing failures in the Home Office, Mr Reid listed his achievements in the various ministerial positions he had held.

He named ensuring completion of the Jubilee Line extension in London in time for the Millennium celebrations, the strategic defence review at the Ministry of Defence, his work in establishing the Scottish Parliament and arms decommissioning in Northern Ireland.

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