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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 September 2005, 10:21 GMT 11:21 UK
Council tax rebel released early
Sylvia Hardy returns home
Back Home: Sylvia Hardy returned to her flat after being released
Pensioner Sylvia Hardy has been freed less than two days into a seven-day jail term after a mysterious donor paid her 53.71 council tax arrears.

Ms Hardy was jailed on Monday after refusing to pay an increase more than the rate of inflation on her tax bill.

But her arrears were paid by a "Mr Brown", so prison officials were duty-bound to release her.

However, the 73-year-old, from Exeter, Devon, said she was disappointed not to have served her full sentence.

I was taken out lying on the back seat with a sheet over my body - a bit James Bondish, isn't it?
Sylvia Hardy

Ms Hardy, who argues the tax is unfair on retired people, had been due to be freed on Friday, but was released on Tuesday night.

She was the first female pensioner to be jailed in England for refusing to pay a rise in her bill over the rate of inflation.

Ms Hardy said: "The prison governor was hounded from the moment I got into prison by a mysterious Mr Brown, as he called himself.

"He left two contact numbers, one in Bristol and one in London, said he was a Christian and that he wanted to pay my debt.

"But the thing that worried us all was that he wanted me to be released to him. The governor's duty was to my safety, so he refused the offer and I went along with that.

"But this man reported the governor to the authorities, saying I was being held illegally because an offer had been made to pay the debt."

'Automatic release'

She said "hasty arrangements" were then made to release her.

"A car came straight inside the prison and I was taken out lying on the back seat with a sheet over my body - a bit James Bondish, isn't it?"

A Home Office spokesman said: "Any individual who is imprisoned for non-payment of tax is automatically released if the sum is subsequently paid."

Ms Hardy said: "I suddenly thought this man is called Mr Brown. Could he be called Gordon?"

However, the Treasury said there was no truth in any suggestion the Chancellor was personally involved in her case.

Ms Hardy added that she thought it might have been a malicious gesture to disrupt her protest rather than a well-meaning but misguided gesture.

"Surely there's a human rights element? Surely the person who owes the money has the right to say whether they want this debt paid or not?

Sylvia Hardy
Sylvia Hardy has said she was angered her protest was halted
"I don't think other people should be allowed to make those decisions."

She added she did not blame the prison authorities for her release from Eastwood Park Prison, in Gloucestershire, as they had been obliged to free her once the payment had been made.

She said: "I was treated very courteously and very kindly and efficiently by the prison officers, and I was certainly treated very well by the inmates who for obvious reasons, knowing the reason why I was in there, took me to their hearts."

Magistrates on Monday said they had no choice other than to jail Ms Hardy and that she should not be seen as "a martyr".

She told Exeter Magistrates' Court that she was fighting to change a law she saw as unjust.

She had faced a 683 council tax bill for her two-bedroom flat.


SEE ALSO
Joining the pensioners' protest
10 Sep 03 |  Business

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