10 Feb 2011

MP revolt on prisoners’ right to vote ‘could cost £143m’

Ignoring a European ruling giving prisoners the right to vote could cost the Government £143m in compensation claims, reports Channel 4 News Political Editor Gary Gibbon.

European law could see prisoner vote in UK (Reuters)

A government source told Channel 4 News Political Editor Gary Gibbon that new legal advice detailing the potential cost of any decision to reject the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling over prisoners’ rights to vote had been given to the Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and the Attorney General last night.

Mr Clarke has highlighted that an ECHR ruling should give prisoners the vote, though a number of Conservative MPs are expected to support a Commons motion arguing the decision is a matter for “democratically-elected lawmakers”.

This position was given yet more support on Wednesday when Prime Minister David Cameron agreed: ” I don’t see any reason why prisoners should get the vote”.

We are not going to give the vote to any more prisoners than was necessary to comply with the law. Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke

Members of the cabinet and shadow cabinet have been told to abstain from voting and the motion will not be binding. The motion’s major goal is to halt a removal of the current blanket ban on all prisoners’ rights to vote – which has been in place for 140 years – then to work with the ECHR on a compromise.

Gary Gibbon writes: Am away from Westminster making a film so will miss the prisoner votes debate later today in the Commons. But a government source tells me that the government has brand new legal advice in its pocket warning that it would be liable for compensation claims of £143m if it flouted the ECHR and withheld voting rights from prisoners. The new legal advice went to Ken Clarke, Nick Clegg and the Attorney General last night. 

That'll cut little ice with Tory backbench rebels. They've been warned in general terms of compensation claims before and I remember the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke warning them to their faces in the Commons that they needed to face up to reality and not raise the stakes and profile of the issue because it would only make it more difficult for them when the day comes to enact the ECHR will.

Read Gary Gibbon's blog - Prisoner votes: new legal advice for government

Mr Clarke has refused to consider a withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights over the issue: “We have to fulfil our obligations. But we are not going to give the vote to any more prisoners than was necessary to comply with the law.”

MPs had initially suggested a system where prisoners serving terms under four years could retain the right to vote, but this has since been revised to those who are serving short terms of under a year.

The concept is simple, if you break the law you cannot make the law. Former Shadow Home Secretary David Davis

The Conservative MP David Davis, who fought for the motion to be heard alongside former Home Secretary Jack Straw, kicked off the debate by spelling out the two major issues that brought the motion.

“Firstly, is the requirement to give prisoners the vote sensible, just and proper,” he said. “And secondly who should decide on this issue? Should it be the ECHR or should it be the Government of the British people? Prisoners of course have rights, not to be ill treated, the right to be fed, kept warm, given shelter but these rights do not extend to the rights of a British citizen.

“The concept is simple, if you break the law you cannot make the law”.

Jack Straw said that most prisoners accept the loss of the right to vote as part of their punishment: “In 32 years in this House of the hundreds of complaints which I have dealt with, neither I nor my staff can recall one letter from a real prisoner calling for the right to vote from prison, not one.”

But the Commons debate was dominated by the UK versus EU supremacy argument.

Mr Straw highlighted that – unlike other democracies with Supreme Courts, such as Germany or USA, where decisions could be overturned by democratic amendment – the UK’s relationship with the ECHR does not contain such a provision.

As a lifetime voter I would have appreciated the chance to vote during my sentence. Ex-prisoner, Paul Newman

Channel 4 News spoke to ex-prisoner Paul Newman who has campaigned for greater rights for prisoners. He said the process of educating inmates about elections is a vital tool for preparing them to fit successfully into society on release

“As far as I can see, it should be a part of the rehabilitation process, and they should be encouraged, educated, to take an interest in the people that will shape their community. A majority of prisoners have probably never voted. Education on the matter is an important way to prepare prisoners for returning to the community.”

Mr Newman went on to raise concerns about the plans to cap the number of inmates eligible to vote.

“I don’t see how limiting those who can vote will have a benefit. Aside from a handful of prisoners, most inmates will be released back into the community at some point. As a lifetime voter I would have appreciated the chance to vote during my sentence.”