Mrs Gardner died on Sunday night, some days after an early morning raid by five police officers and an immigration officer attempting to serve her with a deportation order. The incident is reminiscent of the events leading up to the Broadwater Farm riots, in which shots were fired and a policeman hacked to death. The violence there erupted after a black woman, Cynthia Jarrett, died during a police raid on her north London home in October 1985.
The few undisputed facts are these: Mrs Gardner, then single, arrived in this country on a six- month visitor's visa in 1987. Her visa lapsed and for almost three years she lived as an illegal immigrant. This, of course, is a serious criminal offence.
In 1990 she applied to legalise her position. By then she had a two-year-old son and had (very recently) acquired a husband. But the marriage appeared to have broken down within weeks. Her husband declined to support her application, and it was turned down. Mrs Gardner was served with 'a notice of intention to deport'. For the next couple of years her lawyers sought to persuade the Home Secretary that there were 'compelling and compassionate circumstances' not to send her back to the West Indies. They were unsuccessful.
A deportation order was signed in April 1992, but by then the immigration authorities were once again unable to trace Mrs Gardner, who, they felt, had shown a marked propensity to vanish at crucial moments. Eventually she was found and her lawyers were given notice in two letters dated 26 and 27 July 1993 that arrangements for her deportation would 'shortly be made'.
At 8am on 28 July, two hours before these letters were opened, the authorities descended on Mrs Gardner's flat with instructions to 'detain and remove her'. (This is what the police euphemistically call a 'visit'.) The visitors included three escorting officers, two uniformed members of the local police and one immigration officer. The five police officers were from the Metropolitan Police, which was acting under the direct instruction of the Home Office.
The Police Complaints Authority is investigating the incident at the request of the Metropolitan Police, under Section 88 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. According to Scotland Yard, Mrs Gardner (whose five-year-old son was with her during the raid) became abusive and violent and had to be restrained. She collapsed, stopped breathing and was given mouth- to-mouth resuscitation before being taken to hospital.
Now Mrs Gardner is dead, so we will never know her version of events. Perhaps she found the police who had descended en masse on her smart little housing association flat abusive and violent, or at least intimidating and offensive. Perhaps she had reason. Scotland Yard says that one of their team was a woman, but that it would be 'very offensive indeed to the officers concerned' to say whether any of them were Afro-Caribbean or Asian.
What is clear is that the affair will consolidate prejudices. The PCA should ask itself whether it really ought to take six officers to detain one woman and her young child. William McCall, the former general secretary of the Institution of Professional Civil Servants, who is conducting the investigation, might inquire further as to why such an encounter should end with Mrs Gardner unconscious in the intensive care unit. After all, the excuse for the deployment of overwhelming force is that it deters violence. And would the police have treated a white woman with greater sensitivity?
Other observers, who include MPs such as Winston Churchill, who has made illegal immigration his big issue, will approach things from a very different angle. Why, they might ask, did it take almost six years between the expiry of a visitor's visa and a serious attempt being made to deport the overstayer? Is not such laxness an invitation to buck the system?
In 1992 - the last year for which figures are available - the Home Office made 881 deportation orders, as against 3,524 'notices of intention to deport', the previous stage in the process of expulsion. Judicial review, ministerial discretion and voluntary departure resolve most of these 'intention to deport' cases.
But even when a formal deportation order has been made, it can be executed in several ways. In most cases the order is sent to the applicant or his/her solicitor. In other cases it will be delivered to the applicant by immigration officers, who set a time and place for departure. (This is rather like the procedure under which some criminals, accompanied by their lawyers, surrender themselves by agreement at a police station.)
Only in extreme cases is it deemed necessary to 'detain and remove' the unsuccessful applicant, as was the intention in Mrs Gardner's case. (To detain and remove means, in effect, to arrest and hold until the unsuccessful applicant can be bundled on to a plane.) The procedure is adopted only if there is reason to believe that the applicant will either abscond - perhaps because they are rootless or because they are suspected of involvement in serious criminal activities - or are likely to turn up seeking sanctuary in a church or similar building under the protection of progressive clergy and political activists. Viraj Mendis, a Sri Lankan Trotskyist, successfully sought sanctuary for two years in a Manchester church before being forcibly evicted and sent back to his homeland.
Where detention is deemed appropriate, an element of surprise is, however regrettably, necessary. (Police with a warrant to arrest Burglar Bill do not drop him a note first to let him know they are coming.) Yet Mrs Gardner was not (as far as we are aware) a Yardie camp-follower or a member of a revolutionary sect with a network of comrades to conceal her and her son.
The PCA inquiry can, at least in theory, judge whether the police acted properly on that wet summer morning. Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, has asked a junior minister to look into the background to the case. But this informal and secretive procedure will offer the public little reassurance. It would take a full public inquiry to discover whether the Home Secretary had reasonable grounds for asking the Met to seize her at all.
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