Published on 18 Nov 2012 Sections

MPs prepare for showdown on votes for prisoners

Parliament is set to vote again this week on whether to comply with a European ruling on the controversial issue.

The current blanket ban on prisoners voting has been judged as unlawful by The European Court of Human Rights and officials in Strasbourg have given the government until Friday to comply with the ruling.

But last year the Commons voted by an overwhelming margin of 234 to 22 for the blanket ban to be maintained.

A new government bill due to be published on Thursday will reportedly give MPs three options: votes for prisoners who have been imprisoned for four years or less, votes for those in jail for six months or less, or no votes for prisoners at all.

Another rejection of the Strasbourg ruling raises the prospect of a fine for the government.

Attorney General Dominic Grieve says the Strasbourg court’s ruling imposes an international legal obligation on the UK.

Prisoners are not getting the vote under this government. David Cameron

But the Prime Minister told the Commons last month: “I do not want prisoners to have the vote, and they should not get the vote – I am very clear about that.

“If it helps to have another vote in Parliament on another resolution to make it absolutely clear and help put the legal position beyond doubt, I am happy to do that.

“But no one should be in any doubt: prisoners are not getting the vote under this government.”

In 2005, the ECRH said it was up to individual countries to decide which prisoners should be denied the right to vote from jail, but that a total ban was illegal.

Human rights barrister Carl Gardner, a former government lawyer, told Channel4 News the new bill is essentially a delaying tactic, with the government fulfilling one part of the obligations to Strasbourg in the hope of having compensation claims against it struck out by the court.

Mr Gardner said: “The government feels that it’s under an obligation to bring forward legislation to deal with this issue.

“Simply by tabling this legislation in parliament, the government will have succeeded in complying with an important part of the key judgement that the European Court of Human Rights has laid down.

“There still is the question of implementing changes to legislation. The Strasbourg court has required that too. If parliament refuses to do so, all this will come back.

“But we will be in a longer game after next week, whatever happens, and the government will be pleased to have returned this to a diplomatic battle.

“The government would like this to be as slow-motion a crunch as it can possibly be. The slower this can be, the more time the government can gain, the easier this will be to manage, both politically and legally.

‘Civic death’

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “Is it wise for the government to flout international law, face a substantial fine and millions in mounting compensation claims, ignore the advice of its attorney general, prison governors, bishops to, and inspectors of, prison, and take up parliamentary time and taxpayers’ money in order to stop sentenced prisoners from acting responsibly by voting in democratic elections?

“People are sent to prison to lose their liberty not their identity. A 19th-century penalty of civic death makes no sense in a 21st-century prison system whose focus is on rehabilitation, resettlement and the prevention of re-offending.”

Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said a vote on legislation would strengthen the UK’s argument that it should retain its ban – which is backed by Labour.

“You have to keep going back to the european court on this because I think the job of the european court is to look at what is proportionate, what is responsible,” she told the BBC