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Prisoners (Voting Arrangements)

Volume 521: debated on Tuesday 11 January 2011

3. What discussions he has had with the Prison Service on arrangements to enable certain prisoners to vote. (32679)

Prisoners given the right to vote under the Government’s proposals will vote by post or proxy in the constituency of their normal residence. That is the basis on which prisoners on remand and prisoners convicted but unsentenced already vote under existing long-established procedures.

If, as the Government propose, prisoners serving less than four years are given the vote, the vote will be given to 6,000 violent offenders, 2,000 sex offenders, 6,500 robbers and burglars, and 4,500 drug offenders, which any sensible person, including the Prime Minister, I think, would find wholly offensive and unacceptable. Does the Secretary of State agree that it should not be the European convention on human rights that decides matters but Parliament, and will he listen not to the lawyers but to other European countries such as Belgium, where the vote is given to prisoners serving up to four months? Let us make it four months—even better, four days; even better than that, four minutes.

I do not think that anyone in government, including my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, is under any illusion about the popularity of the proposal to be introduced. We are under legal obligations which no one is suggesting we should repudiate. As I often had to explain when I practised law to dissatisfied litigants who had just lost a case that they would have preferred to win, one can get into more trouble if one seeks to define it. If my hon. Friend wishes really to enrage his constituents and mine, he runs the risk of taking a decision that will result in thousands of prisoners being given compensation for their lost rights and in tens of millions of pounds of expenditure incurred by the taxpayer. We are in government, I am afraid, as I often find myself saying to our Liberal Democrat colleagues, and we have to act responsibly, whatever our inner feelings about the wisdom of the judgment that has been reached in the Court whose jurisdiction we still accept.

Is the Secretary of State for Justice considering any additional precautions regarding the postal vote for prisoners because, after all, we are dealing with criminals?

At the moment, without anybody making any fuss at all, people on remand have been casting postal votes from prison, and have probably been doing so, as far as I am aware, throughout my political career. That is also the case for people who have been convicted but have not been sentenced, including individuals convicted of serious offences. Not many of them bother to do so, and I am not aware that they have ever made a significant difference to the result in a single constituency, but the fact is that we have to address the consequences of this judgment. We propose that, even for those people with a sentence of less than four years, there should be judicial discretion to remove the right to vote as part of the punishment in appropriate circumstances.

All of this can be debated when it comes up, but I urge Members on both sides of the House not to go too far beyond expressing understandable annoyance, and not to begin to commit themselves to a course that would cost the taxpayer tens of millions of pounds, to no particular effect.

I accept the difficulty that the Secretary of State faces, bearing in mind the will of the public and the will of Parliament expressed on both sides of the Chamber. However, what analysis has he made of the situation in Belgium, where a prisoner serving more than four months forgoes the right to vote?

One by one, various countries have been challenged on that front, and one by one the more restrictive measures are falling. Some have no restrictions at all, and just allow prisoners to vote. It was necessary for the Government and my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister to take the best legal advice on what could protect us against the risk of future claims and judgments, draw a line under that and comply with legal objections. That is the basis on which we arrived at four years, and as I have just explained, there is some logic in putting a four-year threshold in, as we can refer back to the old definition of long-term imprisonment to explain rationally why we have chosen that threshold.

It is worth reminding the House that details of plans to allow people serving sentences of up to four years to have the vote was given via press release on the last Friday before we broke up for Christmas. May I ask the Secretary of State what role Ministers in his Department played in the Deputy Prime Minister’s plans, and can we take it that he, his Ministers and all the Law Officers agree with the Deputy Prime Minister that four years is the appropriate threshold?

I was obviously involved in the collective discussions, as were colleagues, and we took the best legal advice. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the previous Government accepted the legal obligation. The Government in which he recently served undertook two consultations, and they canvassed four years as a possibility. [Interruption.] With great respect, they did canvass four years, and they also accepted that prisoners should vote in all elections, including local government elections and referendums. We have drawn back from that. We are proposing that they should vote only in parliamentary and European elections.