Fewer foreign prisoners removed

Fewer foreign nationals are being removed from prisons now than four years ago, the Government's spending watchdog has warned.

The National Audit Office (NAO) said that r emoving more foreign nationals would help reduce prison numbers and save money.

There are around 11,000 foreign national prisoners in England and Wales, making up 13% of the prison population, but the number removed by the Home Office has dropped by 14% over the last four years.

In a report into the prison estate in England and Wales, the NAO found that although the Home Office removes more than 1,000 foreign prisoners every quarter, the number has dropped from 5,528 in the final quarter of 2009 to 4,730 at the end of the second quarter of this year.

With the cost of 1,000 prison places at around £28 million a year, reducing numbers is the best way to save money, it said.

Its report found there had been a significant improvement in value for money, with new prisons providing good, modern accommodation.

But inmates still routinely share cells, some in overcrowded conditions. And in a bid to make savings, some high-performing prisons were closed before newly built ones started to perform well.

Despite a good long-term strategy by the Ministry of Justice and the National Offender Management Service, which manages around 130 prisons, 14 of which are contracted out to the private sector, the best way to cut costs is to reduce numbers, the NAO said.

More space could be made by giving prisoners serving indeterminate sentences more access to courses that would reduce their risk to the public, allowing the Parole Board to release them, as well as by removing foreign national prisoners.

" The Home Office consistently removes more than 1,000 foreign national offenders per quarter, the majority of whom are prisoners," the report said.

"However, between late 2009 and early 2012, the number of removals fell significantly, by 18%, and has recovered only a little since."

It added: "Removing more prisoners, or removing them earlier in their sentences, would significantly reduce costs."

Some delays were beyond the Home Office's control, including people hiding their true identities and complex human rights issues.

But others were down to avoidable blunders including poor records and cases left for months. In one case, efforts were made to deport someone who had not been sentenced for a criminal offence and had earlier been granted asylum.

The report said the Home Office should prioritise cases better, improve administration, and use foreign national offender-only prisons such as HMP Huntercombe in Oxfordshire more effectively, as well as prioritising cases that were more likely to succeed and not pursuing those that would fail.

Prisons responded well to an unexpected spike in numbers after the riots of August 2011, the report said, and by 2015-16 total savings of £211 million will have been made by the estate, with a further £70 million likely to be saved each year after.

But it said savings were put before quality in some cases, with the closure of several prisons that were performing well before new prisons HMP Oakwood in Wolverhampton and HMP Thameside in London started to perform well.

The report said Oakwood and Thameside were t wo of three prisons to receive the lowest agency rating in 2012-13, with a small improvement during 2013-14.

Both prisons opened, as scheduled, in March and April 2012, with Thameside costing 6% less to build than planned, and Oakwood 12% less.

But the report found a place at Serco-run Thameside costs nearly twice as much as the average for a prison of its category - £50,000 a year compared with £31,000 for an average category B local prison.

The report said: " At HMP Thameside, the agency has not succeeded in achieving below-average running costs. Under its 25-year PFI contract with Serco it pays some £50,000 per place per year (not including construction costs); on average category B local prisons cost £31,000 per place.

"The agency told us that it always planned to overcrowd HMP Thameside because it needs places in London. However, factoring in overcrowding, the cost per prisoner is some £34,000 compared to an average of £25,000."

The average size of an adult male prison has increased by 10% since 2010, the report found, but in some new accommodation prisoners still routinely share cells, with 12% of new cells built since 2010 holding two prisoners .

In September 2013, prisons in England and Wales were holding 84,000 prisoners, including 4,000 women and 1,000 children, in space meant for 77,000.

The report said: " Overcrowding places a strain on prison facilities, reduces the amount of activity each prisoner can engage in and can impair decency.

"The agency agrees that overcrowded conditions are suboptimal, but it is not aiming to reduce overcrowding as part of the estate strategy.

"Overcrowding is efficient in the short term because prisons do not typically receive extra budget when their prisoner numbers increase."

And it said to end overcrowding without reducing the number of prisoners would cost more than £900 million, which was not "realistic".

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: "The strategy for the prison estate is the most coherent and comprehensive for many years, has quickly cut operating costs, and is a significant improvement in value for money on the approaches of the past.

"However, the agency urgently needs to improve new prisons and look at ways to close fewer high-performing ones in future.

"The new larger prisons are bringing economies of scale but the agency does need to understand the consequences in terms of performance of building very large prisons."

Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said: "This NAO report confirms that David Cameron's prisons policy is in tatters.

"The Prime Minister and Chris Grayling have cancelled the prison building programme they inherited from Labour and have closed down so many prisons at such a fast pace that there is now a shortage of prison places.

"To make matters worse, the report criticises the Government for closing prisons which do a good job in punishing and reforming criminals and replacing them with newer prisons that aren't up to scratch."

Michael Spurr, chief executive of the National Offender Management Service, said: "I welcome the publication of this positive report which recognises the significant progress we have made in delivering a more modern and fit-for- purpose prison estate within a tight departmental budget.

"The report highlights that we have the most coherent and strategic prison estate strategy for many years, that we have managed change well and have achieved substantial cost reduction for the public.

"We are maintaining good performance across the prison estate on the whole but will carefully consider the recommendations in the NAO report to further improve our strategy going forward."

A Home Office spokeswoman said: "Our tough reforms are working and immigration continues to fall.

"We have always been clear that we will seek to deport those who break our laws and in 2012 removed more than 4,500 foreign national offenders.

"As this report acknowledges, the deportation of foreign criminals can be delayed for a number of reasons, including those who attempt to frustrate the process by being disruptive or raising last minute legal challenges.

"The Immigration Bill will reduce the 17 rights of appeal to four and allow us to remove people while their appeals are ongoing, so that those with no right to be here will not be able to avoid deportation by dragging out the appeals process.

"The Bill will also make clear that foreign criminals should ordinarily be deported despite their claim to a family life."

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