When my mobile phone rang on Boxing Day my immediate thought was that it could only have been bad news.
To my delight, I was wrong. I was given the news that my former constituent, Billy Burton, a Thalidomide victim imprisoned in the Philippines had been pardoned and pending release.
Billy was imprisoned 20 years ago for smuggling and those who have been following the campaign to secure Billy’s release will know that I have been extremely vocal in saying that Billy was foolish in his actions and it was right that he received a custodial sentence for his crime but the circumstances following Billy’s imprisonment have caused great concern.
Billy pleaded guilty and accepted his 20-year sentence with parole after eight years. Mid sentence a retrospective change in legislation increased Billy’s sentence to 40 years. In the UK, Billy would have served three years for the same crime.
Bilibid Prison has thousands of inmates and is very much a fight for survival every day.
Like many Thalidomide victims, Billy’s health has deteriorated rapidly, with loss of hearing, less mobility and severe pain through muscular skeletal advanced ageing.
In my view, Billy has served his punishment for the crime he admits was a ‘stupid mistake’ and his failing health convinced me that his case was worth taking forward.
With the Wetherby News campaign up and running and the Thalidomide Trust engaged, I teamed up with Guy Tweedy and progressed the matter with the Ambassador and the Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne.
In view of the Foreign Office’s reluctance to interfere with the judicial systems of foreign nations, I am delighted that our approach of cohesive diplomacy secured Billy’s release.
I look forward to meeting Billy when he is back in Britain and I am pleased he has a home and work to go into.
I am hopeful that Billy will now use his experience to educate young people in my constituency and across Leeds about the dangers and risks of drugs and crime.
Meanwhile, back in the Commons we hit the ground running in the Department for Transport with an Adjournment debate, Questions to the Secretary of State for Transport and a Ministerial Statement on High Speed Rail (HS2).
For a long time I have been a huge advocate of a High Speed Rail link to Leeds so I am delighted that the Government have made such a commitment.
The opportunities for jobs and growth that will arise from HS2 will bring so much to our regional economy and with London just over an hour away by train it makes Leeds accessible for day to day business in London and the South not mention the benefits it will have on eradicating the North/South divide.
I look forward to working closely with the City planners to make sure that discussions on station locations look at the long term infrastructure required for businesses and commuters in order to maximise our opportunities to profit from the Capital.
Alec Shelbrooke MP