I am very much with my hon. Friend and his sentiments on the amendments, which are worthy of serious consideration. I hope that the Minister will give the spirit of the amendments particularly serious thought in this case.
I shall turn first to amendment No. 2, which seeks to add automatic deportation to the possible punishments of somebody who is convicted of an offence of absconding from detention or assaulting or obstructing an immigration officer. My hon. Friend’s sentiment is worthy and I am with him in spirit. However, there may be a problem. As I understand the basis on which the Minister described clauses 1 and 2, the amendment would relate to United Kingdom citizens who were suspected of offences as much as to foreign citizens. Much as my hon. Friend and I would want to deport UK citizens who commit offences, I am not sure whether it would be practical to do so—first, we would have to find somewhere to deport them. I am not sure that I am with him on automatic deportation, but he has raised an important point.
There would be scope for amending the measure to make the person liable for deportation, rather than automatic deportation, as one of the possible punishments that they could face. If deportation was merely a possible sentence, rather than an automatic one, it could be used against a foreign citizen who had committed one of the relevant offences, and that additional punishment would be appropriate in the circumstances. If the Minister will not accept my hon. Friend’s amendment or the changed form that I have just suggested, will he tell us whether a person who commits an offence under clause 3(1) would be liable for deportation as the law stands?
The second point that I want the Minister to address relates to amendment No. 3, and I share my hon. Friend’s sentiments on that, too. I ask the Minister to justify why the Government have chosen the unusual maximum sentence of imprisonment of 51 weeks. I do not want to be in the position of asking “why” all the time—why this, or why that?—but 51 weeks is a curious figure to choose. I am not familiar with 51 weeks as a possible sentence for other offences. What is the magic in 51 weeks? Why not have the maximum sentence as one year, which is the maximum sentence for many different offences?
I support my hon. Friend’s wish to increase the maximum sentence, not only because—as he has already said, very eloquently—if it were increased, it would make the person eligible for automatic deportation, which is important, but because it is important to mark offences against public servants with a longer sentence of imprisonment and a stronger penalty than would otherwise be the case. In the debates on the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006—I think that that is relevant, because I went through the same arguments then—I proposed a scheme of additional aggravated offences, where an offence of assault or another offence causing harm was directed against a public servant, such as a doctor, nurse, railway worker, bus conductor or anyone else providing a service to the public, and an immigration officer would fall within that general definition of a public servant.
It is an important principle that when someone commits an ordinary criminal offence against a public servant, the fact that it is being committed against a public servant—someone who is exposed to danger while providing a service to the public, which itself may be interfered with by the offence—the person who commits that offence should face a more serious sentence. In practice, the courts often do that and regard it as an aggravating feature of an offence that it is committed against a public servant. There is a lot to be said for formalising that process within the law, making it absolutely clear to everybody and sending out a strong signal that offences against public servants are serious offences that will attract more serious sentences.
Quite simply, I want to see posters going up in ports that tell people who are dealing with immigration officers that somebody who assaults an immigration officer will be subject to a maximum sentence that is longer than 51 weeks and will also be eligible for deportation. Such posters would serve as a warning and protect immigration officers, who do such a good job for us all.
I ask the Minister to bear those sentiments in mind and to explain how he would otherwise give additional protection to immigration officers through the provisions in the Bill. Specifically, I would like him to answer this question: by how much more does the sentence outlined here increase the sentence that someone would face for assaulting an immigration officer, compared with the sentence for someone else committing a different type of offence of assault?