07 October 2006

Always there when you need them

Things are so much easier to deal with when you take a European approach, with colleagues working in a spirit of solidarity to resolve matters that mere nation states cannot handle. At least, that is what the Europhiles are always telling us.

However – as always – when practice meets theory, it is a slightly different story. With our prisons bursting at the seams, set to reach absolute capacity within days, home secretary John Reid was in Luxembourg yesterday. He was asking his EU counterparts if they would take their own jailed nationals back and bang them up in their own prisons, thus – albeit temporarily – relieving the pressure on the British system.

Of the 79,843 prisoners in England and Wales – against a maximum capacity of 79,968 – it turns out that there are nearly 2,000 from other EU countries, the biggest group - 649 inmates – coming from Ireland. Poland comes a poor second with 155, France is third with 148 and Portugal and Germany have, respectively, 143 and 115. By contrast, less than 800 Brish nationals are banged up in the prisons of EU member states.

But, despite Reid's pleas, the "colleagues" have refused to deliver (or collect, in this case). Apparently, the justice ministers from Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Spain, Ireland and Poland all raised objections to a plan which would allow criminals convicted in any one EU member state to serve their sentences in their home countries.

So far, this idea have been under consideration by justice ministers of the member states for over two years and, despite the urgency of the current situation - with only days left before the Home Office is going to have to dump prisoners in police cells - the EU is still acting with the speed of a somnambulant mollusc. Having failed yet again to reach agreement, ministers do not anticipate reconsidering the issue again until December.

Even then, according to a spokeswoman for the Home Office, an agreement could take "a number of years" and plans are still at the draft stage. Issues which have to be resolved include whether member states could refuse to take back unwanted prisoners and whether prisoners should have a right to refuse transfer.

All this notwithstanding, for once the perfidious British are not being at all unreasonable. Foreign national are twice as likely to commit crimes than the indigenous population and the exponential rise in the prison population has been largely fuelled by foreign nationals.

In 1997, the number stood at 4,677 but, by 2005, the latest year for which data are available, it had surged to 10,089. Thus, in 1997 foreign nationals made up 7.6 percent of the prison population. Last year, they constituted a little under 14 percent.

Needless to say though, this is largely a British problem, reflecting the disproportionately high numbers of immigrants we are accepting. Because of that, one cannot possibly expect the "colleagues" to rush to our aid. We need to remember that "solidarity" is all about give and take. We give – they take – except when we want them to take their criminals back, in which case we find them in an unusually giving mood.

It is so nice to know that our European partners are there for us when we need them.