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Prisoners (Voting Rights)

Volume 519: debated on Tuesday 23 November 2010

6. What discussions he has had with the Deputy Prime Minister on the effects on prisons and prison staff of making arrangements for the implementation of voting rights for prisoners. (25565)

9. What discussions he has had with the Deputy Prime Minister on the effects on prisons and prison staff of making arrangements for the implementation of voting rights for prisoners. (25568)

10. What discussions he has had with the Deputy Prime Minister on the effects on prisons and prison staff of making arrangements for the implementation of voting rights for prisoners. (25569)

Ministers are considering how to implement the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, and when decisions have been taken, they will be announced to the House in the usual way.

I am sure the Secretary of State is aware that prison staff already have to deal with requests for further information about how voting rights will be implemented—not only from prisoners, but from local communities who have grave concerns about the matter. Will he meet a group of MPs for whom that is a particular concern, so that the needs of our constituents might be considered?

I will consider that request when we have announced our conclusions, which we will, to the House. The previous Government were incapable of taking a decision on the Hirst recommendation, which was made five years ago, and we are about to produce our proposals. I would point out that remand prisoners already vote, and always have voted; they vote by post, and it has never caused any difficulty. In the end, there is no suggestion that prisoners are going to be registered in the prison at which they are Her Majesty’s guests. Those that bother to get registered will be registered in constituencies scattered across the country. Of course I will consider the logistics if, after we have produced our proposals, it is apparent that any particular logistical problem will be posed.

When the Secretary of State meets the Deputy Prime Minister, will he pass on the grave disquiet of the people of Glasgow that the 93 convicted sex offenders, 10 convicted murderers and 15 convicted attempted murderers in Barlinnie jail in my constituency have not been exempted from the Government’s review on the right to vote? The Secretary of State knows that neither the European Court of Human Rights nor case law from Strasbourg requires that such individuals should have the right to vote, so why do the Government not just do the right thing and rule it out?

There is no suggestion—and there never has been—that every prisoner is going to get the vote. It is not the Government’s consultation that is responsible, but a judgment given five years ago by the European Court of Human Rights—a Council of Europe institution —and we are now deciding how to implement it. I cannot anticipate the Government’s decision, which will be taken collectively by Ministers, but the idea that lots of murderers and rapists in Barlinnie prison are all going to be given the vote is, I suspect, rather fanciful.

The Secretary of State must understand the grave concern about this measure from the public and, I hope, from both sides of the House. If the Secretary of State is clear that there is no suggestion that murderers and rapists will be given the vote, why will he not simply rule out at least those two categories right now?

The principal consideration is to take a decision and present it to the House. I am trying to shoot down some of the fanciful ideas that have been expressed. I understand the real concern about this: most of the House would have preferred not to change at all the existing ban on prisoners voting, but doing nothing—the previous Government’s position—and allowing solicitors to go running around prisons signing up prisoners to get compensation for having their civil liberties denied is piling up quite a bill. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that Ministers will very soon resolve any uncertainty.

But is there not a contradiction at the heart of the Government’s policy? Currently, all Members of Parliament represent all prisoners living in prisons within their constituency, yet the Secretary of State has said that they will be represented by Members of the constituencies where they were last registered. That contradiction needs to be resolved if representation of prisoners by prisoners is to be taken seriously.

I think there is some confusion in the House about the convention that applies, which both I and my hon. Friend should resolve—although it is not my responsibility to resolve it. I take the view that I represent my constituents when they are in prison wherever it is that they are imprisoned, but I know that other MPs take the view that they represent every resident of a prison in their constituency. Perhaps we should resolve the parliamentary conventions on this matter at the same time as we have a look at which prisoners might have voting rights.

In considering the Government’s policy on this thorny issue, will the Secretary of State, if he has to abide by the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights, restrict the right to vote to those prisoners at the lowest level of seriousness—for example, those dealt with by the magistrates courts for summary offences only?

This applies only to prisoners—obviously, people who have not been in prison do not lose their vote at all. We have to comply with the judgment of the Court. The problem is that this extremely annoying issue will become even more annoying to the public and everyone else if we simply do nothing and wait until some huge financial judgment is made against the taxpayer, which will turn the present public anger into fury. That is why we are going to bring forward considered proposals. At the moment, someone not sent to prison does not lose their vote—irrespective of what other punishment they receive in their summary trial.

The Hirst judgment says that article 3 of protocol 1 of the European convention on human rights obliges this House to give some prisoners the vote; as we have heard, it also gives rise to financial compensation to some prisoners who have been denied that right. Although I sympathise with my right hon. and learned Friend, does he accept that there is an intellectual case for, in time, bringing powers back to Westminster in this area by repealing the Human Rights Act 1998 and withdrawing from the European convention of human rights?

There has been another British case today, which has clarified the situation slightly and has underlined the fact that the Government have discretion on how to comply with their obligations. In due course, obviously, we shall establish a commission on how best to give effect to our human rights obligations in this country, but that will not happen until at least next year.

The coalition Government do not intend to withdraw from the European convention on human rights, which was imposed by the victorious British on the rest of Europe after the war in order to establish British values across the countries that were recovering from fascism and was drafted largely by Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, who put what he thought were the best principles of British justice into it.