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10.37 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Peter Hain): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) for bringing this matter to the attention of the House and for putting some pertinent questions and powerful arguments, of which I am sure the Thai authorities will take note. I am glad of the opportunity to tell the House of the interest that the Government have shown in Sandra Gregory's case.

I also wish to take this opportunity to outline our review of policy on making representations in support of pleas for clemency by British prisoners abroad to the authorities of the countries where they are detained.

The Government are steadfastly committed to tackling serious crime, including drug smuggling. We co-operate with other countries in this, both bilaterally and multilaterally. Just because a drug criminal is British is no excuse--there should be no more leniency than for other nationals committing similar crimes. British nationals detained abroad are subject to local jurisdiction wherever they commit their crimes. We respect the right of other countries to decide their own sentencing guidelines in accordance with their laws, customs and culture--just as we would ask them to do for us.

As the hon. Gentleman said, Sandra Gregory was arrested at Bangkok international airport in February 1993, when 86.9 grammes of heroin were found concealed inside her body. She pleaded guilty to drug trafficking, and was sentenced to 25 years' imprisonment. This is an extremely long sentence by British standards, although it was reduced in 1996 by two years in His Majesty the King of Thailand's golden jubilee amnesty.

On 5 June 1997, Sandra transferred to a British prison under the terms of the UK-Thailand prisoner transfer agreement. I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that Australia does not have a prisoner transfer agreement, which is why there is a different situation for that country. The move greatly facilitates visits from her family, and allows her to be in an English-speaking environment--albeit in the difficult circumstances to which the hon. Gentleman has drawn the attention of the House--with the same rights and privileges as other British prisoners. She will become eligible for parole in 2003. She may also benefit from any further general reduction in sentences in future amnesties by His Majesty the King of Thailand.

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In May 1997, Sandra submitted her royal pardon petition to His Majesty the King of Thailand. She wrote to the Foreign Secretary on 10 June 1997, asking him to give official support to her royal pardon petition. Our policy at the time was to support petitions only when there were compelling compassionate circumstances--for example, where a prisoner was terminally ill and unlikely to survive their sentence, or where a relative was terminally ill and their death would leave elderly relatives, or young children with no-one to care for them.

Sandra was 29 at the time of her arrest and had lived in Thailand for more than 18 months. She knew how tough the Thai laws on drugs were. She admitted that she had agreed to carry the drugs for an acquaintance and for financial gain. She was in good health, with no dependent relatives. After consideration, we declined to support Sandra's plea because there were insufficient compassionate or humanitarian reasons. She did not qualify for support under the policy that I have outlined.

Mr. Bruce: Does the Minister consider that suffering from dengue fever and amoebic dysentery and having lost 25 per cent. of one's bodyweight is good health? Are not those mitigating circumstances that a clemency appeal could consider?

Mr. Hain: That will be taken into account, and was noted at the time.

Since that time, Sandra Gregory's parents--I pay tribute to them--have urged us consistently to reverse our decision because they believe that Sandra's sentence is disproportionately long by comparison with the sentence that she would have received in the United Kingdom for a similar conviction, which is undoubtedly the case. They have organised an effective campaign, gaining support from Members of Parliament, Members of the Scottish Parliament, members of the public and the Church.

Sandra accepts that what she did was wrong and she is sorry. I have every sympathy for Mr. and Mrs. Gregory; as a parent, I would probably have done the same had one of my children been in this predicament; I admire their efforts and the dignified way in which they have conducted their campaign.

In the light of that, in March 1999 we began a review of our policy on making representations about the convictions and sentencing of British prisoners abroad to the authorities of the countries where they are detained. We focused particularly on support for clemency pleas. The review was a complex exercise and took a long time.

There are more than 2,000 British prisoners overseas. We identified 243 prisoners serving sentences of at least five years in countries where there are clemency schemes; 93 of them were in Thailand and 21 in Morocco. We found that we could not discriminate among them, or even prioritise their clemency pleas.

Disregarding the drug offenders would not help Sandra. Supporting all the pleas for pardons simultaneously would damage our credibility and severely limit the chances of success for any of the pleas. Even if we were to reduce the list to prisoners with sentences of at least 10 years we would still have 142 potential pleas to consider.

Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton): Does the Minister accept that even if there are 2,000 other prisoners, to have this British

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young Lady serving this sentence in a British jail is an exceptional circumstance, especially given the disquiet in Gordon, throughout Scotland and in the House?

Mr. Hain: It is a troubling circumstance. That is why I am grateful that the matter has been raised.

Some prisoners have argued that overseas penal and judicial systems do not always take account of mitigating circumstances and that the Government should therefore also support pleas for early release if the prisoners have received a much longer sentence than they might have done in the UK, as Sandra Gregory's case shows, but just as we would not accept other countries seeking to determine our laws and customs, we must accept their right to decide sentencing guidelines in accordance with their laws, customs and culture. The guidelines often reflect strong political pressures to impose deterrent sentences to dissuade others from making a bad drugs problem any worse.

Our policy on official support for pardon applications was already in line with that operated by Her Majesty's Prison Service. Early release of foreign prisoners in the UK on compassionate grounds is covered by section 36 of the Criminal Justice Act 1991. In general, the circumstances looked for by the Prison Service are terminal illness of the prisoner; terminal illness and/or death of a spouse when there will be no one to care for the children; and when there is no one to care for a terminally ill parent.

If we accept other countries' rights to sentence as they wish, that we do not intervene in that judicial process and that our policy on supporting clemency pleas abroad is in line with our policy at home, it follows that we have little scope for modifying our policy.

We have looked at the issue from every angle, but we could not look at Sandra's case in isolation. After very careful consideration and taking all factors into account, we decided not to change our policy on supporting clemency pleas. Our primary concern was to ensure that the policy should be based on clear and objective criteria. We decided that that was best achieved by the existing guidelines--only supporting clemency pleas when there were certain clear compassionate grounds to do so. That unfortunately means that we were not able to support Sandra's plea for clemency.

British nationals detained abroad are subject to local jurisdiction wherever they commit their crimes and we have to respect the right of other countries to decide their own sentencing guidelines. Indeed, we expect the same respect ourselves. The harsh penalties imposed in some states for offences such as drug trafficking and sex offences are widely advertised and very few prisoners can genuinely claim to have been ignorant of them. Our travel advice notices for countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Morocco and Saudi Arabia include warnings about their sentencing policies.

We know the strong support that Sandra's case has attracted, which has been reflected this evening. Indeed, I stress that we have brought that support to the attention of the Thai authorities and I am sure that this debate will similarly be brought to their attention. Our embassy in Bangkok wrote to the Thai authorities on 25 August 1999 to draw their attention to a petition submitted by Sandra's

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supporters in the UK. Our embassy wrote again on 3 November 1999 to explain our policy to them and to make it clear to the Thai authorities that our lack of formal support should not act to deter them from exercising clemency.

In any case, success or failure of clemency pleas does not rest on Government support. Unsupported clemency pleas have been successful in Thailand and a Government-supported plea on behalf of a prisoner with a terminal illness was unsuccessful.

The Thais have been considering Sandra's royal pardon petition for two and a half years. In December 1999, we were told that we would hear the decision of Sandra's royal pardon petition early in the new year--the hon. Gentleman rightly asked about that point. However, on 6 January, our embassy in Bangkok was told that it is now likely to be known in the middle of this year. While we sympathise with Sandra's family, and anyone who is separated from their loved ones, the compassionate circumstances do not exist that would warrant the Government formally supporting her plea to the Thai authorities for early release, but that does not mean that we have not made representations. I am sure that the Thai authorities will also take careful note of this debate.

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The hon. Gentleman also raised the case of Patricia Hussain. The Government declined to support Ms Hussain's royal pardon petition because there were insufficient compassionate circumstances. However, we did write to the Thai Foreign Minister in late 1997 explaining that we would not support her plea, but drawing his attention to the way in which Ms Hussain had co-operated with the Customs authorities in the UK and the United States following her arrest. On 11 November 1999, the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs informed our embassy in Bangkok that Ms Hussain's plea for clemency had been granted and her sentence reduced further to 10 years. She now qualifies to be considered for release on parole according to UK parole regulations.

The decision to grant Ms Hussain clemency rested entirely with the Thai authorities, as does the decision on Sandra's case. As I have already said, we have made similar representations on Sandra's behalf, most recently on 3 November 1999. I am sure that those responsible will take note of those recommendations, as I am sure that they will take note of the powerful arguments expressed in the House this evening by the hon. Member for Gordon.

Question put and agreed to.

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