Great Britain

Fate of Australian exiled to Scotland shows why UK’s deportations are so wrong – Kenny MacAskill

Gerry Conlon spent 15 years in prison on the mainland UK, after he was wrongly convicted for the 1974 Guildford pub bombings, forcing his mother to travel across the Irish Sea to visit either him or his jailed father, who was also wrongly convicted (Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Gerry Conlon spent 15 years in prison on the mainland UK, after he was wrongly convicted for the 1974 Guildford pub bombings, forcing his mother to travel across the Irish Sea to visit either him or his jailed father, who was also wrongly convicted (Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Some criminals must be sent to prison, but deporting them to a country they may hardly know punishes not just them but also their families, writes Kenny MacAskill.

Visiting a community project in my constituency reminded me why justice is best delivered close to home. Youngsters in danger of going off the rails and the not-so-young seeking to get back on them were all being helped. Good work was being done and the community that had sometimes suffered from them appreciated it.

Atonement or payback call it what you like is best dealt with locally. The same applies to imprisonment which is necessary for crimes where only that sentence can be appropriate but even then it should be dealt with as locally as possible. It’s vital in assisting rehabilitation which surely must be part of the purpose, as well as punishment.

But last week in Westminster, I listened to Tory MPs baying as Boris Johnson boasted about sending foreign criminals home. Boorish and ignorant but it was no change from a normal Prime Minister’s Questions.

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It always amused me that some, especially voluble Tories, who demanded deportation of foreign offenders were outraged when our own transgressors were brought home. Nasty Johnny Foreigner was to be sent packing but our own were to be left over there, wherever that might be. I had to explain to them that’s not how it works but as with Brexit, the “have cake and eat it” mentality runs strong.

Only a threat to himself

There might have been some justification for the palaver in Parliament had it been about sending foreign criminals home. That’s something I’ve always supported, for not only does it assist in reform but families who have never committed any crime, suffer from the enforced absence. But these weren’t foreigners but our own who just happened to have been born abroad.

This is the only land that many of them know. It’s where they’ve been brought up and where their families stay. It’s here that they harmed, here that they must be punished and to here that they should return on release.

For it’s many years ago now that as Justice Secretary I met an Australian staying in a Christian hostel in Edinburgh and I’m still somewhat haunted by it. He was a few years younger than me but nearing 50, if not beyond it. His parents had emigrated from Scotland with him as a babe in arms. He’d grown up in Australia and knew no other land, certainly not the country of his birth.

But he’d fallen by the wayside and got involved in criminality. At the end of his sentence, he was deported back to the UK, as he’d never bothered to take out citizenship, let alone acquire a passport. His parents had died and close friends and what little family he had were in Australia.

There may have been distant cousins in some small town in the west of Scotland, but he’d never met them, and they’d hardly welcome a convicted felon knocking at their door. He was alone, penniless and far from home. He was only a threat to himself and it was shameful.

Tories whoop and holler

Yet that’s what the Prime Minister is doing to others. Young, supposedly Jamaican laddies who have as much idea of Kingston, as that Australian had of Edinburgh, are being deported. It’s repugnant.

Punished they must be but in their homeland, which is the UK. That’s where their families live and it’s important for reform that they keep in contact with them, never mind that the families are punished by their incarceration and shouldn’t have that compounded by exile.

About the same time as meeting the Antipodean, I was introduced to Gerry Conlon who was one of the Guildford Four. He and his father were stitched up and then locked up in an appalling miscarriage of justice. I spoke to him and read his biography that he kindly gave me. It was desolate and sad. He narrated how his old mother who had lived in Belfast was required to travel across the Irish Sea to meet her husband and son.

Not sated with the beatings they’d given them and the injustice they’d then inflicted upon them, the authorities would then deliberately separate them. One would be sent north to say Durham whilst the other languished in Parkhurst or somewhere in the south.

His old mother then had the invidious choice of seeing her husband or her son, but not both as she didn’t drive and the distances were too great. Utterly repugnant and such a tragedy that he died so young and so soon after his long overdue release.

So, as the Tory benches whooped and hollered, I thought of that sad and lonely Australian and old Mrs Conlan and was disgusted. It’s a prison sentence these men should serve not permanent exile and the families also have rights.