HC Deb 17 January 2000 vol 342 cc659-66

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Dowd.]

10.23 pm
Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

Although Sandra Gregory was arrested almost seven years ago, it is the first time that her case has been raised in the House. The reason is that a process has been going on for the past seven years, but that appears now to be stalled. It is necessary for the House to address that. A number of hon. Members have supported the case, particularly the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon), who has said that she would have been here if she had not been away on other business. She and I have together raised the matter with Ministers.

I remind the House that Sandra Gregory was arrested on 3 February 1993 at Bangkok airport and found to be in possession of 89 g of heroin in condoms that were secreted internally. She claimed that she was carrying the heroin on behalf of an acquaintance, Robert Locke, for a payment of £1,000, to be used for her fare back to the United Kingdom. The Thai authorities were apparently tipped off by the British embassy that Locke was suspected of drug trafficking, although it had no knowledge of Sandra Gregory. In the event, she was clearly compromised with undeniable possession.

Locke pleaded not guilty, and, with only Sandra's evidence against him, was acquitted—although, ironically, he was convicted of being in possession of heroin while in prison in Thailand and sentenced to three years. He has also been convicted of a heroin offence since his return to the United Kingdom.

Sandra had no option but to plead guilty, and was subsequently sentenced to a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years. Sandra's offence was attempting to export drugs. Had she been caught with that amount—89 g—within Thailand, it would not have been an offence as it was under 100 g, which is the limit of what is regarded as being for personal use. The current street value of the drug is about £9,000.

Sandra was not motivated by greed—she was not planning to sell the drug or realise its value. She was accepting payment for acting as what is known in the trade as a mule. It was not, as some people have suggested, an act of greed but an act of irrational desperation by a sick and homesick young woman.

As it was a mandatory minimum sentence, mitigating circumstances were not considered. However, at the time of the offence, Sandra Gregory was suffering from dengue fever and amoebic dysentery, had lost more than 25 per cent. of her body weight and was desperate to get back to the United Kingdom. She was, in her mother's words, not really in her right mind". Neither Sandra nor her parents—Stan and Doreen, who live in my constituency—deny that an offence was committed, or that Sandra should have been punished. The issue is entirely one of proportionality.

Under the Thai judicial system, the normal process of appealing for someone in Sandra's position is through an appeal to the King. Sandra was able to initiate that process only after conviction, which was delayed for three years, pending the outcome of Robert Locke's trial.

Sandra is now completing the seventh year of her sentence, and still does not know when her appeal to the King will be considered. She was told that it would be before Christmas, then in the new year. The latest information is that it may not be for another six months which, in itself, is an added frustration.

The Government maintain that it is not policy to support clemency appeals for British nationals under foreign jurisdictions other than in exceptional cases, which seems to mean cases involving, for example, the terminal illness of the prisoner or a next of kin. United Kingdom practice, however, seems to differ very sharply from the practice of other Governments and does not even seem to be consistently applied by our own Government.

If Sandra Gregory were an Australian, she would receive automatic Government support for a clemency appeal. If Sandra were an American, she would have her sentence reduced to take account of time spent in a Thai prison. The Americans multiply Thai prison years by six. Therefore, Sandra's three years spent in a jail in Bangkok would have been regarded as 18 years in the American system, so that she would have been immediately eligible for parole on her return home and would now have been deemed to have served the entire sentence without remission.

The Dutch Government review the sentence of those who are transferred from conviction under foreign jurisdiction back to Holland against the domestic equivalent sentence. In Sandra's case, her sentence would have been a maximum of four years.

Since her return to the United Kingdom, Sandra has spent time in Holloway, Wakefield, and Durham maximum security wing, and she is currently at Cookham Wood, in Kent. She is serving the third longest sentence of any woman in a United Kingdom prison, with only Myra Hindley and Rosemary West serving longer sentences—life meaning life in both cases. While Sandra Gregory was in Durham, she was in the same wing as Rosemary West, and certainly felt great resentment that she was treated as being the same category of criminal.

The effect has been that Sandra Gregory—a first-time offender who bitterly regrets her crime and is repentant—has seen professional criminals, with a serious track record of serious crimes, come in and out of prison while she continues to languish.

A little over a year after Sandra's arrest, another British woman was arrested in Bangkok, trying to export 7 kg of heroin. On conviction, she was sentenced to life imprisonment. That sentence was reduced on appeal to 35 years and then to 25 years in a general amnesty. Recently, her appeal to the King for clemency, which has been heard even though she was arrested more than a year after Sandra Gregory, resulted in her sentence being reduced to 10 years. That appeal was apparently supported by United Kingdom Customs and Excise. How is that consistent with the Government's stated policy? The reason given to me was that she gave evidence leading to the conviction of other drug dealers. She is now eligible for parole, although she and her family are in such danger that they will have to find new identities. Patricia Hussain, the woman in question, had previous convictions for theft, fraud and prostitution and was carrying not 89 g of heroin, but 7 kg.

I have no doubt that Sandra Gregory, who met Patricia Hussain when they were in prison in Thailand, wishes her well, but she would not be human if she did not feel that there was some difference in approach. When Sandra's parents and I asked the Foreign Office for an explanation, Nicolette Smith of the consular division said in a letter on 30 November: Consular confidentiality precludes my commenting on Patricia Hussain's situation. I hope that the Minister might feel able to explain how the difference can be justified. It cannot be justice that someone convicted for a far more serious offence should get Government agency support and now be eligible for release while Sandra Gregory faces another four years before becoming eligible for parole.

Sandra's parents, Stan and Doreen, have supported their daughter throughout and worked for a fair assessment of her sentence. They have behaved with great dignity and quiet determination. They hurt to see her mood swings, and the prime years of her life wasting away. I participated in a live television programme with them in Aberdeen yesterday. They were not told in advance that there would be a video at the start of the programme showing Sandra's arrest and conviction and her obvious distress and resentment. I have nothing but respect for their ability to argue their case rationally in such circumstances.

In the past year, Stan and Doreen Gregory have sought and won support for Sandra's application for clemency from a wide cross-section of people. They have received the backing of the Church of Scotland, the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland and the Episcopal Church of Scotland. They have had the support of 35 Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops, including one archbishop. Fifty seven Members of Parliament from all parties, including former Cabinet Ministers, have signed a motion calling on the Government to support her appeal to the King. More than 30 Members of the Scottish Parliament have backed a similar motion. Many others have given public or private support.

I am as aware as any Member of Parliament of the seriousness of drugs crimes. I support the need for tough penalties, especially for traffickers, which Sandra Gregory was not. However, that does not mean that the normal rules of justice can be set aside. Sandra Gregory is as much a victim of drugs as many others. While she faces the prospect of at least another four years in jail before she is even eligible for parole, the serious dealers go free to carry on their trafficking. They have the power to escape while minnows such as Sandra Gregory are left to take the rap.

What assurances can the Minister give Sandra's family that the lack of British Government support for her appeal to the King will not prejudice her chances? Is that lack of support already contributing to the continuing delay in her appeal being heard? Does the Minister know why the delay has occurred and when a final hearing and adjudication will be carried out? What firm assurances can be given that the delay will not continue indefinitely? Will the Government make it clear, respectfully, to the King of Thailand that there is widespread support in the UK for Sandra's sentence to be reviewed and reduced?

Will the Government convey to the King the fact that lack of support is an issue of general policy, and does not mean that the British Government do not believe that there may be a strong case for clemency? Can the Minister deny, on the basis of the treatment of nationals of countries other than the UK and the outcome of the Hussain appeal, that it would now be appropriate for Sandra Gregory's sentence to be reduced to 10 years or less, making her now eligible for parole?

Sandra Gregory should be punished. She is being punished. Her parents are being punished. Is it not now time for mitigating circumstances to be fully considered? Should not her punishment be compared with her offence and the punishment of others? Is it not now disproportionate? Indeed, may her parents be right in believing that it may be in breach of the European convention on human rights? Does the Minister understand the hurt and offence—expressed to me yesterday—caused to Stan and Doreen Gregory by seeing Kosovo war criminals, who have been convicted of systematic cold-blooded mass murder, getting lighter sentences than their daughter? Are not these fair comparisons? Is not the Government in danger of unfairness and inconsistency?

Sandra Gregory is paying dearly for her crime. She should not be made a scapegoat for those who are not.

10.37 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Peter Hain)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) for bringing this matter to the attention of the House and for putting some pertinent questions and powerful arguments, of which I am sure the Thai authorities will take note. I am glad of the opportunity to tell the House of the interest that the Government have shown in Sandra Gregory's case.

I also wish to take this opportunity to outline our review of policy on making representations in support of pleas for clemency by British prisoners abroad to the authorities of the countries where they are detained.

The Government are steadfastly committed to tackling serious crime, including drug smuggling. We co-operate with other countries in this, both bilaterally and multilaterally. Just because a drug criminal is British is no excuse—there should be no more leniency than for other nationals committing similar crimes. British nationals detained abroad are subject to local jurisdiction wherever they commit their crimes. We respect the right of other countries to decide their own sentencing guidelines in accordance with their laws, customs and culture—just as we would ask them to do for us.

As the hon. Gentleman said, Sandra Gregory was arrested at Bangkok international airport in February 1993, when 86.9 grammes of heroin were found concealed inside her body. She pleaded guilty to drug trafficking, and was sentenced to 25 years' imprisonment. This is an extremely long sentence by British standards, although it was reduced in 1996 by two years in His Majesty the King of Thailand's golden jubilee amnesty.

On 5 June 1997, Sandra transferred to a British prison under the terms of the UK-Thailand prisoner transfer agreement. I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that Australia does not have a prisoner transfer agreement, which is why there is a different situation for that country. The move greatly facilitates visits from her family, and allows her to be in an English-speaking environment—albeit in the difficult circumstances to which the hon. Gentleman has drawn the attention of the House—with the same rights and privileges as other British prisoners. She will become eligible for parole in 2003. She may also benefit from any further general reduction in sentences in future amnesties by His Majesty the King of Thailand.

In May 1997, Sandra submitted her royal pardon petition to His Majesty the King of Thailand. She wrote to the Foreign Secretary on 10 June 1997, asking him to give official support to her royal pardon petition. Our policy at the time was to support petitions only when there were compelling compassionate circumstances—for example, where a prisoner was terminally ill and unlikely to survive their sentence, or where a relative was terminally ill and their death would leave elderly relatives, or young children with no-one to care for them.

Sandra was 29 at the time of her arrest and had lived in Thailand for more than 18 months. She knew how tough the Thai laws on drugs were. She admitted that she had agreed to carry the drugs for an acquaintance and for financial gain. She was in good health, with no dependent relatives. After consideration, we declined to support Sandra's plea because there were insufficient compassionate or humanitarian reasons. She did not qualify for support under the policy that I have outlined.

Mr. Bruce

Does the Minister consider that suffering from dengue fever and amoebic dysentery and having lost 25 per cent. of one's bodyweight is good health? Are not those mitigating circumstances that a clemency appeal could consider?

Mr. Hain

That will be taken into account, and was noted at the time.

Since that time, Sandra Gregory's parents—I pay tribute to them—have urged us consistently to reverse our decision because they believe that Sandra's sentence is disproportionately long by comparison with the sentence that she would have received in the United Kingdom for a similar conviction, which is undoubtedly the case. They have organised an effective campaign, gaining support from Members of Parliament, Members of the Scottish Parliament, members of the public and the Church.

Sandra accepts that what she did was wrong and she is sorry. I have every sympathy for Mr. and Mrs. Gregory; as a parent, I would probably have done the same had one of my children been in this predicament; I admire their efforts and the dignified way in which they have conducted their campaign.

In the light of that, in March 1999 we began a review of our policy on making representations about the convictions and sentencing of British prisoners abroad to the authorities of the countries where they are detained. We focused particularly on support for clemency pleas. The review was a complex exercise and took a long time.

There are more than 2,000 British prisoners overseas. We identified 243 prisoners serving sentences of at least five years in countries where there are clemency schemes; 93 of them were in Thailand and 21 in Morocco. We found that we could not discriminate among them, or even prioritise their clemency pleas.

Disregarding the drug offenders would not help Sandra. Supporting all the pleas for pardons simultaneously would damage our credibility and severely limit the chances of success for any of the pleas. Even if we were to reduce the list to prisoners with sentences of at least 10 years we would still have 142 potential pleas to consider.

Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton)

Does the Minister accept that even if there are 2,000 other prisoners, to have this British young Lady serving this sentence in a British jail is an exceptional circumstance, especially given the disquiet in Gordon, throughout Scotland and in the House?

Mr. Hain

It is a troubling circumstance. That is why I am grateful that the matter has been raised.

Some prisoners have argued that overseas penal and judicial systems do not always take account of mitigating circumstances and that the Government should therefore also support pleas for early release if the prisoners have received a much longer sentence than they might have done in the UK, as Sandra Gregory's case shows, but just as we would not accept other countries seeking to determine our laws and customs, we must accept their right to decide sentencing guidelines in accordance with their laws, customs and culture. The guidelines often reflect strong political pressures to impose deterrent sentences to dissuade others from making a bad drugs problem any worse.

Our policy on official support for pardon applications was already in line with that operated by Her Majesty's Prison Service. Early release of foreign prisoners in the UK on compassionate grounds is covered by section 36 of the Criminal Justice Act 1991. In general, the circumstances looked for by the Prison Service are terminal illness of the prisoner; terminal illness and/or death of a spouse when there will be no one to care for the children; and when there is no one to care for a terminally ill parent.

If we accept other countries' rights to sentence as they wish, that we do not intervene in that judicial process and that our policy on supporting clemency pleas abroad is in line with our policy at home, it follows that we have little scope for modifying our policy.

We have looked at the issue from every angle, but we could not look at Sandra's case in isolation. After very careful consideration and taking all factors into account, we decided not to change our policy on supporting clemency pleas. Our primary concern was to ensure that the policy should be based on clear and objective criteria. We decided that that was best achieved by the existing guidelines—only supporting clemency pleas when there were certain clear compassionate grounds to do so. That unfortunately means that we were not able to support Sandra's plea for clemency.

British nationals detained abroad are subject to local jurisdiction wherever they commit their crimes and we have to respect the right of other countries to decide their own sentencing guidelines. Indeed, we expect the same respect ourselves. The harsh penalties imposed in some states for offences such as drug trafficking and sex offences are widely advertised and very few prisoners can genuinely claim to have been ignorant of them. Our travel advice notices for countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Morocco and Saudi Arabia include warnings about their sentencing policies.

We know the strong support that Sandra's case has attracted, which has been reflected this evening. Indeed, I stress that we have brought that support to the attention of the Thai authorities and I am sure that this debate will similarly be brought to their attention. Our embassy in Bangkok wrote to the Thai authorities on 25 August 1999 to draw their attention to a petition submitted by Sandra's supporters in the UK. Our embassy wrote again on 3 November 1999 to explain our policy to them and to make it clear to the Thai authorities that our lack of formal support should not act to deter them from exercising clemency.

In any case, success or failure of clemency pleas does not rest on Government support. Unsupported clemency pleas have been successful in Thailand and a Government-supported plea on behalf of a prisoner with a terminal illness was unsuccessful.

The Thais have been considering Sandra's royal pardon petition for two and a half years. In December 1999, we were told that we would hear the decision of Sandra's royal pardon petition early in the new year—the hon. Gentleman rightly asked about that point. However, on 6 January, our embassy in Bangkok was told that it is now likely to be known in the middle of this year. While we sympathise with Sandra's family, and anyone who is separated from their loved ones, the compassionate circumstances do not exist that would warrant the Government formally supporting her plea to the Thai authorities for early release, but that does not mean that we have not made representations. I am sure that the Thai authorities will also take careful note of this debate.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the case of Patricia Hussain. The Government declined to support Ms Hussain's royal pardon petition because there were insufficient compassionate circumstances. However, we did write to the Thai Foreign Minister in late 1997 explaining that we would not support her plea, but drawing his attention to the way in which Ms Hussain had co-operated with the Customs authorities in the UK and the United States following her arrest. On 11 November 1999, the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs informed our embassy in Bangkok that Ms Hussain's plea for clemency had been granted and her sentence reduced further to 10 years. She now qualifies to be considered for release on parole according to UK parole regulations.

The decision to grant Ms Hussain clemency rested entirely with the Thai authorities, as does the decision on Sandra's case. As I have already said, we have made similar representations on Sandra's behalf, most recently on 3 November 1999. I am sure that those responsible will take note of those recommendations, as I am sure that they will take note of the powerful arguments expressed in the House this evening by the hon. Member for Gordon.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes to Eleven o'clock.