THE POLL TAX: £22 debt puts mother in prison

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Jane Count is no criminal. She is a young mother who has suffered post-natal depression since the birth of her baby 18 months ago. And a young woman who, separated from her husband, has managed to bring up her daughter Emily and keep herself on £5

6 a week income support.

Yet last week she found herself in New Hall prison, Wakefield - strip searched and detained in the hospital wing alongside a woman convicted of killing her father, another sectioned under the Mental Health Act who had tried to kill someone and a third who had just slashed her own wrists. Jane's "offence" was that she was £22 in arrears with her poll tax. She was a debtor - not a villain.

She spent two nights in prison before lawyers gained a High Court order securing her release pending a full review of Lincoln magistrates' decision to jail her for nine days. It is a case she will almost certainly win. Earlier High Court rulings lay downthat magistrates should use their powers to enforce payment rather than to punish and that they should only use imprisonment as a last resort.

Fortunately for Jane, 23, her mother was able to look after Emily, otherwise she would have gone into care. Richard Wise, her solicitor, said yesterday: "I am appalled that magistrates should have felt it was appropriate to send this vulnerable young woman to prison."

Jane had in fact been making efforts to clear her arrears. She had originally owed £66.