The "human rights" of foreign ex-prisoners on the run from police are being put before public safety. Detectives across the country are refusing to issue "wanted" posters for the missing criminals because they do not want to breach human rights laws.

Forces said that the offenders had a right to privacy and might sue for defamation if their names and photographs were released.

Critics condemned the decision as "ludicrous". It comes as the Government faces mounting pressure to reform or scrap the Human Rights Act, which was blamed last week for a murder by a serial sex attacker and for a court ruling that nine asylum seekers who hijacked an aeroplane cannot be sent home to Afghanistan.

Yesterday, the Lord Chancellor acknowledged public fears that dangerous criminals were able to remain at large because of the legislation and said the Government was considering new laws.

Lord Falconer said: "I think there is real concern about the way the Act is operating. The deployment of human rights is, often wrongly, leading to wrong conclusions to be made about issues of public safety. There needs to be political clarity that the Human Rights Act should have no effect on public safety issues - public safety comes first."

Last week the Prime Minister's official spokesman indicated that Tony Blair was also considering amending the Act to restore public confidence.

The Conservative leader, David Cameron, has already vowed to order a review of the law if he is elected and will consider rewriting the legislation or even abolishing it.

Meanwhile, Charles Clarke has revealed that he "did not lose a minute's sleep" over the freed foreign prisoners scandal that led to him being sacked as Home Secretary.

The MP told his local newspaper: "My sleeping was completely normal, fortunately I'm not worried by sleepless nights. Sleepless nights occur when there are things which are genuinely exercising your worry."

In his final Commons appearance before he was sacked, Mr Clarke said that police and immigration officers were engaged in "very intensive work" to find and deport 38 serious offenders who were released from jail without being considered for deportation.

His successor, John Reid, suggested last week that the true number may be higher, but could not give a figure. Police forces pointed to human rights legislation as the reason why names and photographs cannot be issued. They also said the on-the-run former prisoners were not sought as criminals, but instead as the perpetrators of immigration offences.

The Metropolitan Police said: "Anyone who is wanted on any offence has the right to privacy." Greater Manchester Police said: "We could not be sure about putting out information now without possibly defaming somebody." The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) says in its guidance to forces: "Article 8 of the Human Rights Act gives everyone the right to respect for their private and family life... and publication of photographs could be a breach of that."

According to Acpo, photographs should be released only in "exceptional circumstances", where public safety needs override the case for privacy. Last night the Conservatives condemned the decision. David Davis, the shadow home secretary, said: "If true, this is a ludicrous interpretation of human rights. A criminal's right to privacy is as nothing by comparison to the public's right to safety.

"Now that these individuals are on the run, their names and pictures should be in the public domain so that people are not put at even more unnecessary risk."

The Immigration Service has insisted that the decision as to whether to name the missing former prisoners is down to the police. A Home Office spokesman said: "It is an operational matter for individual police forces to decide whether to publish details or photos of the individuals concerned."

Yet every force in the country has come to the same decision - to withhold the details of the former prisoners.

The Met, Britain's largest force, said: "They are not criminals; it is an immigration offence. We will use all the tools in our tool box to try and find them without printing their identity - that's the last recourse."

Greater Manchester Police said its fear of being sued for defamation was heightened because "this only happened two or three weeks ago and the investigations are in a very early stage".

Last week, Andrew Bridges, the Chief Inspector of Probation, concluded that worries over human rights had prevented the proper supervision of serial sex offender Anthony Rice following his release from a 16-year sentence for rape. He went on to kill Naomi Bryant.

 

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