Hundreds of 'serious' criminals freed

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The foreign prisoner scandal has intensified after the new Home Secretary admitted that several hundred serious criminals may have been freed without deportation hearings.

John Reid disclosed that the scale of the crisis - which cost Charles Clarke his job - was even bigger than ministers had previously acknowledged. In further evidence of the chaos at the Home Office, he had to revise upwards, from 90 to 150, the number of prisoners in the "most serious" category, which includes killers, rapists and paedophiles. A fortnight after the storm broke, police have still found only half of them.

Mr Reid added that the total could be "several hundred", if armed robbers were included.

Officials believe it could take until the late summer to track down all of the 1,023 offenders released without being considered for deportation between 1999 and March 2006.

Mr Clarke announced that 75 of the most serious criminals were being hunted, a figure he increased to 90 shortly before he was fired.

But on his first working day as Home Secretary, Mr Reid said: "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 failure by the Home Office to keep statistics on the time illegal migrants are kept in prisons while they await removal is "indefensible," the House of Lords European Union Committee said yesterday.