HL Deb 04 July 1983 vol 443 cc440-2

2.48 p.m.

Lord Avebury

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will approach the Government of Thailand with a view to discussing a bilateral treaty for the exchange of prisoners.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Elton)

My Lords, we are currently considering whether the United Kingdom should participate in international agreements enabling prisoners to be transferred to serve their sentences in their home countries. Enabling legislation would be required to make this possible. It would not be appropriate to approach Thailand before we have announced our policy on the matter of prisoner repatriation generally. We hope to announce our conclusions within the next few weeks.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, if we decided to sign the Council of Europe Convention, to which the Minister refers, it would be some time after that before the Thai authorities could make up their minds whether they wished to adhere to the treaty, as they could do if they so wish. In the meantime, is the noble Lord aware that the Prime Minister has expressed concern on behalf of the Government about British citizens serving long sentences of imprisonment in Thailand? For example, a person is serving 35 years for simple possession of more than 10 grams of a scheduled drug. Does not the Minister think that if the Thai authorities are prepared to enter discussions about bilateral exchanges—as they have informally indicated they would be—it would be worthwhile setting in motion such arrangements in parallel with the multilateral ones?

Lord Elton

My Lords, we are, of course, concerned for the welfare of British citizens serving sentences in foreign countries where prison conditions are very different from those in this country by reason of the climate, culture, diet or custom. Our consular officers do all they can to help. But my point is that we shall shortly be coming to a conclusion on this matter and it would be precipitate to embark on these bilateral discussions ahead of the more general issue which will then be decided.

Lord Hale

My Lords, can the noble Lord, who I should like to thank for that encouraging answer, give any idea of how many British and associated prisoners are likely to be involved in this? If he does not have the figures, will he bring them the next time a Question is asked on this, which I apprehend will not be long?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I understand that there are at present nine British citizens serving sentences in Thai prisons, nine on remand and one on bail.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, even if the Government do not sign this convention, will they undertake to take steps to improve the welfare of British prisoners abroad? Is the Minister aware that the attitude of the Foreign Office in these matters is not always as helpful as it might be, when, as in Thailand, which has been drawn to our attention recently, overcrowding, diet and everything else is frequently of a very low standard? Will the Government really take this matter on board, even if they do not go ahead with the convention?

Lord Elton

My Lords, we certainly have this issue on board. The result of our cogitations about the convention will be available in the next few weeks. In the meantime, I am sorry to hear that the noble Lord thinks that there is anything lacking in the operation of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Of that I was not aware.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the result is almost certain to be a very large increase in our prison population? It appears likely that if such an agreement is reached it will involve this country, the other country and the prisoner all agreeing to the transfer. No doubt very large numbers of our people would agree to being transferred here, but how many prisoners in this country belonging to other countries would wish to be transferred home?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the Question relates specifically to Thailand. The number resulting from that country would at the most, I understand, be 19, which in the present context of our prisons is not a large increase.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, irrespective of what we decide on multilateral exchanges, is the noble Lord saying that we will not enter into bilateral arrangements with any other country whatsoever? If there is an unwillingness on the part of the Thai authorities to accede to the Council of Europe Convention, but inquiries establish that they would be prepared to enter into bilateral arrangements, as they have done already with some nations belonging to the Council of Europe which may also sign the convention, does the noble Lord not think that this would be worth doing in parallel?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I had no intention of prejudicing anything that might be done bilaterally. I was merely saying that it should not in all reason be done ahead of anything that is done multilaterally.