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I want to place on the record my thanks to the Government for their assistance in responding to my previous requests on this matter. This includes speeding up Michael’s transfer from Bulgaria, recalculating the length of his sentence and acceding to his request to undergo a polygraph—lie detector—test. Michael is adamant about his innocence and is willing to do anything possible to demonstrate that. Ministers in the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office have always been supportive in responding to my queries, and I thank them for that. I now ask, however, that the Government recognise the mounting and compelling new evidence that makes Michael’s conviction unsafe. Michael’s fate must not hang in the
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balance while Bulgaria and the United Kingdom debate their respective jurisdictions and conventions. Michael has strong support in his community, and his family are outstanding in their efforts. More than 16,000 people have signed the Downing street petition supporting Michael’s release. I am convinced of Michael’s innocence. Those who are unconvinced must surely accept that his conviction is unsafe.

I call on my right hon. Friend the Minister to clarify the situation. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice has already agreed to meet me to discuss Michael’s position, and I thank him. I will not rest until justice has been done, and nor will Michael’s family and supporters. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to work with me to secure justice for Michael Shields.

7.24 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) for raising the case of Michael Shields today. Self-evidently, she feels passionately about Michael’s case following his conviction in Bulgaria in 2005, and she has raised his case with me previously in private discussions, and with other Ministers and ministerial delegations. She is indeed working tirelessly on behalf of Michael and his family. She has also raised concerns on behalf of Councillor Joe Anderson and Arlene McCarthy MEP, who have been particularly supportive of Michael’s case and have raised these issues with the Government; whatever I say this evening, they will undoubtedly continue to do so. My hon. Friend also mentioned the noble Bishop of Liverpool, who sits in another place, where he too has raised this matter. Again, I know that he is committed to raising Michael’s case at every opportunity.

As my hon. Friend said, Michael Shields was convicted of the attempted murder of a Bulgarian national. Mr. Shields was returning from a football match in Turkey when he became involved in a stone-throwing incident that resulted in the serious injury of Martin Georgiev. Mr. Shields maintains his innocence, and his family and other supporters have mounted a strong and effective campaign to prove his innocence. As my hon. Friend said, a fellow Liverpool fan, Graham Sankey, who was arrested with Mr. Shields but released without charge, subsequently issued a statement indicating that he may have been involved in an incident that resulted in the injury to Mr. Georgiev. However, he has refused to give a witness statement and subsequently withdrew his earlier statement.

Let me say right away that I am well aware of the strength of feeling that Michael’s case arouses in Liverpool. My constituency is very close to Liverpool, which is the city of my birth, and I understand well the feelings that have been expressed. My hon. Friend and others have put forward the view that Michael is the victim of a miscarriage of justice. That strength of opinion is amply demonstrated by the petition on the Downing street website, which as of today has more than 16,000 names appended to it.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the Government have tried wherever possible to ensure that Michael has received appropriate help and support. I am genuinely
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grateful to my hon. Friend for acknowledging in her speech the assistance provided not just by my Department—the Ministry of Justice—but by the Foreign Office and the Home Office. She will be aware that once the Bulgarian authorities consented to transfer Michael back to the UK, we attempted to do that quickly and without unnecessary delay on our part. Arrangements were indeed put in place to transfer him to a prison in the north-west of England—in his home region—within 24 hours of his arrival in the UK, so that he could, quite properly, receive visits from his family and friends at a convenient time. Michael continues to serve his sentence in a prison close to his home.

As my hon. Friend said, now that Michael has turned 21 he has been transferred to an adult prison where I understand that he is taking advantage of the educational and training facilities available to him, while working towards the possibility of one day transferring to an open prison. When my hon. Friend and I discussed that possibility, I explained to her how it could occur in the near future.

My hon. Friend also raised the issue of Michael’s undergoing a polygraph test, which we have been pleased to grant. The governor of Garth prison has indicated that she is in principle content for the test to go ahead, provided that the chosen polygraph expert and any individual accompanying them are security-cleared. That will undoubtedly be acceptable to my hon. Friend and to Michael. I believe that there has been a request for that test to be filmed, but there is no question of that happening. However, I hope that the test itself will prove of value and that it can be undertaken speedily.

It is clear from my hon. Friend’s speech tonight, however, that Michael’s supporters—his family and many people in the city of Liverpool—feel that further action should be taken to remedy what they believe to be a serious miscarriage of justice. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for setting out the new evidence that has recently come to light. I know that she knows this, but I have to say to her that the proper place for that evidence to be considered and tested is in Bulgaria, either by a Bulgarian court or, if that is not possible, by the Bulgarian President, who has the power to grant clemency.

One of the central principles of the Council of Europe convention on the transfer of sentenced persons, under which Michael was transferred to a prison in the United Kingdom, is that the receiving state must respect the findings of the sentencing state. Indeed, article 13 of the convention makes it clear that the sentencing state alone retains the right to review the judgment of its court. Under the terms of that convention there is limited scope for the receiving state, which in this case is the United Kingdom, to change the sentence imposed by the sentencing state. A sentence can be adapted where the sentence imposed exceeds the sentence available to courts in the receiving state for the same offence. My hon. Friend will know that Michael is serving a sentence of 10 years for attempted murder. As the maximum sentence available to British courts for attempted murder is life imprisonment, we have no power to reduce Michael’s sentence on those grounds.

My hon. Friend mentioned that following Michael’s return to the UK, his sentence is administered in accordance with British release arrangements. She is aware that
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following strong representations from her and others, some of whom I mentioned, the Government were able to amend Michael’s release dates to ensure that he serves no longer in custody here than would have been the case had he remained in Bulgaria. That decision has shortened Michael’s sentence, and I know that my hon. Friend has welcomed it.

The central point that my hon. Friend made concerned the potential for a royal prerogative of mercy. She has asked for clarification on whether the Justice Secretary could grant a pardon to Michael under a royal prerogative of mercy. As hon. Members will know, there are different types of pardon, but I assume that my hon. Friend would be seeking what is known as a free pardon, which would remove, as far as possible, all penalties and other consequences of the conviction. I hope that it is helpful my saying that a request to grant a free pardon to a repatriated prisoner is highly unusual, and that such a request has never been granted. My hon. Friend mentioned that I gave her my answer to a parliamentary question today, and in it I re-emphasised the situation to her.

Although the Bulgarian Government have quoted article 12 of the convention on the transfer of sentenced persons, that does not address the question whether the grant of a pardon to a repatriated prisoner is possible or appropriate under UK law. I do not wish to give Michael false hope. I know that this will be difficult for my hon. Friend and her constituent to hear, but I have to say honestly to them that it appears very doubtful whether the power to grant a free pardon extends to people convicted overseas and serving their sentence in the UK, as Michael is now doing following his conviction in Bulgaria and his imprisonment in the north-west.

Furthermore, free pardons are granted only in very restricted circumstances, and without prejudging Michael’s circumstances, they may well not yet meet them. As ever, I want to help my hon. Friend, because of both her passion and commitment to Michael’s case, and the strength of feeling of her constituents, which she represents to this House. If she wishes, I can write to her with clarification of how the royal prerogative of mercy is applied, so that Michael can consider whether he wishes to exercise that potential option.

My hon. Friend also asked whether the Government would consider supporting Michael’s application to the Bulgarian authorities for a pardon. As she has mentioned, Michael’s family are considering whether to apply to the Bulgarian President for that consideration. The decision on whether such support for an application can be provided is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. I understand that both he and his officials are aware of Michael’s application to the Bulgarian authorities and are awaiting further information before making their decision on whether to support it. That information will come from, among others, Fair Trials International. I hope that that will be sorted shortly, so that my right hon. Friend can make a decision. I hope that my hon. Friend will both pursue the matter directly with the Foreign Secretary and supply further information as requested.

I have tried to indicate to my hon. Friend that my Department and others responsible for issues relating to Michael’s welfare and condition have examined the
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matter seriously, and are attempting to ensure that his sentence is appropriate and that his well-being is maintained while he is in prison. We must examine still further the issue of representations to the Bulgarian authorities and the question of the royal prerogative of mercy. I am sure that both my hon. Friend and her constituent will be able to make further representations to the Government in due course about any concerns about Michael’s position that are drawn to her attention.

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I hope that my hon. Friend will understand the Government’s position, and I repeat my offer to write to her shortly about the application of the royal prerogative of mercy. I am grateful for the passion with which she has brought the matter to the House today, and I shall certainly reflect outside the Chamber on behalf of the Government on the points that she has raised.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes to Eight o’clock.

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