HC Deb 16 April 1981 vol 3 cc493-500

3 pm

Mr. John Wheeler (Paddington)

I am particularly glad to raise the issue of prisoner transfer treaties. Since the announcement of the publication of the interdepartmental working party's report, there has been much interest in the prospect of opening negotiations about transfer agreements. In this country, if someone breaks the law, we take away his or her liberty. That is considered punishment enough. But for a United Kingdom citizen abroad the penalty is often far more severe. There are at present more than 600 British people languishing in foreign gaols.

First, the prisoner feels acute vulnerability and helplessness based on a total lack of understanding of what is happening to him. He is jostled through police stations and courts, all the proceedings being unfamiliar and in a foreign language. It is like being a pawn in a game over which he has no control. One British citizen had to rely for his representation in court on a 13-year-old schoolboy whose only qualification to act as a translator was that he had worked in a restaurant which occasionally served tourists.

Secondly, the prisoner often suffers from complete isolation and loneliness. Long distances and bureaucaratic difficulties make visits by friends and relatives extremely rare. So he is deprived of that light at the end of the tunnel which helps to break up the sentences of other prisoners. He may go for years without seeing or speaking to anyone from his own background or in his own language.

The cultural shock of being imprisoned in a foreign country may also be traumatic. Prisoners returning from Muslim countries have described the antagonism felt towards them because they were the only ones who did not pray towards Mecca or because they ate and washed in a different, and therefore wrong, way.

For prisoners in countries with lower standards of living medical care is often negligible, if indeed it exists at all, be it for relatively minor problems such as toothache or scabies, or for potentially grave conditions such as asthma, diabetes or epilepsy.

There are those who say that if someone is stupid enough to break the law in a foreign country he has to take what is coming to him. To me, that is an ignorant and callous attitude, which, as a caring and civilised country, we cannot possibly acccept.

There are also hard administrative reasons why I support the setting up of prisoner transfer treaties. Looking after foreign prisoners in this country costs more than looking after ordinary United Kingdom prisoners. Special dietary arrangements and communications requirements all cost money. Anything that could be done to reduce that cost would help to relieve the appalling pressure already being placed on our prison service.

It should also be said that imprisoning people from foreign countries prevents the United Kingdom prison service from fulfilling one of its prime functions namely, providing for after-care arrangements. It is clearly nonsense to suggest that depriving a prisoner of communication in his own language, the opportunity to practise a working skill and any chance to see his family and friends can have anything but disastrous consequences for his chances of settlement in society after his release.

As The Times reported in February this year, a 29-yearold Briton imprisoned in Cuba could see no way out. He was found hanged in his cell. It is therefore of the utmost importance for the Government to seek to establish prisoner transfer treaties under which prisoners convicted abroad might be allowed to serve their sentences in their own country. That would also apply to foreigners convicted in Britain.

I welcome in particular the report of the interdepartmental working party, which has provided a comprehensive analysis of how such treaties could be implemented. I appreciate that legal difficulties and technicalities of a considerable nature must be overcome, but they can hardly be considered insurmountable. The evidence speaks for itself.

Transfer treaties already exist between the five Scandinavian countries—Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland. Canada, Mexico and the United States have concluded treaties with each other, and the United States also has independent treaties with Turkey and Bolivia. Yet Britain has no such treaties.

In 1979, an Englishwoman was convicted in Mexico for drug offences. The two Americans whom she was with were allowed to serve their sentences at home, but she was forced to remain in a Mexican gaol. It is ironic that we as a country pride ourselves as being one of the oldest and most civilised countries in the world, yet so far we have failed to conclude a prisoner transfer treaty. It is more than ironic for those Britons imprisoned abroad: it is bewildering, lonely and desperate.

I pay tribute to the National Council for the Welfare of Prisoners Abroad, which has been established to respond to the needs of British nationals imprisoned overseas. It seeks to provide that essential and important link between the United Kingdom citizen and the home, and also to provide some guidance and support to the families of United Kingdom prisoners overseas.

It so happens that that body was established in my constituency. It is doing admirable work, with limited funds and resources at its disposal. It alone cannot provide the remedy to the problem of the United Kingdom prisoner overseas. That remedy lies with Government action, and it is action from the Government which I hope to stimulate and encourage as a result of the debate.

Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)

Perhaps my hon. Friend will assure the House on two points. First, does he anticipate a large number of people coming back to this country, compared with the number which would go from here, and adding considerably to our existing overcrowded prison population? Secondly, can he assure the country that he does not have in mind treaties with countries whose Governments send terrorists over here and who are rightly convicted and incarcerated for many years? Does he agree that if they were allowed to return to their country of origin they would be received as heroes and released almost immediately?

Mr. Wheeler

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He has raised two essential points upon which the public would wish to be satisfied.

On his first point, it is my expectation that the rate of progress on the negotiation of such treaties would be such that, unfortunately, few United Kingdom prisoners would be returned to the United Kingdom. The prison service in England and Wales would consider it important to be relieved of the responsibility of caring for foreign subjects. Therefore, the benefit would be mutual. Both the United Kingdom and those friendly countries with which we had been able to establish treaties would gain.

My hon. Friend raised an important point about the possibility of a foreign terrorist committing abominable acts in the United Kingdom. Any treaties that were negotiated would not encompass those countries that deliberately released terrorists from their shores so that they could go to a Western country such as ours to commit outrages. Not for one moment do I envisage that those responsible for the negotiation of such treaties would allow that situation to arise.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising those points. They are important, and I am glad that he gave me the opportunity to explain.

3.10 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Patrick Mayhew)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler) for having advanced his arguments on this most important subject. I also thank him for having given us an opportunity to discuss it, albeit briefly. I am well aware that he has spoken from a standpoint of great knowledge and personal involvement. He is a sponsor of the National Council for the Welfare of Prisoners Abroad, an honour that is shared by no less a personage than the Archbishop of Canterbury. The matters with which he and the council are concerned are of great humanitarian importance.

I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend said about the additional weight of punishment that falls on someone who is sent to prison in a country that is far removed from our own not only geographically, but culturally and in its penal traditions and arrangements. He mentioned the absence of family visits, the cultural shock and the inability to converse with people from a similar background, and those illustrations were telling. We are only too well aware of those additional hardships. We are also aware of the particular stresses and worries which such circumstances bring to prisoners' families at home. They must be taken into account.

My hon. Friend was entirely right to emphasise the humanitarian reasons for our having agreements with other countries to enable prisoners to return to their own countries to serve their sentences. Understandably, he laid emphasis on the plight of British prisoners serving sentences in foreign gaols, far away from their families and friends. But we must not forget that there are probably more nationals of foreign and Commonwealth countries in British gaols than the other way round. Indeed, my hon. Friend implied as much in response to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne).

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington referred to the "hard administrative reasons" for setting up prisoner transfer treaties. The difficulties faced by prisoners serving sentences away from their home country are reflected in the administrative problems that such prisoners create. Those problems fall not only on the State to which the prisoner belongs, but also on the sentencing State. Earlier, there was discussion of the difficulties of dealing with a curious sect, the Rastafarians, in our country. Those considerations are apposite to this debate.

The most obvious problem is a linguistic one. Prison staff may encounter great difficulties in communicating with prisoners who speak little or no English, although those prisoners are often the most isolated and in need of help. Much valuable staff time might be saved if it were possible to repatriate those prisoners. There is the additional difficulty of special dietary and religious requirements. We have done our best to ensure that those needs are catered for, as I sought to indicate in an earlier debate. Nevertheless, their provision can place a disproportionate burden on prison administration. Therefore, it makes sound administrative and economic sense to house prisoners where their dietary and religious needs are shared by many of their fellow prisoners. This applies both to United Kingdom citizens abroad and to foreign nationals in our own gaols.

As my hon. Friend has said, the administrative benefits of prisoner transfer treaties apply as much in the field of after-care arrangements as in the running of the prisons themselves. The probation and after-care staff in our prisons do their best to ensure that prisoners are released to circumstances in which the risk of re-offence is minimised, but there are obvious—and formidable—practical problems in the case of foreign prisoners. Here again, treaties would alleviate the problems considerably and in doing so perhaps lessen the risk of reoffending.

My hon. Friend has referred to the interdepartmental working party on the repatriation of prisoners, whose report was published last June. This working party of officials was set up to examine the possible scope and means for the United Kingdom to enter into agreements with other countries in Europe and elsewhere for the repatriation of prisoners and subsequent parole arrangements". The main features of the scheme proposed by the working party—which would need legislation—were these. First, transfers should normally take place in accordance with treaties negotiated with other countries, though ad hoc agreements should be possible to deal with particular cases where necessary.

Secondly, any transfer should require the consent of the prisoner, of the United Kingdom authorities and of the other State concerned. Such discretion should be unfettered, but the United Kingdom should make clear that it would not normally withhold its consent except for compelling reasons of public policy. The intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South was most apposite. In the circumstances that he raised, relating to terrorism, compelling reasons of public policy might very well exist.

Thirdly, to be eligible for transfer to the United Kingdom, a prisoner should have strong links with this country, based on birth and/or long-term residence, but there should be discretion to take others with a strong case.

Fourthly, transfer should be possible for anyone serving a custodial sentence who had at least six months left to serve.

Lastly, the offence leading to the prison sentence should be a crime in both countries—though not necessarily an imprisonable one—and, as a general rule, the sentence imposed by the convicting court should be enforced in the receiving country regardless of the sentence normally available for such offences in that country.

We have received many helpful constructive comments on the report from interested individuals and organisations. We have had and are engaged in analysing fully the comments of about 50 organisations and individuals. Very few have objected in principle to the idea of transferring prisoners to serve their sentences in their own countries. For the most part, comments on the general approach of the report have been favourable, even on the part of some who have serious reservations about certain features of the proposals.

There are, however, a number of significant problems on which the Government have to reach a view, and I shall mention one or two of these, if only to demonstrate that serious differences of opinion on certain important matters exist. It is not a question of procrastination. I know that there is always a deep-seated and often well-founded fear, if one is honest about it, on the part of those who work on these deliberative bodies, working parties, and so on, that the Government make noises of general approval and admiration and then procrastinate and do nothing. There is no question of that being the case. But we have to reach a view on some difficult problems which need to be considered and to resolve the points at issue in them before a workable and acceptable scheme can be introduced.

The working party considered, for example, that there should be no specific appeal procedure to enable a prisoner to challenge the refusal of either State concerned to consent to his transfer. It took the view that repatriation should be a discretionary act on the part of both States and that the enabling legislation should make clear that prisoners could neither be liable to compulsory repatriation nor be given a right to repatriation. It compared repatriation with other discretionary acts, such as transfer to another prison or release on parole, refusal of which could be the subject of a petition to the Secretary of State, be challenged in Parliament, or be grounds for action in the civil courts or even an application to the European Commission of Human Rights.

It did not seem right to the working party that the refusal to repatriate a prisoner should be singled out for a statutory right of appeal, particularly in the light of the view that a refusal by this country would be exceptional and probably only for reasons of public policy. A number of organisations and individuals, however, are not convinced by that argument and consider that there should he a statutory right of appeal against a refusal to consent to transfer. That is an important and not altogether easy issue.

Another problem identified by the working party was that of sentences imposed abroad for offences which in this country could not attract imprisonment or for which the maximum sentence here was much less. The working party suggested that this country should be prepared to enforce sentences which were longer than could be imposed here for the same offence and that there should even be discretion to agree to enforce here a sentence for an offence which could not lead to imprisonment if committed in this country. Clearly, the prisoner, given the choice, might well prefer to serve the sentence here, even in those circumstances, than to serve it in some awful hell hole abroad. It has been suggested, however, that sentences longer than the maximum possible in this country should be subject to our maximum for enforcement here.

But what if the other country is not prepared to see its sentences reduced in that way? Would Parliament and public opinion accept that the humanitarian considerations of getting a prisoner back to this country should override all other, even to the extent of agreeing to enforce sentences not available to our courts? Or should a transfer treaty make a special provision for cases where the sentence is greater than that which can be imposed in the receiving country and, if so, what? Those are awkward questions which the Government need to consider carefully, and we are doing so.

Another issue concerns eligibility for any new scheme. The working party felt that, in the absence of a definition of a national of the United Kingdom, transfer to this country should be limited to patrials who met a specified residential requirement and others who, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, had sufficiently close ties with the United Kingdom for it to be reasonable for them to be transferred. The British Nationality Bill which is currently before the house throws new light on this and the Government will need to take account of the definitions which Parliament ultimately decides on enacting in that Bill.

We also need to consider whether other countries would be willing to transfer to this country a prisoner who was not a national of this country and whether the country of which he was a national would object to our taking responsibility for him, even where the humanitarian considerations appeared to justify such action.

Those issues involve a number of important considerations, especially the need to balance humanitarian needs with national sensibilities and parliamentary and public opinion on what is acceptable in the way of enforcing foreign sentences. It is obviously important to get the balance right and we are fully justified in taking great care to do so. Moreover, however much we may sympathise in principle, we cannot in present times ignore resource considerations, even if of a minor nature.

As some hon. Members will know, the United Kingdom has been participating in discussions on this subject in the Council of Europe. These discussions are concerned with the possibility of drawing up a European convention to deal specifically with the transfer of prisoners. As the working party pointed out, the European convention on the international validity of criminal judgments provides, among other things, for the transfer of prisoners to serve their sentences in other countries. It has not, however, been an unqualified success either generally or in relation to prisoner transfers, having been ratified by only five of the 21 member States of the Council of Europe.

It is encouraging that the draft convention currently under consideration has much in common with the views of the United Kingdom working party and it seems to avoid the difficulties inherent in the existing convention. Work on the draft convention is receiving high priority in the Council of Europe. The Government will have this proposed convention very much in mind when reaching conclusions on the recommendations of the working party. It is also relevant to the possibility of drawing up a Commonwealth scheme for the transfer of prisoners which Commonwealth Law Ministers agreed should be pursued when they met in Barbados last year.

I cannot say that the Government are, as yet, committed to a particular course of action. However, I assure my hon. Friend that we are very sympathetic with the principle of transferring prisoners on humanitarian grounds to serve their sentences in their home countries. We are considering very carefully the various problems identified by the working party, together with others which we have encountered during negotiations in the Council of Europe. For the same reason, I cannot give any very precise idea of the likely time scale. It will be influenced to a large extent by the way that we get on with our partners in the Council of Europe discussions.

Clearly, we must make progress as quickly as possible. My hon. Friend has today shown us again the advantage that his personal experience of the prison service and conditions in prison has afforded the House during the time for which he has been a Member. I am most grateful to him both for the opportunity that he has given us to air these issues and for his contribution to our understanding of them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Three o'clock till Monday 27 April, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 6 April.