HC Deb 18 October 1995 vol 264 cc316-24 1.30 pm
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

I am grateful that this subject was chosen for debate because it concerns a matter that I have pursued for a considerable time.

Although I say some harsh things, that does not arise out of any hostile feelings that I feel towards Jamaica—far from it. I have the highest regard for the people of Jamaica and for the island. When, in July, I had the privilege of leading the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation to Jamaica, I was met with nothing but hospitality and good will.

However, the subject that I shall discuss strikes at the heart of human rights. It deals with a matter that is a locus of this country because the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council is the final court of appeal for Jamaica. Indeed, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council has taken action that has ameliorated a position which it is no exaggeration to describe as ghastly.

The present debate is not about the merits or otherwise of capital punishment. I totally and unalterably oppose capital punishment, but although, among other things, I speak about conditions on death row in Jamaica, I do not seek to argue in this place for the repeal of capital punishment legislation in Jamaica, although I would wish that to be repealed.

I was told by a correspondent that, although the most recent execution in Jamaica took place in February 1988, a hangman was advertised for and I am told that a hangman has been appointed. There can be no doubt that the possibility of execution creates feelings of great anxiety among the men on death row. Indeed, one of the reasons why the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council made its historic ruling that men should not be held on death row for more than five years was that it said that it was inhuman for men to be kept on death row for so many years—in the case of the two men with whom I have been in correspondence, more than 13 years before they were removed from it, following the Judicial Committee's ruling.

My direct interest in the subject arose from the fact that, some years ago, a man on death row called Lynden Champagnie began to write to me about his plight and that of nearly 300 people on death row. As a result, a further two men wrote to me. I have therefore received correspondence from, and have extremely fat files on, the three men: Lynden Champagnie, Recordo Welsh and Everton Bailey.

When I had the opportunity of visiting Jamaica with the CPA in July, I asked whether I might visit those three men and whether I might visit death row. I made it clear that the CPA was not involved in any way in those visits. Moreover, I arranged the visits after the end of the CPA delegation because I did not think it right that it might be thought that the CPA was being represented by what I did concerning those matters.

I wish to thank our high commissioner, Mr. Derek Milton, who has just left Kingston, for his aid and I congratulate him on the splendid service that he has done for this country in Jamaica over very many years. He was the doyen of the diplomatic corps until he left, earlier this month.

What I have to say is not about the merits or otherwise of capital punishment, and it is not about the protestations of innocence that some of the men with whom I am dealing have made.

We have enough experience in Britain of men convicted of murder who have turned out not to be guilty of murder, and Superintendent Knight, the director of security at the prisons, admitted to me that a wrongful hanging was a possibility here in Jamaica. I shall not argue today about whether those men are guilty. I am speaking about human rights in a democracy, human rights in a parliamentary democracy, human rights in a democracy with an elected Government of a sister party of my own Labour party in the socialist international. If the conditions that I saw in Jamaica existed in a brutal dictatorship such as Iraq or an authoritarian country such as Turkey, I would be horrified, but I would not be surprised. I feel especially strongly about those conditions because they are so incongruous with a democracy ruled by a socialist party.

I therefore made it my business, when in Jamaica at the end of July, to visit three prisons. I visited St. Catherine's—where death row exists and where, as I understand it, the gallows is still present—Tower Street prison and South Camp prison. I visited death row and visited cells in the prisons. I spoke to the men whom I had especially wished to meet, but I also spoke to a great many other men.

I repeat that one of the men, Recordo Welsh, who was detained at the Governor-General's pleasure at the age of 17, has been in prison for more than 19 years. Everton Bailey, who turned 35 this month, has spent more than 13 years in death row and has been in prison for 16 years. Lynden Champagnie has just turned 37 and he was on death row for slightly less than 14 years.

Although those men have served those enormously long periods, Lynden Champagnie will have to serve another 10 years before he can even be considered for parole and Everton Bailey may have to serve another 20 years before he can be considered for parole.

I was accompanied, throughout my visits, by Superintendent Knight, who is the director of security at the prisons. Although he treated me with the utmost courtesy and consideration, his treatment of other people left a great deal to be desired. He humiliated Superintendent Aris, who is in charge of Tower Street prison, by yelling at him in my presence because he was dissatisfied with the way in which we had been received and the absence of an electric fan in his office. He shouted at several men on death row and he tried to browbeat one of the men whom I had come to visit, in my presence.

It seemed to me that, if Superintendent Knight was able to behave in such a manner in my presence, his behaviour when I was not there could not have been better and might have been worse. Indeed, although the conditions that I saw in death row were abominable, I am told by a lady called Rebekah Maxine Wilson, who has been involved with the Jamaican Bar Association and the Jamaica Council for Human Rights, that the conditions were actually improved in preparation for my visit.

I met and spoke to a man called Kevin Williams, who is on death row. He wrote to Rebekah Maxine Wilson to say that the men on death row were made to scrub down the block before I came and that the authorities ensured that certain men would not be seen or heard by me. Kevin Williams has said that he has since been threatened by the wardens, who have informed him that, whatever the outcome of his appeal to the Privy Council, he will not leave the prison alive. One of the reasons I am naming names is that I wish the plight of the individuals to be placed on record so that the authorities in Jamaica are aware that the men are neither neglected nor forgotten and that the House of Commons is concerned about those individuals.

Death row is one of the most abominable places that I have visited in my life. It is surrounded by cages which are newly built and clearly expensive. That money could have been spent on improving conditions on death row and in the prisons rather than hemming in the inmates still further. Death row is surrounded by two high metal fences that are both topped by rolls of concertina wire. Blue-uniformed warders wielding huge clubs guard the area. Conditions are dreadful by any standards.

The men have almost no sanitary facilities inside death row. Their sole sanitary facility is a rectangular well to which they are allowed out for short periods, into which they can empty their night soil pails and in which they can wash their food, laundry and themselves.

Death row is like a huge cage with cages within it. There is hardly any natural light and, when I was there, there was no artificial light. There is a central space on either side of which are cage-like bars, from which the men reached out to me in an effort to attract my attention. The circumstances were like something out of a nightmare.

Each man has one tiny narrow cell. Some of the men have managed to get hold of grubby strips of foam rubber on which they sleep. Other men simply sleep on bits of cardboard on the floors of their cells. The authorities admitted to me that the men are kept in those conditions for 22 out of 24 hours. Theoretically, they have a maximum period of two hours for exercise, but Kevin Williams said that he was not even given 10 minutes for exercise. A man called Milton Montique told me that he had no exercise period, had to wash in a bucket inside his cell and had no eating utensils so that he had to use his fingers to eat whatever food was provided.

Complaints were made to me of attacks by wardens. I was told by several people, both when I was there and in correspondence, about a group of wardens known as the acid squad who carry out attacks on the men. Among the men whom I saw complaints were rife about lack of access to doctors. A man called Gladstone Hall told me that, during his brief ventures into the sunlight, the contrast between the darkness in which he had to spend most of his life and the little bit of light that he was allowed, hurt his eyes. His request to see a doctor had been disregarded. Other prisoners made similar complaints to me about lack of access to doctors. One of them, Everton Morrison, told me that he was in "terrible pain" and had been refused access to a doctor. A man called Kwame Codrington told me that he had not been told what his rights were, if he had any, and that he was denied blankets although it was chilly at night.

The other prisons that I visited would have been dreadful by any standards had I not visited St. Catherine's first, but my experience in St. Catherine's made them seem not quite so bad. Recordo Welsh, who has been in prison since he was 17, lives in unhygienic conditions and has an inadequate diet. He told me that his visitors were sometimes turned away. Although he is not on death row, he is confined to his cell from 4 pm until 8.30 am the next day. His cell contains a stool which is about the right size for a kindergarten infant, bits of foam rubber and a tattered floor blanket. Of course, his cell, like all the others, has no doors, but bars.

South Camp prison, where the other two men whom I have visited are now held, was described by Superintendent Knight as the most modern in the Caribbean. If that is so, I am sorry for the Caribbean. The cells are roughly 2 yd by 3 yd. Four men are kept in each cell, which contains battered and stained wooden bunks. In Lynden Champagnie's cell there was a tattered blanket on the floor. There are no lights in the cell and any reading has to be done by outside light.

I am horrified to have to speak like this about prison conditions in a friendly country which one has held in great regard and which one wishes to continue to hold in great regard. But I do not regard it as a service to our relations with Jamaica to do other than make it clear what the conditions are in the prisons. These are not only my subjective views. In a report in 1992, Christopher Gibbard, who was governor of Shepton Mallet prison and is now, pro tem, prison reform co-ordinator in this country's Caribbean dependent territories, described St. Catherine's, where men are held on death row, as the worst prison I have ever seen. He compiled an update to his report last November and stated in that official report that the prison estate in Jamaica was "clearly appalling".

I have been in touch with the United Nations Human Rights Committee. I have been exploring every avenue, both to alleviate the situation and to try to gain the release of the men who have spent more than half their lives in prison. In July 1994, the United Nations Human Rights Committee said that the treatment of Lynden Champagnie and others was a violation … of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. During the past few days, I have received further letters from the United Nations in Geneva, which maintains its views about the situation in Jamaica but is unfortunately unable to enforce them. Unfortunately, the Jamaican authorities are not responding to what the United Nations says.

It gives me no pleasure to say this and I am sorry to have to do so, but the Jamaican authorities are clearly not open to being shamed on this issue. If they were, they would not have allowed me into the prisons. On the wall of the superintendent's office in South Camp hangs a notice which states that the prison's mission is to ensure security, foster rehabilitation and serve all who are in its care while maintaining a united and highly motivated staff, characterised by integrity, commitment and professionalism. Every world of that is false. The men are not being rehabilitated but brutalised. The staff, who are kept in poor conditions and appallingly badly paid, are brutalised. There are too many reports of staff inflicting brutality on the inmates for those reports to be ignored.

I am aware of poverty in Jamaica and the other countries in the Caribbean and I want that poverty to be alleviated, but it seems that the Jamaican Government will respond only to economic pressure. That is why I recommend that, while the Government are staunch in their support for the West Indian banana regime which is under threat within the European Union, they should use their support of that regime to put pressure on Jamaica to improve conditions, release those men and to abolish death row once and for all.

1.49 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Jeremy Hanley)

First, I congratulate the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) on his success in being called to speak in an Adjournment debate so soon after the recess.

United Kingdom-Jamaican relations are excellent and there are frequent exchanges at all levels. Her Majesty the Queen visited Jamaica in 1994 as part of her Caribbean tour. The Jamaican Prime Minister, the right hon. P. J. Patterson, visited the United Kingdom in 1993 and my hon. Friend the Minister for Science and Technology has made two export-related visits to Jamaica, most recently last September.

Other visits this year have included those by members of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in June and members of the United Kingdom branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association who went there in July, ably led by the right hon. Member for Gorton. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer attended the Commonwealth Finance Ministers' meeting in Kingston earlier this month, and throughout the summer there have been a number of official and private visits to the United Kingdom by senior Jamaican figures, including the Minister of National Security and Justice and the Commissioner of Police. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman's comments about the former high commissioner, Derek Milton, who has done some excellent work, and also the Jamaican high commissioner to Britain, Derick Heaven. They have furthered the existing excellent relationship between the two countries.

The right hon. Gentleman was very specific about prisons in Jamaica. I would like to respond equally specifically by emphasising the commitment of Her Majesty's Government to the improvement of human rights throughout the world, especially in the Commonwealth. Jamaica is an independent and important member of the Commonwealth and next month my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Auckland, New Zealand. One of the specific purposes of that meeting will be to carry forward the work on good government and human rights in the Commonwealth. Her Majesty's Government have been one of the prime movers in that field.

Although non-intervention in matters within the domestic jurisdiction of other states is a recognised principle of international law, articles 55 and 56 of the United Nations charter set out the obligation for all members of the United Nations to promote universal respect for, and observance of, human rights. That obligation, reinforced over the years by the creation of a framework for international promotion and discussion of human rights law, means that human rights violations are no longer insulated from external criticism or expressions of concern on the ground that the matter is exclusively a domestic one.

As to Jamaica, the House may like to know that our high commission in Kingston has long been monitoring the situation regarding human rights in that country, including the specific issues raised by the right hon. Gentleman. On many occasions, our high commissioner has discussed the matters with members of the Jamaican Government and other persons responsible for the situation on the ground.

At his suggestion, we recently invited the Jamaican Minister responsible, the hon. K. D. Knight, to visit the United Kingdom. He was here for four days at the end of last month, during which time he had wide-ranging discussions about how the United Kingdom could assist. Mr. Knight's programme included a visit to Her Majesty's prison, Downview and several of its unique aspects were of great interest to him. The British Government have donated tools and materials for a vocational training unit to assist with a prisoner rehabilitation project, and they have helped with the running costs of the Jamaica Human Rights Council.

Moreover, my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General visited Jamaica in April and met with the Minister of National Security and Justice, the Attorney-General, judges, police and prison officials. Like the right hon. Gentleman, he also visited the Tower Street correctional centre. My right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council, who recently conducted a wide-ranging tour of the Commonwealth Caribbean, had in-depth talks about good government issues when he visited Jamaica in August.

The purpose of his tour was to encourage Governments, both in the independent Caribbean and in the remaining British dependent territories, to consider ways of improving the administration of justice and generally to promote good government—the rule of law, honest and efficient public administration, accountability and respect for human rights.

Most countries in the Caribbean are proud of their British heritage in those fields and, in that connection, we have been giving more attention recently to ways in which we can help. It must be remembered that a relatively large proportion of law-abiding citizens in Jamaica has to put up with very poor conditions, such as the lack of running water, the lack of electricity, an inadequate urban infrastructure and squalid overcrowded accommodation which is often flooded in heavy rain. One can understand that the Jamaican Government might wish to give those areas a higher priority than improvements in prison conditions for convicted criminals.

One of the Caribbean's major problems is drug trafficking and money laundering. In this country we are well aware of the dangers of drug abuse and the threat to security posed by drug trafficking. Right hon. and hon. Members may have seen the television programme "The Yardies", which was broadcast last year. It gave a very disturbing picture of the situation in Kingston and the international ramifications of the drug trade involving people from Kingston. That visual picture put the question into context rather convincingly.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be discussing the problem of drugs in the Caribbean, both generally and specifically, with his colleagues at CHOGM. We believe that more must be done to tackle the problem of the Caribbean as a major transhipment point for drugs not only to America but to Europe. That must be done through international co-operation, and we are raising the matter with our European, American and Canadian partners at this very moment with a view to holding a workshop that would provide a framework for further action.

I mention that point because another extremely important matter is the need to provide a way of life that would make it not so tempting to traffic in drugs. That means assisting economic and social development. One of the issues that affects Jamaica, which is a major producer of bananas and other agricultural exports, as the right hon. Gentleman said, is the maintenance of the European Union-African, Caribbean and Pacific banana regime. That regime is governed by the fourth Lomé convention. No Government have been more supportive of the regime than the United Kingdom, as the right hon. Gentleman readily accepted. We have also provided technical co-operation for the Jamaican banana industry to enable it to improve quality standards.

The right hon. Gentleman has proposed that we should withdraw our support for Jamaica under Lomé. However, apart from the fact that we cannot simply isolate one country in that way without affecting the entire structure, we believe that such action would ultimately exacerbate the very problem that it was designed to resolve. It would lead to the collapse of the banana industry, depriving small farmers of their livelihood and the ensuing economic collapse in those regions could thus render them more prone to crime, create more criminals and place yet more strain on the prison system.

I understand that the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd), a close neighbour of the right hon. Member for Gorton, referred to the banana regime in this morning's debate about Latin America. He took the diametrically opposing view and said that the removal of the regime from the Caribbean states would have disastrous implications for the area. I refer right hon. and hon. Members to the debate this morning.

I am not saying that the right hon. Gentleman would like to see the bad side of everything—I know him far too well to claim that. However, perhaps he does not give enough credit to what the Jamaicans and this Government are doing to encourage the good side.

The judicial system in Jamaica is based on our own. Jamaica remains part of the Queen's realm and it has maintained the right of appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. The Jamaicans are now considering whether to continue with that system. That is a matter for Jamaica, as an independent country, to decide. It is not our place to dictate to it what it should do, as I suspect some hon. Members might like us to do.

We are investigating, with the Commonwealth Secretariat and others, what initiatives we could join to help to modernise the administration of justice in Jamaica and in the Caribbean generally. We are actively pursuing a proposal that a member of the Judicial Committee should visit the Caribbean in the near future. We have now posted a legal adviser from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the Caribbean to assist in the reform and improvement process, to which we are committed.

I have noted carefully everything that the right hon. Gentleman said, but I can assure him that Her Majesty's Government will continue to pursue in future, as we have in the past, a policy of encouraging respect for human rights in the Commonwealth and specifically in the Caribbean.

We shall continue to monitor the conditions in Jamaican prisons, especially the problems of death row, as seen against the judicial procedures which apply and the social economic conditions which prevail. Our high commission in Kingston has done good work and one of its major objectives will remain to support and encourage the Jamaican authorities to address exactly the problems which the right hon. Gentleman raised.