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Prisoners’ Right to Vote

Volume 517: debated on Tuesday 2 November 2010

(Urgent question): To ask the Deputy Prime Minister if he will make a statement on the Government’s plans to give prisoners the vote.

The UK’s blanket ban on sentenced prisoners voting was declared unlawful by the grand chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in October 2005, as a result of a successful challenge by a prisoner, John Hirst. The Government accept, as did the previous Government, that as a result of the judgment of the Strasbourg Court in the Hirst case, there is a need to change the law. This is not a choice; it is a legal obligation. Ministers are currently considering how to implement the judgment, and when the Government have made a decision, the House will be the first to know.

Mr Speaker, you have yet again agreed to allow an urgent question so that we can ask the Government to account to the House for decisions that have been preannounced in the media. The news that prisoners are to be given the vote is a matter of great concern to the public. The House will note that the Deputy Prime Minister is not here to answer this important urgent question. I have 10 short questions for the Minister who is here to speak on his behalf.

When the previous Government consulted on this matter, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), who was then the shadow Secretary of State for Justice and is now the Attorney-General, described the prospect of giving prisoners the vote as “ludicrous”. Does the Minister share that view? One of the most troubling aspects of the European Court ruling is that it opens the door to the possibility of serious offenders being given the vote. Will he explain how the Government would ensure that serious offenders are not given the vote? Press reports suggest that sentence length will be the key determinant in deciding which prisoners can vote. If that is the case, what length of sentence do the Government have in mind? How will they ensure that prisoners who are guilty of serious offences but serving short sentences are not given the vote? Will the Minister provide details of the precise mechanics that prisoner voting will entail? Can he also tell us whether prisoners will be allowed to vote in referendums as well as elections?

The Prime Minister is reportedly “exasperated” and “furious” at having to agree to votes for prisoners. Does the Minister share that view? There is a strong sense that the decision is being forced on this country against the will both of the Government and of the people’s representatives in this Parliament. For the sake of public trust in British democracy, will the Minister who is standing in for the Deputy Prime Minister therefore agree that any legislation put before the House on this vital issue should be the subject of a free vote?

No one would have realised, listening to that, that the right hon. Gentleman was ever a member of the previous Government, who also accepted that the law needed to be changed, and accepted the judgment. I have looked carefully at the media reports, and all I can see is an expression by the Government, relating to what they are going to say in a pending legal case, that they must comply with the law. I would not have thought that explaining that the Government had to comply with the law was particularly revelatory. In fact, the right hon. Gentleman shared our view when he was in government. He was quite right to draw the House’s attention to the fact that the Prime Minister is exasperated. I suspect that every Member of the House is exasperated about this, but we have no choice about complying with the law.

The fact that the previous Government failed for five years to do what they knew was necessary has left our country in a much worse position, both because of the possibility of having to pay damages and because case law has moved on. The only thing that would be worse than giving prisoners the vote would be giving them the vote and having to pay them damages as well. That is the position that the previous Government left us in.

I shall now turn to the right hon. Gentleman’s questions. I made it clear in my statement that Ministers were considering how to implement the judgment, and when decisions have been taken they will be announced to the House at the Dispatch Box in the usual way. No decisions have been taken, and I am therefore unable to answer any of his questions at this time. The previous Government took five years to do nothing when they knew that something had to be done—in exactly the same way as they behaved in not dealing with the deficit. This Government have been in office for only a matter of months, but yet again our two parties are having to deal with the mess left behind by Labour.

Will the Minister explain how the damages figure of millions of pounds has been arrived at, bearing in mind that nobody has yet had a payment? If ever we are forced into paying out damages, I suggest that we knock them off the payments that we have to make to Brussels.

My hon. Friend should know that the European Court of Human Rights is based in Strasbourg, and that this is nothing to do with the European Union. The two issues are completely separate. We have been a signatory to the European convention on human rights for the best part of 60 years. Indeed, British lawyers helped to draft it after the second world war. There are currently more than 1,000 pending cases, and there is a real risk that judges will award millions of pounds in damages to be paid by our taxpayers to prisoners who have been denied the vote. That risk has been left to us by the inaction of the previous Government.

What estimate have the Government made of the cost to the honest law-abiding taxpayer of their decision to run up the white flag on this issue?

As I said, the previous Government and this Government have both accepted that the Government generally have to comply with the law. We are considering how to comply with it, and we will announce our decisions in due course. This is not a choice; it is an obligation. The hon. Gentleman needs to understand that the only way of avoiding this would be if he were prepared to leave the European convention, which his Front Benchers are not prepared to do.

Is my hon. Friend not being a little unfair to the previous Government, who, after all, had done a lot of detailed work on how they would eventually implement this provision? Is it not fairly clear that if the Government are saying to somebody, “You must be in prison, and you must abide by the law and the decision of the court,” they can hardly add, “But we will ignore the decisions of the courts”?

The right hon. Gentleman is right. The previous Government accepted that the law needed to be changed and brought forward a number of proposals to enfranchise prisoners, but they simply did not have the gumption to do anything. As ever, they left it behind for somebody else to clear up.

I have worked in prison, and I know that there are many hundreds of incarcerated people who should have no role whatever in this country’s democracy, and no say in how it is run. When will we be able to decide for which offences, and for which length of sentences, prisoners will remain excluded from the right to vote?

As I said in my statement and in my response to the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), Ministers are currently considering how to implement the judgment. When the Government have taken those decisions we will announce them to this House, which is the right thing to do. If we need to make changes in the law, we will bring our proposals before the House in the usual way.

Is this not another case of more legal nonsense from Europe? Is it not about time that we scrapped the Human Rights Act 1998 and introduced a British Bill of Rights—or at the very least repealed the Human Rights Act within a freedom Bill?

I am afraid that my hon. Friend has not followed this case very closely. If the Human Rights Act disappeared today, that would make no difference. The decision was made by the European Court in Strasbourg. British courts upheld our domestic law, which is why the decision was appealed to the Strasbourg Court. Even if the Human Rights Act disappeared tomorrow, I am afraid that the judgment would still stand.

Is the Minister aware that the Murdoch scribblers and other tabloid writers are busy writing the headline, “Tories soft on crime, and soft on the perpetrators of crime”?

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is so focused on what the Murdoch press is doing. The Government are considering how to comply with the law, just as the hon. Gentleman’s Government had to comply with it. The Government whom he supported accepted that the law had to be changed—[Interruption.] Or rather I should say, as has just been pointed out to me, the Government whom he sometimes supported. The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and others consulted on detailed proposals to change the law, but they just never got round to doing anything.

Does the Minister recognise that is there a great deal of exasperation on the Conservative Benches not just about the disgraceful change in the law, but about the fact that Labour Members are trying to present themselves as Eurosceptics when they signed up to every bit of European legislation that was put before them?

My hon. Friend has made his point very well. The synthetic outrage expressed by Labour Members whose Government accepted the need to comply with the law, consulted on proposals to do so, and yet again failed to make the necessary decisions—[Interruption.] The shadow Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Tooting, is yelling from a sedentary position. His party was in power for five years after the judgment was made, and did nothing about it. We have been in power for only six months, but we are getting on with considering how to implement the judgment, and when we have made our decisions, we will present them to the House.

It has not been a good couple of days for the Government as far as Europe is concerned. Yesterday we heard the ludicrous announcement of an increase in the EU budget, and today we have heard this announcement. Rather than uttering expressions of exasperation and frustration, will the Minister tell the House what the Government will do to bring powers back to the House on behalf of the British people?

Like others, the right hon. Gentleman is confusing the European Court and the European convention on human rights with the European Union. They have nothing to do with the European Union.

So the right hon. Gentleman must know that they are not in any way connected. We could do as he suggests only if Britain were to abrogate its signature to the European convention on human rights. Is that really what he wants us to do?

Will my right hon. Friend please explain, for the edification of the House, what would happen if the Government refused to accept the findings of the European Court of Human Rights, and what would happen if we accepted the findings but refused to make any compensatory payments?

My hon. Friend will know that 60 years ago Britain signed up to the European convention. [Interruption.] The shadow Justice Secretary is yelling again; he clearly needs telling again, so I will tell him again. Because Britain signed up to the European convention 60 years ago, it binds us legally. The Government must act in accordance with the law, as the previous Government accepted. The danger is that compensation payments will be awarded against us to prisoners. As I said earlier, the only thing worse than giving prisoners the vote would be giving them the vote and then having to give them compensation on top of that.

Before the Minister gets away with this nonsense that we did nothing—in fact, we held not one but two consultations on the issue—will he tell us on what occasion during those five years either he or any other member of his Front Bench, or Conservative Opposition Back Bencher, did anything other than call for us not to make any decisions about prisoner voting rights?

The right hon. Gentleman has proved the point that I made: he says that the Government consulted on doing something but failed to do anything. Five years passed after the judgment, and the right hon. Gentleman and the Government of whom he was a senior member did nothing in terms of implementing the judgment.

In the spirit of consensus, does the Minister agree that while there may be a case for allowing those who are guilty of the most minor offences to vote, it is clear that that cannot possibly apply to those who are guilty of the most serious offences?

The hon. Gentleman will know that Ministers are thinking about exactly how to implement the judgment, and are considering exactly the sort of issues that he has raised. When we have made our decisions, we will come and announce them to the House in the proper way.

I appreciate that this is a difficult and sensitive issue, and I know that many of my constituents will be shocked at the notion that murderers, rapists and child molesters should be given the vote, but can the Minister tell us more about how he will ensure that any attempt to determine whether people are given the vote on grounds of length of sentence or type of crime will be ECHR-compliant?

In respect of what the hon. Lady said in the first part of her question, she is leaping ahead. Ministers are considering how to deal with the judgment in the Hirst case. I should also explain that one of the problems with the previous Government’s inaction is that if they had implemented the judgment based on the decision in the Hirst case, we might well have been in a stronger position. As she will know—I am sure she follows this issue closely—case law has moved on. Ministers are considering these issues and, as I have said, when we have taken the decisions we will come and announce them to the House.

We in this place have a duty to represent the people who elect us and, almost to a man and woman, they will be saying, “No, no, no.” What is the point of having a sovereign Parliament if we have to bend down to the European Court on this? Surely we can help the Minister by having a vote and sending a strong message that we do not want this, and then he can go and negotiate it away.

My hon. Friend will know that we do have a sovereign Parliament but that about 60 years ago it signed up to the European convention on human rights and effectively made that part of our law and our legal obligations. The Government are following the judgment of the Court in implementing our legal obligations—nothing more and nothing less.

Armley jail in my constituency houses 1,128 prisoners, including 55 lifers. What assurance will the Minister give law-abiding citizens in Armley ward in Leeds West that their electorate will not increase by more than 1,000 and that their votes will not be diluted as a result of these changes?

The hon. Lady will know from what I said earlier that we are considering how to implement the Hirst judgment. When we have made those decisions we will announce them to the House, and she will be able to ask those specific questions at that time.

I would like my hon. Friend to assure the House how he is going to make sure that rapists, murderers and paedophiles will not have the right to vote in my constituency of South Staffordshire, and across this country.

My hon. Friend can be reassured by what I said earlier, which was that pretty much every Member on the Government Benches, from the Prime Minister down, is unhappy about having to implement this judgment. We are going to have to do it, however, but he can take it from the fact that we are not very happy about having to do that, that when deciding on the judgments we need to reach and in bringing our proposals forward, we will take into account everything that he has said.

Two Durham prisons contain 1,700 prisoners, including Ian Huntley, the Soham murderer. In the Minister’s deliberations, will he consider excluding individuals such as Huntley from getting the vote in Durham? Will he also consider the fact that 1,700 prisoners getting the vote in a marginal seat such as City of Durham could sway the outcome of an election?

The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly good point, of which the Government are well aware—and these are all exactly the sort of points that we are taking into account as we formulate our proposals.

Before the Government make their decision, will my hon. Friend and all his colleagues bear in mind that the ultimate expression of liberty is the right to vote, and that the principle is that it should be surrendered upon conviction and imprisonment?

My hon. Friend will know that that is exactly what our representation of the people legislation currently says, but that has been judged to be unlawful by the European Court, and the Government are in the position of having to implement that judgment—as were the previous Government. That is what we are wrestling with at the moment, and when we have made our decisions we will bring them before the House.

Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), will the Minister tell the House if the numbers of incarcerated prisoners in the UK will be used to help gerrymander the boundaries that the Government are proposing?

I wondered how long it was going to take before we had the first rather ridiculous question, and it took about 20 minutes.

In my 16 years at the criminal Bar, not one of my clients facing a custodial sentence has been upset at the prospect of losing his or her right to vote. Will the Minister please look with real care at the allegation that prisoners would receive huge sums in compensation? A report on the BBC says that the amount is some £700 per prisoner. If prisoners were to sue, I would urge the Government to take the view, “Bring it on.”

If only my hon. Friend had represented everybody who is currently in prison, perhaps they would not be there today. Unfortunately, a significant number of prisoners have brought legal cases against the Government; there are more than 1,000 pending. Even though the amounts payable in individual cases may not seem very high, if such an amount was awarded to a significant number of prisoners the bill would run into millions of pounds of hard-earned taxpayers’ money.

Order. It may be tempting—or otherwise—for the Minister to look behind him from time to time, but he must address the House.

The Minister has my sympathy, because he is on a sticky wicket today—if I may say so, he is doing a good job—and the truth is that the Deputy Prime Minister is on the run. He should be there answering to this House today. His junior is doing a better job than he could, but he should be here. On a specific point, may I ask whether it is the Minister’s personal view that people should have the vote where they are interned, or that they should have the choice of which constituency to vote in?

I will take the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question in the spirit in which it was intended. On the second part, we are of course considering how to implement the judgment. The sorts of issues that he has raised are ones that we are thinking about. When we have taken those decisions we will, of course, announce them to the House.

The shadow Secretary of State for Justice urged during his question that any legislation that comes forward should be subject to a free vote. I do not really care whether there is a free vote or not, because I shall vote against any such legislation.

I did not detect a question in there, Mr Speaker, so I shall merely say to my hon. Friend that I do not think anybody on the Government Benches is particularly happy about having to deal with this issue, but we do have to implement the law.

Whatever the priorities of the European Court, it is the British Government who decide what the priorities are for this House of Commons. Most people will think it rather bizarre that they are giving priority to a Bill that might give the right to vote to Harry Roberts, who shot three Metropolitan policemen in cold blood, but are paying no attention to and putting no effort whatever into getting the 3.5 million decent citizens who are not on the electoral register on to that register.

The right hon. Gentleman would know, if he followed proceedings in this House, that that is simply not true. I made a statement at this Dispatch Box in September, when I set out clearly that the Government were as committed to the completeness of the electoral register as to its accuracy. If there are, as there are, citizens missing from the electoral register, some of the responsibility for that falls on the Labour party, which was in power for 13 years and did nothing effective about it.

Does the Minister share my concern that the first response of so many Members here to a court judgment going against them is to refuse to accept the verdict of the court? What does that say about the rule of law? Does he also share my concern at the number of Members who do not understand the difference between the European convention on human rights, the Human Rights Act and the European Union?

The hon. Gentleman raised two points, and I shall deal with the second one first. I did spell out the difference very clearly earlier, because as soon as things are prefaced with the word “Europe” people do roll them all in together and think that they are the same thing. The European Court is separate from the European Union; they are nothing to do with each other, apart from the fact that they both happen to be based in Europe. On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, I think that the general view of those on the Government Benches is that we are not happy or pleased about having to implement the judgment, but we recognise that in a country bound by the rule of law, we have to do it.

Constituents of mine living near the new prison at Maghull will want to know which prisoners will be able to vote and which will not. So far the Minister has not answered the question, so I shall ask it in a slightly different way. In his personal view, who will be able to vote and who will not?

The hon. Gentleman read that out very well, if I may say so. He will know that the Minister does not have a personal view; the Minister is here to speak on behalf of the Government. I have already set out very clearly the Government’s view. The details about how we are going to implement the decision are still being considered—[Interruption.] It is no good Opposition Front Benchers groaning just because I have said it before. It is still true. We are considering how to implement the judgment. When we have taken those decisions, they will be announced in the House in the proper way.

Does the Minister recall that the House fully debated this issue and voted on it on 11 January 2006, at which point we on the Opposition Benches were trying to help the then Government to resolve a difficult situation? They took absolutely no action for the following five years. Will the Minister reassure the House that the Court objection is to the blanket ban on prisoners being able to vote and that it is within the power of the Government to resolve the situation by making a decision about which prisoners can vote and which cannot?

If I may say so, I think that that was probably the first very sensible question that we have had in this session—

Order. I know that the House is in rather an excitable state, but I always enjoy listening to the Minister and I particularly want to listen to him now.

My hon. Friend listened to what I said in my statement. The blanket ban on sentenced prisoners voting has been ruled to be unlawful. The Government are considering how to implement the judgment to deal with that and, when the Government have made those decisions, the proposals will be brought before the House. Colleagues would do well to listen to how she put her question and to my answer.

The Minister’s answers are inadequate and not reassuring. My constituents who live in the Cheetham ward want to know whether the rapists, murderers and paedophiles—and burglars, for that matter—in Strangeways prison will have the vote or not. Surely he can answer such a simple question.

The hon. Gentleman was not listening carefully to what I said. As my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) pointed out, I said that the blanket ban on sentenced prisoners voting has been ruled to be unlawful and we are currently considering how to implement the judgment. We have made it clear that we are not particularly happy about it and we will bring forward our proposals and announce them in this House. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will then be able to ask that specific question again and we will be able to answer it.

Order. We must now move on. I know that there are disappointed colleagues, but I feel quite certain that this is a matter to which, in due course, the House will return.