EU deal will free 1,000 prison places in the UK

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More than 1,000 British prison places are likely to be vacated after a deal yesterday obliging European countries to take back criminals to serve their sentences at home.

The plan will help relieve the mounting pressure on prison places because there are many more foreigners in UK prisons than there are Britons serving sentences elsewhere in Europe.

Yesterday's agreement is a rare piece of good news for the Home Secretary John Reid, after a series of crises in his department. Mr Reid described the deal as "an excellent result for the UK", adding that it would involve "significant improvements to existing prisoner transfer arrangements".

If the new rule applied today, the Government could enforce the return to their own countries of 2,432 foreign nationals from other EU states who are currently in jail in England and Wales. By the same token, 840 Britons now serving sentences elsewhere in the EU would be repatriated.

At present, prisoner exchanges are covered by a Council of Europe Convention agreed in 1983. That means the authorities need the consent of those serving sentences to be returned home - a process which can take two years - and their home state has no obligation to accept them.

Yesterday's EU agreement came after Poland lifted its long-running opposition to the scheme. The government in Warsaw is the main loser because, due to the large number of people who have left the country for the UK and Ireland, it has a significant number of convicted criminals in other EU prisons.

Brigitte Zypries, the justice minister of Germany, which holds the EU presidency, said about one-third of foreigners serving sentences in German prisons are Polish nationals. There are 278 Polish nationals serving sentences in jails in England and Wales.

The deal is not likely to come into force for two to three years, however, and Poland was given a five-year period of grace. That is designed to buy time to create enough prison places to comply with the new rules.

Though not retroactive, British officials believe the balance of nationalities in prisons across the continent will remain roughly similar.

Mr Reid said the new rules will create "for the first time, an obligation for a state to accept back its own nationals - something which the UK has consistently supported. It will also, when it comes into force, considerably speed up the process by putting in place time limits of no more than three months for consideration of transfer requests."