Leading article: New face, same flannel

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Nearly four weeks after Charles Clarke, then Home Secretary, announced that 1,023 foreign prisoners had been released in the past seven years without being considered for deportation, how much more do we know? Today we have tried to assemble the available information about these cases, and in particular the 179 who were originally jailed for "more serious" crimes.

This has proved a surprisingly difficult task. One reason is that the issue is complicated. For example, the right of free movement in the European Union makes it hard to deport a criminal who is a national of another EU country. The other reason is that the Government has not been forthcoming with the information it possesses. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Home Office has pumped out numbers and categories, not names and specific offences, in a deliberate attempt to obfuscate.

It is equally hard for the Home Office to avoid being damned by two numbers in particular. The first number is 19, the number of criminals who have committed violent or sexual offences since they were wrongly released. No further information about these cases has been given.

The second damning number is seven, the number of "more serious" offenders who have actually been deported. On this, ministers used weasel words. The Prime Minister has retreated from his original assertion that all foreign prisoners should be "automatically" deported. The new Home Secretary, John Reid, said he is confident three-quarters of the 1,023 will "face deportation". As Mr Reid and Mr Blair know well, "facing deportation" and even being "ordered to be deported" are different from being on a plane out of the country. There are good reasons - those of due legal process and of human rights law. But it does the Government no good to pretend that tough, punitive and universal action is possible when it is not.

It will be difficult to repair confidence in the Government's ability to administer a fair and effective immigration system. It will be impossible unless Mr Reid adopts a policy of complete disclosure about the scandal of foreign prisoners.

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