Holyrood clash over Blunkett jail fees
SCOTTISH Executive ministers are to thwart David Blunkett’s controversial plans to charge victims of miscarriages of justice for their time in prison, it emerged last night.
The Home Secretary will this week appeal to the Royal Courts of Justice for permission to charge all those who have been wrongly convicted for the costs of accommodation during their time in prison.
Under the plans, those who have been locked up and then had their conviction quashed would be liable for a bill of about 3,200 a year.
It is a levy which would mean bills of about 50,000 for each of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, all released after their jail convictions were quashed.
The proposals have proved hugely contentious both with opposition politicians and support groups for the victims of miscarriages of justice, who are extremely critical of Mr Blunkett for contemplating such a scheme.
But the Scottish Executive will refuse to adopt the plan, paving the way for a major policy split between Holyrood and Westminster.
An Executive spokesman stressed that it had "no plans to introduce charging" for victims of miscarriages of justice - a direct snub to Mr Blunkett’s plans for England.
This represents the latest in a series of increasingly serious rifts between the two administrations which have strained the relationships between ministers.
Just last week a compromise had to be thrashed out to satisfy Scottish ministers, who wanted to ban GM crops, and the Westminster government, which wanted to allow them to be grown.
Other major areas of disagreement have included free care for the elderly - which was introduced in Scotland but not England - and foundation hospitals and top-up fees for students, which are being brought in south of the Border but ignored by the Scottish Executive.
But this latest spat is particularly embarrassing for the Home Office because it will give opponents of the scheme the ammunition they require to take on the government.
They will point to the refusal of the Lab-Lib administration in Edinburgh to endorse the plan, to back up their arguments.
A Tory spokesman said his party supported the Executive’s stance. He said: "These are quite astonishing plans by the Home Secretary. The Scottish Executive’s cool response seems right to us.
"If someone is innocent, should never have been imprisoned or have been a victim of a miscarriage of justice, to make them pay for their board and lodging only rubs salt into already sore wounds."
Nicola Sturgeon, for the SNP, said the Executive had seen the folly of Mr Blunkett’s proposals. She said: "This Executive has become the byword for tokenistic attempts at prison reform.
"But even it is embarrassed by David Blunkett’s latest outrageous suggestion.
"This should not even be considered by the Executive in Scotland.
"Ministers have done well to recognise so clearly that Labour will not get away with this move north of the Border."
Mr Blunkett’s proposals are based on the argument that the innocent men and women would have spent the money he proposes to reclaim on food and lodgings anyway, if they were not in prison, describing the clawback as "saved living expenses".
The clawback was first recommended by the government-appointed independent compensation assessor, Sir David Calcutt, now replaced by Lord Brennan, who was told to work out what the victims of miscarriages of justice should be given.
Sir David decided that the innocent men and women should have deducted from their compensation the costs incurred by the government for their food, clothes and lodgings.
The first bills were sent out and were subsequently challenged through the courts by the victims.
This week the Home Office appeal against that legal challenge will be heard. A Home Office spokesman defended the assessor’s judgment by saying "morally this is reasonable and appropriate".
He said: "An independent assessor appointed by the Home Secretary takes into account the range of costs that the prisoner might have incurred had they not been imprisoned."
Paddy Hill, one of the Birmingham Six, was furious with the government for the charging plans.
Mr Hill was in jail for 16 years before his conviction was quashed. He has been charged with 50,000 for living expenses.
He said: "To charge me for the food I ate and the cell I slept in is almost as big an injustice as fitting me up in the first place."
And he added: "While I was in prison, my family lost their home, yet they have got no compensation. But the state wants its money back. Its like being kicked in the head when someone has beaten you already."
VICTIMS of miscarriages of justice will be watching this week’s court case with interest.
If it goes the government’s way they could end up being penalised to the tune of thousands of pounds.
Some of the high-profile cases include:
• Stephen Dowling, who was convicted of murder in 1974. That conviction was finally overturned by three High Court judges in January 2002 after he had served 27 years in prison.
He can expect a bill of 86,400 for the food, clothing and accommodation provided by the state during his time inside.
• The Guildford Four had their convictions quashed by the Court of Appeal in 1989 after 15 years in jail, following an extensive inquiry into the original police investigation.
They had been jailed for life in 1975 for bombing pubs in Guildford which left five people dead and more than 100 injured.
They can expect bills of around 48,000 each for their time in prison.
• The Birmingham Six spent 16 years behind bars after being convicted of the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings conducted by the IRA.
One of them, Paddy Hill, was awarded 960,000 in compensation. He has received 300,000 so far, but the government has charged him interest on the interim payments, costing him 70,000 already.
He and his fellow members of the Birmingham Six can expect bills of 50,000 from the Home Office for living expenses.
• John Kamara was freed after 19 years in March 2000, when his conviction for the murder of a Liverpool bookmaker was overturned.
He could receive a bill of 60,800 for his time in prison.
• Paddy Meehan, who was wrongfully convicted of the murder of Rachel Ross in 1969, received a royal pardon in 1976, seven years into his life sentence.
He can probably count himself relatively lucky if he receives a bill for just 22,400 from the Home Office.
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