§ 2.44 p.m.
§ The Question was as follows:
§ To ask Her Majesty's Government how many persons whose next of kin reside in Northern Ireland are currently serving sentences in prisons in Britain.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Elton)
My Lords, as we have no operational need to do so we do not hold this information centrally, and I regret that to obtain it would involve disproportionate cost.
§ Lord Hylton
My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that concern and interest in these prisoners and their families is just as strong in this Parliament as it was in the last? May I ask whether the Government would consider changing the onus of proof that now rests very heavily on the prisoner so that in future transfers would be granted from Britain to Northern Ireland unless the authorities could make an overwhelming case against a particular individual? Is the noble Lord further aware that I do not expect an instant answer today, but if he would consult with his right honourable friends I would be more than satisfied?
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, I am indeed aware of the concern on this issue and on all humanitarian issues that are not peculiar to any part of this House but 562 common to all of us. As to the specific question of whether transfers to Northern Ireland should be a matter of routine, I can certainly give the noble Lord this preliminary answer before consultation. It is that I do not think it should be a matter of routine because it is normally assumed that sentences will be served within the area of jurisdiction in which they are given and the conditions for release in Northern Ireland and in England and Wales are in fact different.
My Lords, is the Minister satisfied that everything possible is being done to alleviate the difficulties of journeys by relatives of Irish prisoners in British prisons on this side of the Irish Sea? Those journeys are made between places as distant as Derry city and Fermanagh to prisons on the Isle of Wight. Is the noble Lord aware of correspondence that I have had with his noble friend Lord Gowrie, in which I pointed out that it was marginally, but only marginally, more expensive to make these journeys by air rather than by road, sea and rail—tedious and exhausting journeys for mothers and young children? Is that now an option that is available to relatives of these prisoners?
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, I shall certainly consider the concern of the noble Lord and the correspondence that he has had with my noble friend. I would remind him that a great deal is already done in this area, particularly for persons in receipt of supplementary benefit, who, if they are close relatives, are given a travel voucher or, if circumstances warrant it and large numbers are going, a place on a special bus going to the prison in question. They also get help with overnight expenses if it is necessary to stay there. I shall, however, look with care at what the noble Lord suggests.
§ Baroness Ewart-Biggs
My Lords, will the Minister say what, if any, family problems, such as severe illness, could be regarded by the Minister as justifying the transfer of a prisoner back to Northern Ireland on compassionate grounds?
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, every case is considered on its merits. I could not give a portmanteau answer as to what particular difficulties might be considered enough in an individual case. A case could be considered only when it arose.