updated 4/26/2006 4:24:21 AM ET 2006-04-26T08:24:21

The British government has revealed that it freed more than 1,000 foreign prisoners — including murderers and rapists — who should have been considered for deportation.

With crime and immigration ranking high among voters’ concerns, the disclosure could be damaging to Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labour Party in local council elections next week.

Between February 1999 and March 2006, 1,023 foreign national criminals were released after completing their sentences without officials considering whether they should have been deported from Britain, Home Secretary Charles Clarke said Tuesday in a written statement.

“We simply didn’t make the proper arrangements for identifying and considering removal,” Clarke said. “That is a failure of the Home Office and its agencies for which I take responsibility.”

The offenders included three murderers and nine rapists, Home Office figures showed. In 160 of the cases, courts had recommended the convicted be deported after serving their sentences.

Clarke said officials were working “energetically” to track down the former prisoners and that while he couldn’t promise that everyone would be found, the Immigration and Nationality Directorate had located more than 100, leading to 20 deportations.

Opposition lawmakers pounced on Clarke — a leading member of Blair’s Labour government — and called for the home secretary to come to the House of Commons to explain the gaffe.

Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell called the bungle “extraordinary.”

“All the government’s tough talk on crime counts for nothing in the face of this incompetence,” he said. “What possible excuse can there be for this disgraceful state of affairs?”

Richard Bacon, the Conservative party member whose questions led to Tuesday’s revelation, called the oversight a “hideous mistake.”

“The fact that we could have murderers, pedophiles and rapists released in this way means something must be very wrong with the system,” Bacon said.

According to the Prison Reform Trust, there are nearly 10,000 foreign nationals in Britain’s prisons — about 13 percent of the overall population. More than half hail from six countries: Jamaica, Ireland, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey and India.

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