HL Deb 19 May 1980 vol 409 cc544-8

2.45 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the second Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will explain why Mrs. Sujatha De-Silva, a citizen of Sri Lanka who was convicted of shoplifting and working in the United Kingdom in breach of conditions on 8th April, though she was still within her permitted leave to remain, and who was not given a custodial sentence, has nevertheless remained in Holloway prison ever since that date, and how they reconcile this with the policy of the Secretary of State for reducing the prison population.


My Lords, the Immigration Act provides that a person recommended for deportation by a court is to be detained pending the making of a deportation order unless the court or the Home Secretary directs that he be released. The court gave no such direction in Mrs. De-Silva's case, nor did my right honourable friend the Home Secretary feel able to release her. She had pleaded guilty to four charges of theft and to working in breach of her conditions, in spite of having earlier given an explicit undertaking to the Home Office that she would continue to comply with the conditions attached to her stay here. A deportation order was made against her on 8th May and she left the country three days later.


My Lords, would not the Minister accept— of course he will because he gave me the answer himself on 16th May— that at the end of March this year 200 persons were detained in our prisons under the administrative powers in the Immigration Act 1971? Is not this wholly inconsistent with the declared policy of the Home Secretary to reduce the prison population? In the particular case of Mrs. De-Silva, would the Minister confirm that she was held in custody from 9th April to 11th May at a cost to public funds of £ 63642? Is this not also inconsistent with the Government's policy of reducing public spending? Therefore, will the Home Secretary exercise the powers which, as the noble Lord has said, he possesses to release people from prison when they have not been given a custodial sentence by the courts, and the Secretary of State is considering whether or not to exercise his power to deport them following a recommendation of the court?


My Lords, a case of this nature is wholly inconsistent with my right honourable friend's policy of trying to see that fewer people are kept in custody. People like Mrs. De-Silva cause very great problems to the prison service, and I should like to make that crystal clear to the noble Lord. I confirm, to the best of my knowledge, that the dates that the noble Lord put to me are correct for the period of time that Mrs. De-Silva was kept in custody; and the reason was that she had committed a series of criminal offences, and, in spite of her explicit undertakings, had engaged in unauthorised employment, and this record inspired no confidence as to her likely conduct if she was released.


My Lords, are the Government examining alternatives to prison custody for those who are held for some breach or other of immigration procedures, bearing in mind, as the noble Lord has just said, the plea of the Home Secretary for a reduction in the prison population? The overcrowding in prisons, as the noble Lord knows, has now reached scandalous proportions.


My Lords, we would like to find a solution to this particular problem, but if one takes a case of this kind where someone who comes as a visitor to the country commits criminal offences, quite apart from the undertaking which that person gave with regard to immigration control, it really is then extremely difficult to see how such a person can be released pending deportation. The fact of the matter is that in this case neither the court nor my right honourable friend felt able to direct such release.


My Lords, I did not apply my question to the immediate case in hand but to the general practice. Are there not alternatives means, hostel or other more or less secure accommodation, to lessen the load and burden on the prisons?


My Lords, I absolutely take the point which the noble and learned Lord makes. The reason why I attached it to this particular case was that it is the sort of case, as the noble and learned Lord will know, which occurs and recurs. The fact of the matter is that experience shows that a number of those recommended for deportation and not detained subsequently disappear and cannot be traced. Of course we shall look, and are looking, at the problem which the noble Lord premises, but it is very difficult in this particular situation to see what the solution is to be.

The Earl of HALSBURY

My Lords, has the noble Lord ever considered reviving that ancient custom of the stocks?


No, my Lords.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that while we all wish to see the prison population reduced, we also expect his right honourable friend the Home Secretary to be aware of his responsibilities to protect the public against predatory characters?


My Lords, I am glad my noble friend made that point, a point which remains always in my right honourable friend's mind.


My Lords, will my noble friend bear in mind that one of the biggest problems at the moment is shoplifting? We are repeatedly seeing cases where foreign visitors with vast sums of money in their pockets are still shoplifting, to the detriment of shopkeepers. Will he agree that it is against the wishes of the general public that because they happen to be visitors they should be treated more leniently than our own citizens? Am I right in thinking that my noble friend informed us that this lady had not only abused her conditions of landing by taking employment but had shoplifted as well? Although it is reprehensible that we had to keep her in prison, would my noble friend agree that she would probably have gone off and done it again if we had not?


My Lords, without prejudicing or appearing in any way to interfere with the judicial discretion of the courts, my answer to the supplementary questions asked by my noble friend is, yes, in each case.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that it is not yet a provision of our law that preventive detention, especially for first offenders, should be imposed on anyone who is inclined to shoplift, and that to keep someone in prison for five weeks, as Mrs. De-Silva was, when the offence for which she was convicted was thought worthy of a fine, which was immediately paid, is not consistent with the principles of British justice? Is the noble Lord further aware that in Holloway there are 245 places for the 411 women who are now in custody there? Does he agree that every possible step should be taken to reduce the overcrowding particularly in this prison, which is far worse than the average of prisons in England and Wales?


My Lords, I am most concerned that by the first part of that supplementary question the noble Lord should suggest to your Lordships' House that in some way the way in which this lady was dealt with was not consistent with the maxims of British justice. The period of time that Mrs Dc-Silva was kept in detention was a period during which a right of appeal might be exercised and which under the Act must be allowed to expire. The noble Lord then intervened, as he had every right to do, and that had to be considered. It was a week later that the deportation order was signed, and Mrs. De-Silva left three days later. Regarding the point the noble Lord raised about Holloway prison, as he will be aware, that prison is being rebuilt at the present time and that project is being pushed ahead with at the greatest possible speed.


My Lords, would my noble friend agree—


My Lords, we have already spent 16 minutes on only two of the four Starred Questions. Perhaps the House might now wish to proceed to the next Question.