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Monday, 3 March 1997
Page: 1667

Mr ANDREWS(12.31 p.m.) —On behalf of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, I present the committee's advisory report on the International Transfer of Prisoners Bill 1996, together with the minutes of proceedings and evidence received by the committee.

Ordered that the report be printed.

Mr ANDREWS —I am pleased to be able to present to the House the report of the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs on the International Transfer of Prisoners Bill 1996. I also table the minutes and evidence of the inquiry. The committee was asked by the House to consider the bill and to prepare an advisory report.

The object of the International Transfer of Prisoners Bill is to enable Australians imprisoned overseas and foreign nationals imprisoned in Australia to be returned to their home countries to complete their sentences. The bill is the first formal step in establishing a transfer scheme for Australia. Other steps include the states and territories passing complementary legislation and Australia entering into treaties with other countries providing for the processes and conditions which will govern the transfers between our countries.

As the bill is the product of the combined efforts of the federal, state and territory governments, the committee sought evidence from the various government authorities involved in the development of the legislation. The committee also took evidence when it visited the Parklea Correctional Centre at Blacktown, New South Wales. At Parklea, the committee held discussions with the governor and took formal evidence from a prisoner who is a foreign national and who would, if Australia had an international transfer of prisoners scheme, be interested in transferring to another country to serve the remainder of his sentence. That prisoner also told us in conversation of other prisoners in similar circumstances.

The committee also received written evidence from an Australian who is imprisoned in an overseas gaol and who wishes to transfer to Australia to serve the remainder of his sentence. Other evidence was received from the families of prisoners serving prison sentences overseas, the Human Rights Commissioner, the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties, the Public Defenders Office and the International Commission of Jurists and various academics. Also, the committee received statements from other organisations saying that they did not wish to make a written submission or give oral evidence because they were satisfied with the contents of the bill.

Much evidence supported having the international transfer of prisoners scheme in place so that Australians overseas, and foreign nationals in Australia, can enjoy the benefits of transfer as soon as possible. Not surprisingly perhaps, the prisoners who provided evidence to the inquiry were strongly in favour of transferring as soon as possible.

The committee noted that the prisoners themselves were completely accepting of the fact that they had broken a country's laws and deserved to be the subject of punishment.    The distinction the prisoners made, however, was that the punishment was more severe because of the tyranny of distance from their families and because of language, religious and cultural differences. The prisoners also felt that the weight of their punishment was all the greater for their families because they were imprisoned in a foreign country. The prisoners' claims for transfer were founded on their wishes to be close to their families as soon as possible, and thereby to ease the hardships the families faced.

The families of Australians in gaol overseas provided the most compelling evidence in favour of the transfer scheme commencing as soon as possible. The stories of the hardships endured by members of the families of the several prisoners the committee received evidence about were moving. The committee believes that no-one would view such evidence and not support the humanitarian purpose of the bill or not wish to offer encouragement for the transfer scheme to commence as soon as possible.

This legislation has its origins in the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General, or SCAG. In the standing committee, ministers from all the states and mainland territories together with the federal ministers have spent many hours developing this transfer regime for transfers involving Australia. No doubt this was one of the reasons why there is such a high degree of satisfaction with the bill and the transfer scheme that the bill intends to introduce. Experience has shown that it is never an easy task to achieve agreement when so many jurisdictions are involved as it requires a true spirit of compromise. The committee commends the work of the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General in developing the transfer scheme and the subsequent legislation.

The committee is aware nonetheless that, despite the high level of success of this joint project, some jurisdictions still have reservations about the scheme. In some cases these reservations may be strong enough to prevent the scheme from becoming a truly national one. The scheme will be compromised if even one state or territory does not pass the complementary legislation necessary to enable the scheme to work in Australia. Such an outcome would be most unfortunate, as it would mean that Australians would not have equal access to the transfer regime, and the hardship for families of those prisoners would be prolonged unnecessarily.

Indeed some prisoners may be prevented from ever returning to Australia to complete their sentences because of the requirement for community ties in the bill.

The committee believes that all Australians should have equal access to the international transfer of prisoners scheme as soon as possible. The committee urges all states and territories therefore to take part in the scheme and to pass complementary legislation as a matter of priority. A critical feature of the general transfer scheme is that it requires a three-way consent: firstly, of the prisoner concerned; secondly, of the transfer country; and, thirdly, of Australia—including any involved state or territory government. Accordingly, there are four consents required for an Australian prisoner: from the prisoner, the transfer country, the Commonwealth and the relevant state or territory.

The committee agrees with the argument that the consent of the prisoner should be an informed consent. Prisoners should not be required to make decisions about transferring without at least the opportunity of obtaining information about the prison conditions in the country they wish to transfer to. The committee therefore recommended that regulations provide that prisoners be given information about either prison conditions in the country they wish to transfer to or relevant organisations that provide such information prior to making the decision about being transferred to that country.

On a further matter, as this bill introduces an important new scheme, the committee has also recommended that the operation of the legislation be reviewed by the Attorney-General's Department annually and that a report of that review be tabled in the parliament. The recommendations on the International Transfer of Prisoners Bill 1996 are not contentious and I doubt that accepting them would result in any undue delay of the passage of the bill. I do believe, however, that they will enhance the operation of Australia's international transfer of prisoners scheme. I commend the report to the House.