Prisoner Transfer Agreements — Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:36 pm on 15th February 2011.

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Photo of The Bishop of Liverpool The Bishop of Liverpool Bishop 2:36 pm, 15th February 2011

To ask Her Majesty's Government what plans they have to review prisoner transfer agreements.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, we have a small number of bilateral arrangements which we keep under review, including on prisoner consent. The UK is a signatory to multilateral agreements for prisoner transfer which would require the agreement of all parties to a review.

Photo of The Bishop of Liverpool The Bishop of Liverpool Bishop

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. Will he look into the case of Steven Willcox who, on transfer from Thailand, is having to serve a 29-year fixed sentence for possession of a small amount of drugs, when a number of other transferred prisoners on much more serious charges are released much sooner? Will he also look into the disparity of treatment between those transferred prisoners on fixed-term sentences that cannot be changed and those on whole-life sentences that can be reassessed, and even reduced, by British courts?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, officials of the Ministry of Justice have recently concluded a review of the Anglo-Thai agreement and submissions will be considered shortly by Ministers. The issues raised by the right reverend Prelate will be considered by Ministers when we receive that review.

Photo of Lord Corbett of Castle Vale Lord Corbett of Castle Vale Labour

Will the review explain why some foreign national prisoners are able to serve their sentences in their country of origin and some are not?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

In some cases we have agreements with the countries of origin. Where we do not have agreements, obviously we cannot send those prisoners back. We have recently concluded an agreement within the EU that will come into force on 5 December this year which will extend that two-way process to 27 countries. There is also a protocol with the Council of Europe which extends to 34 countries, so we are building this up. We are seeking other bilateral arrangements which will allow such exchanges.

Photo of Lord Avebury Lord Avebury Liberal Democrat

My Lords, while I appreciate that officials are now considering whether amendments to the Anglo-Thai prisoner transfer agreement might be drafted to bring the time British nationals spend in prison following transfer into line with that required by other European countries, what does my noble friend think of the suggestion that we should approach the Thai Government at ministerial level with a view to getting round a table and eliminating all the random variations among sentences served under the present arrangements? Better still, since my noble friend has explained that the US and some other countries refuse a prisoner a transfer when they think that it will result in an unacceptable reduction in the time actually served, could we propose an international conference of states that participate in PTAs to discuss ways of eliminating anomalies that may arise?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

I will certainly take back to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State the idea of an international conference, which I presume would also come within the bailiwick of the Foreign Secretary. The key thing to remember, however, is that the idea of the prisoner exchange is for prisoners to have the right to return-for most British prisoners, to return to Britain to serve their sentence is a considerable advantage in the first place-so the aim is not to second-guess the authorities in countries where they have committed offences. It is important that we keep that in mind.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

We on this side absolutely accept that this is a difficult problem that needs careful handling. While making it quite clear that I am not talking about any individual case-it would be wrong to do so from the Front Bench-I think that the right reverend Prelate has a point, which I hope the Minister and his officials will look into. If someone on a fixed sentence is transferred back to this country, very little can be done in terms of releasing that person earlier than when the fixed sentence finishes, whereas if they have committed a worse offence but are on a whole-life sentence, it is easier to release them earlier. That seems to be a bit of an anomaly, and the Government of which I was a member obviously faced the same anomaly as the noble Lord's Government. Does he agree that that is the general point that needs carefully to be looked into?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

I agree. I am not a lawyer, but I am advised that that is exactly the position we have in this country: the people in jail on very long fixed terms and those on life sentences are treated differently when trying to vary those sentences. I go back to the central issue, which is that the transfer of prisoners home is to allow them to serve their sentences back home, not to benefit from a review of sentences. However, I acknowledge that the points made by my noble friend Lord Avebury and the right reverend Prelate are worthy of review by Ministers. We have now received a submission from officials on this, which we will study along with the remarks made in these exchanges. When possible, we will make the House aware of our conclusions.

Photo of Lord Ramsbotham Lord Ramsbotham Crossbench

My Lords, when discussing this matter with some overseas territories from where foreign nationals have come, there has always been a sticking point over the length of sentence and the length of time that people might be expected to serve. If people go back from this country, there has been a fear that they might be released before the end of the sentence awarded by our courts. The key part of the sentence that we are talking about is at the end, when people are appropriately resettled into their country of origin. Can the Minister confirm that it is the resettlement end of the sentence which will be the subject of the discussions in the review that he mentioned?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

On this particular matter, no; we are looking at the broad issue. However, it is interesting that the noble Lord should say we are concerned that we send back to their country of origin prisoners who may then be given an easier sentence than the one imposed by our courts. Perhaps I may suggest that that precisely may be the concerns of countries that send our prisoners back. Countries have a right to their own system of justice, and some of them take matters such as drug offences very seriously indeed. When you are resident in those countries, you should be aware of the seriousness with which they view such offences.