Deporting foreigners: making the punishment fit the crime?
I seem to be alone in deploring the current clamour for deporting every last foreigner who has been convicted of any offence, however minor, and even where the sentencing judge has made no recommendation for deportation. Spokespersons for all three major political parties seem to be competing for the electoral prize for the harshest and most extreme deporter of Johnny Foreigner (presumably the BNP wants to deport them all anyway, whether or not they have been convicted of any offence). One minister has even spoken of her hopes of hitting a 'target' for the numbers of foreigners deported.
A resident of this country who happens to hold another country's passport, but has lived in Britain since early childhood and has no other home, perhaps married to a UK citizen and a parent of children who are UK citizens (who can't, of course, be deported), would suffer one of the most brutal punishments imaginable if deported after serving a few weeks' imprisonment for a quite minor offence. Yet our politicians seem bent on making deportation of offending aliens automatic, regardless of extenuating circumstances or the effects on the offender's family.
When a senior prison service official issued a moderately worded circular suggesting that there was no interest in deporting aliens sent to prison for less than two years, all hell broke loose, with accusations flying about to the effect that the prime minister's promise was being broken and that the country would be flooded with footpads, assassins and rapists if foreigners given shorter sentences than two years were not after all going to be deported. Officials hastily back-tracked:
Ms Homer, chief executive of the BIA [Border and Immigration Agency], played down the significance of the memo, saying it was in line with government policy – and offenders jailed for less than a year could still be deported if a court recommends it. She added: "The prime minister was categorical earlier this year that we are committed to the removal of foreign national prisoners who commit serious crimes in this country. "Nothing in this document changes that and, in fact, this year we have removed more foreign nationals than ever before. We have repeatedly said we will target the most dangerous first, which is why we are initially targeting those who have served more than 12 months."
Chris Huhne, almost elected leader of the Liberal Democrats and reputed to be more 'liberal' and radical than Nick Clegg who narrowly beat him for the job, was as savage in his condemnation as his Tory counterpart. The BBC's full account of the uproar is well worth reading.
Let's hope that we shall soon hear from Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, about this ugly manifestation of paranoid xenophobia — and, even better, from the courts, which will surely take a view on whether deporting an alien who has served a sentence for a minor offence, where there has been no court recommendation for deportation, is compatible with the offender's human rights under the Act and the Convention: is the punishment (for that's plainly what it is) proportionate to the offence? does deportation deprive him or her of the right to family life? is such a punishment, imposed by executive order without due process through the criminal courts, in breach of the right to a fair trial? The government will argue that the right to deport aliens under immigration laws and rules belongs by long tradition to the executive, but the courts have increasingly insisted that where an immigration act shades into punishment, the government must observe basic rules of equity and fairness, including those laid down ion the Human Rights Act. The sooner we get a court ruling on this shoddy and disreputable practice, the better.
This was the issue over which the hapless Charles Clarke lost his job and his career back in May 2006; his successors have obviously learned the lesson. Come back, David Blunkett, John Reid, Michael Howard: all is, apparently, forgiven! (Jack Straw needs no invitation to come back: crafty as an eel, he has never been away.)
Gordon Brown should be ashamed of himself for caving in to this cheap Daily-Mail-driven populism. In the immortal words of Joseph Welch, the US Army's lawyer, addressed to Senator McCarthy in 1953, "You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"