[Relevant document: The Fifth Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Voting by convicted prisoners: summary of evidence, HC 776.]
I beg to move,
That this House notes the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights in Hirst v the United Kingdom in which it held that there had been no substantive debate by members of the legislature on the continued justification for maintaining a general restriction on the right of prisoners to vote; acknowledges the treaty obligations of the UK; is of the opinion that legislative decisions of this nature should be a matter for democratically-elected lawmakers; and supports the current situation in which no prisoner is able to vote except those imprisoned for contempt, default or on remand.
The motion stands in the names of the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips), my hon. Friends the Members for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) and for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) and, of course, myself.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving us the opportunity today to have this debate. There have been many important debates in this slot, but I lay claim to this one being unique, because it gives this House—not the Government—the right to assert its own right to make a decision on something of very great democratic importance, and to return that decision to itself.
The motion before the House about prisoner votes splits cleanly into two parts. First, is the requirement to give prisoners the vote sensible, just, right and proper? Secondly, who should decide? Should it be the European Court of Human Rights, or this House on behalf of the British people?
Let me start with the substantive question: should prisoners be given the vote? I yield to no one in my commitment to the defence of the ancient freedoms and rights of this country, and I hope the House accepts that, but there is an important point about not confusing the rights that are properly held by everybody who is a British citizen or who lives in our country with those much more circumscribed rights that are given to prisoners. Prisoners of course have rights—the right to be treated decently, not to be ill treated, to be fed, and to be kept warm, given shelter and clothing—but those rights do not extend to the same rights of a free British citizen.
When someone commits a crime that is sufficiently serious to put them in prison, they sacrifice many important rights: not only their liberty, of course, but their freedom of association, which is also guaranteed under the UN charter of human rights and the European convention on human rights, and their right to vote. The concept is simple and straightforward: “If you break the law, you cannot make the law.”
The European Court of Human Rights argues that that is a blanket rule—that is its rather pejorative term. But, actually, that is untrue, and the Court is ill informed in saying so, because three categories of prisoner are excluded from losing the right: remand prisoners, contempt of court prisoners and fine defaulters. None of those loses the vote, and for different reasons. The remand prisoner does not because they have not been convicted or sentenced, so it is inappropriate for them to lose it until they are sentenced. That is a logical exception. The other two do not lose it because their crimes are below the threshold of seriousness that we judge means that they lose the civic right to vote.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on obtaining the debate and on seizing upon the issue. I served on the Centre for Social Justice task force on prisons, chaired by our former friend Jonathan Aitken, and we discovered absolutely no demand from prisoners for that so-called right. Indeed, it was never an issue in the British prison system until the lawyers got hold of it through the European convention on human rights, and to that extent it is completely irrelevant to the real issues that face our prison system and the prisoners in it.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. Indeed, if there were an argument that giving prisoners the vote would cut recidivism, cut re-offending rates and help the public in that way, I would consider the matter, but giving prisoners the vote would not stop one crime in this country, and that is after all the point of the justice system in the first place.
Let me return to the main text. Other prisoners do lose the vote, but we must understand that for someone to be sent to prison in this country in this day and age requires a very serious crime or series of crimes. There are convicted burglars and convicted violent criminals, who have never been to prison, walking the streets today, so there is a very serious threshold.
Recently, in Northern Ireland, a young woman was given a custodial sentence for a first offence of stealing a pair of jeans worth £10. The case is being appealed, but it suggests that not every custodial sentence is given because of a very serious offence or string of serious offences.
There is an old argument that hard cases make bad law, and it may well be—it sounds very likely—that that young lady’s custodial sentence will not be upheld. The general point, however, is very clear: it takes a pretty serious crime to get someone sent to prison. As a result, that person has broken their contract with society to such a serious extent that they have lost all these rights: their liberty, their freedom of association and their right to vote.
The law is not unjust. Every citizen knows that the same level of crime that costs them their liberty costs them their vote. What the Court calls a blanket rule, I call uniform justice.
Does my right hon. Friend think it reasonable for the European Court of Human Rights to insist on a right for individuals if those individuals have not bothered either to register to vote or, indeed, to vote when they have not been in custody?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. It would be quite interesting to see how many prisoners have ever voted, let alone how many voted at every election in the run-up to their incarceration.
The Court also argues that the penalty is not proportionate, but again that is plainly wrong. We are not one of those countries where, when someone is convicted of a criminal offence and sentenced to prison, they lose the right to vote for ever. Such places do exist. Indeed, in one state of the United States, people lose their right to vote de facto for ever, but we are not one of those places. When someone is in prison, they cannot vote; when they are released, all their civic rights are completely reinstated, meaning that that denial is an absolutely proportionate response to the seriousness of the crime. If the sentence reflects the crime, the denial of the vote also reflects the crime.
Let me be clear. In my view, convicted prisoners should not have the vote: robbery, rape, drug dealing—frankly, the crime does not matter, given its seriousness. But, despite what the Justice Secretary said the other day, violent criminals, sex offenders and drug dealers will get the vote if we accept the compromises that have been aired so far. The Government talk about a less than four-year rule, but 28,000 people convicted of serious violent crimes, sex crimes and crimes against children would be incorporated in that. Even a one-year rule would include thousands of people, many of whom will have committed serious crimes from which we would recoil.
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. The right to vote underpins our democracy, but that right is a qualified right, not an absolute one. Does he agree that these qualifications should therefore be established by this Parliament, not by unelected European institutions that wish to bypass our established laws?
My hon. Friend takes me ahead of myself. As he well knows, the simple truth is that these are politically appointed judges, many of whom do not have enormous experience in court. Indeed, some of them have no experience in court, even in their own countries, let alone ours.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on obtaining this debate and on his excellent speech, which is developing a most interesting theme. Does he agree that giving votes to any prisoners is quite incomprehensible to our constituents, who sent us here to make the rules and the laws, not to have the European Court make them for us?
Of course my hon. Friend is right. One of the points about laws in a democracy is that they exist with, at the very least, the acquiescence—the consent, we hope—of everybody in that democracy. Between 75% and 90% of the population cannot understand what we are doing even considering this proposal.
Let me go back to the compromises that have been talked about. It is not my aim to put the Government in a difficult position from which they cannot escape; the issue is whether those compromises would work. The proposals put up so far—four years, one year, six months—would not work. They would not escape the threat that we have had held over us of compensation or some other form of penalty against our taxpayers. In fact, one member of the Council of Europe, Austria, did give the vote to prisoners serving less than one year, and it then appeared in the Court and was found against.
Just how ridiculous this is became clear earlier this week, when the European Commissioner for Human Rights appeared on Radio 4. Because he had said that a blanket rule would not work, he was asked what the guideline was, and he said, “A breach of electoral law.” That would put us in the ridiculous position whereby we denied the vote to somebody who broke electoral law, in however minor a way, yet gave it to the rapist and the murderer. It is so ridiculous that I cannot believe he really meant it.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that it is rather strange that we are being forced to do this by the European Court of Human Rights, many of whose own judges come from authoritarian regimes? Is it not time to withdraw from its jurisdiction?
I am now going to lose the House, because I do not agree with withdrawing from the regime. I will explain why in a moment.
Let me conclude this half of my speech—I am using up too much of my time giving way—by saying that it is clear to me that our current system is appropriate, just, proportionate, simple and well understood, and we should stick with it.
The second substantive issue before us is who should decide—the European Court or these Houses of Parliament? British courts themselves are clear on the matter. They rejected the claims of Mr Hirst, the axe killer, at every stage. The High Court said in terms that this was
“plainly a matter for Parliament, not the courts”.
To those who say, “But we must obey the law”, I say that the historical task of this Parliament is to correct bad law, no matter where it comes from.
The second half of my right hon. Friend’s argument illustrates the difficulty in the motion, which seems to conflate two highly related but different issues, one of which is the right of prisoners to vote and the other is the enforceability of the European convention on human rights. As a parliamentarian, I find myself split: it is very difficult to know how I am supposed to vote once on something that asks two questions.
My hon. Friend faces this issue every time he votes on a Third Reading; if he has not noticed that yet, I am sorry for him. The truth is that there are two issues, both important, in my view, and both with enormous strength behind them. If he does not feel that he can vote on the motion, perhaps he should abstain.
The Court’s authority rests solely on the European convention on human rights, which is both the source of its power and the limit of its power. When Britain signed up to the European convention on human rights, it was to help to prevent a repeat of the horrors of the second world war and of Nazism, and, indeed, the horrors of the growing Soviet empire at that point in time; it was to protect people from ill-treatment, and to protect their life, liberty, free speech, and right to a fair trial. Those are all very serious and fundamental issues. What we emphatically did not sign up for was giving prisoners the right to vote.
My hon. Friend is right—he makes a very good point. The then Labour Government well understood this when they excluded from the text the words “universal suffrage”. They did that because although we have a very wide and general suffrage and a very democratic state, we do not have universal suffrage. The Strasbourg Court has imposed judgments on Britain that are outside the original treaty. We have signed a contract; it has gone beyond that contract.
I have one advantage over my right hon. Friend, which is to have been able to go and look at the archives on what happened in 1951. I think the reasons why we objected to the use of the words “universal suffrage” were twofold: first, there was some anxiety over the position in the colonies; and secondly, there was a concern about whether proportional representation would be imposed on us as a result. Once those issues were clarified and removed, the United Kingdom signed up.
I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend, who is a very close friend as well, checked the travail préparatoire in which one of his predecessors—Dowson, I think—said in terms that we had general suffrage but it could not be described as universal suffrage. That is what I was resting the point on.
Since about 1978, the European Court has adopted the view that the convention was what it termed “a living instrument”. That meant that the Court could arrogate to itself the right to decide what its remit was. It did that without any mandate from this House or any other house of representatives of the member states of the Council of Europe. This has been picked up, not by some Tory or right-wing Eurosceptic, but by Lord Justice Hoffmann, an eminent judge with enormous civil liberties credentials, who said that the Strasbourg Court has
“been unable to resist the temptation to aggrandise its jurisdiction and to impose uniform rules on member states”.
Even the Court itself understands this. In the minority report, Judge Costa, the President of the Court, a man who believes in extending the powers of his own court, said that he
“accepted that the States have a wide margin of appreciation to decide on the aims of any restriction, limitation or even outright ban on the vote”
and pointed out that the judges were not legislators and should not overrule the legislatures of the Council of Europe.
I want the European Court to succeed at its main business, which is why I differed from my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). However, I do not want it to try to interfere in the business of legislatures around the European continent.
If colleagues will forgive me, I am almost out of time.
So where do we go from here? If Parliament decides by a strong majority today, the Government will have to go back to the Court and tell it to think again, because it cannot deliver a third of its rulings. If this House will not provide a change in the law, it cannot deliver a change in the law. That will lead the Court to have to decide how it deals with this sort of crisis in future. Lord Justice Judge and Lady Justice Arden, and others, have predicted this crisis and pointed out that we need to have the right of recall, the right of review and the right of challenge. That is what should come out of this motion.
As my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General was kind enough to intervene on me, I thought I would remind him that today is almost the anniversary of the day when he said the following words:
“The Government must allow a parliamentary debate which gives MPs the opportunity to insist on retaining our existing practice that convicted prisoners can't vote.”
I agreed with him then, and I agree with him now. The House should insist that this is our decision, and from this place we will not move.
I rise to support the motion in the names of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab), other hon. Members and myself. I should perhaps explain that the hon. Member for Esher and Walton underwent an operation yesterday and is hoping to be present later today, such is his interest and, as a former Foreign Office lawyer, his expertise in this issue. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) and the Backbench Business Committee for choosing our motion for today’s debate.
At the heart of this debate is a conflict of principles, which sometimes have to be faced in politics and by Governments. On the one hand, there is the issue of whether convicted prisoners should be allowed to vote while serving their sentence. On the other, there is the question of how we meet out treaty obligations in respect of the Council of Europe, the European convention on human rights and the Court in Strasbourg. I will deal with those points in turn.
A ban on convicted prisoners voting while in jail has existed in this country at least since 1970. Post-war, the question has been considered under a Labour Administration in 1968, a Conservative Administration in 1983 and a Labour Administration in 1999-2000. On each occasion, the position was confirmed by an overwhelming cross-party consensus. On each occasion, amendments could easily have been moved in the House by those who supported an end to the ban, and voted on. On none of those occasions, and on no other occasion that I can recall, has this ever been a matter of active pursuit for Members of any party in this House. Significantly, and to echo the point made by the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), neither I nor my staff can recall one letter, among the hundreds of complaints from prisoners with which I have dealt in my 32 years in this House, calling for the right to vote from prison.
I turn to the European convention on human rights and the Strasbourg Court’s decisions. The convention was drafted principally by distinguished British jurists, including David Maxwell Fyfe, who was later Home Secretary and Lord Chancellor in Conservative Administrations. The convention is a fine statement of what we all understand to be fundamental human rights. As an instrument, it has stood the test of time, and I strongly support it. One key problem for many years after the convention was agreed in 1951 was that, in contrast to most signatory states, it was not incorporated into our domestic law. That meant that the United Kingdom was much less likely to be given the latitude offered to other countries—the so-called margin of appreciation—by the Strasbourg Court, because our courts were not able to adjudicate on the convention’s articles.
With respect to the right hon. Gentleman, is the problem not that his Government got us into this mess by incorporating the convention into our law? There is no way out now for this Government. There is a queue a mile long of people on no win, no fee cases, waiting to sue the Government. What is he going to do about it?
I spelled that out in The Times this morning, and I was just about to come on to that point. I am grateful for the cue from the hon. Gentleman.
The Human Rights Act 1998 is part of the solution to the problem; it was never part of the problem. I shall explain why. We have not been able to enjoy the margin of appreciation and our courts have not been able to adjudicate on the convention’s articles. The first attempt to deal with that issue in the House was made in 1987 by the then Conservative Member of Parliament, the late Sir Edward Gardner, QC. His private Member’s Bill failed after receiving considerable Back-Bench support from all parts of the House, but scepticism from those on the Government and Opposition Front Benches. Ten years later, I was privileged to do what Ted Gardner had begun with what became the Human Rights Act 1998. In the end, it gained all-party support, as proceedings on Third Reading show.
Importantly for this debate, and to answer the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh), the White Paper preceding the Human Rights Act was entitled “Rights Brought Home”. It was about repatriating British rights in the convention that we had provided for other countries in Europe, but that were not available to our own citizens.
I will give way in a couple of seconds, but I will just make some progress.
The retired Law Lord, to whom the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden referred, has recently said that the Human Rights Act could be
“a perfectly serviceable British Bill of Rights”.
That, in essence, is what it is. The Act was expertly drafted. It gave the courts the power to declare primary legislation incompatible with the convention, but no power to strike down that legislation.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
I support the motion in the name of my right hon. Friend and the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis). Does my right hon. Friend agree that the important issue is not the European convention on human rights, the European Courts, or the universal declaration of human rights, but the reason that the European Court gave for denying a margin of appreciation, which, among other things, was that this House had not debated the issue? That was wrong, but the service provided by this motion is that the House can now judge. People will take different views and put perfectly reasonable arguments, but the important point is that my right hon. Friend and the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden have done us the service of allowing us to debate whether prisoners should have the vote.
I am listening carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman is saying about the margin of appreciation. I think that we are in danger of overselling that as a solution, because the problems with our current relationship with the convention are to do with the drafting of the convention and how the Court interprets its words. Geoffrey Robertson, QC, who is no slouch on human rights and is currently representing Julian Assange, explained in the article “Why We Need a British Bill of Rights”:
“The European Convention also failed to include the rights Parliament won by the ‘Glorious Revolution’ in 1689”.
He went on to state:
“There is mounting evidence that the weasel words of the European Convention are damaging other basic British rights.”
He also stated:
“The Convention is in some respects out of date.”
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with those words? How are we going to address those problems?
The hon. Gentleman is taking us into wider territory. I happen to think that the problem is not the plain text of the convention, but the way in which it has been over-interpreted to extend the jurisdiction of the European Court. I will come on to that point in a moment. I do not, however, subscribe to the view that the 1951 convention is the last word on what should be in a Bill of Rights. I share Lord Hoffmann’s view that it is a very good starting point. There is a wider issue—a rabbit hole I do not intend to go down if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me—about whether we should have a written statement of our key constitutional rights. I think that we should, and that the sovereignty of Parliament should be right at the top of it. However, that is a separate point.
I was not in the House in 1965. [Hon. Members: “Are you sure?”] I was causing trouble at universities at the time, so I have an alibi—I was at the scene of some other crimes.
I do not quite subscribe to the hon. Gentleman’s view about that piece of history. The signing of the protocol that gave the Court that power was very public. Anyway, where we are is where we are, and subsequent Administrations of either persuasion have not objected to the Court’s having that power of what amounts to individual petition.
Our Human Rights Act was expertly drafted, giving our courts the power to declare primary legislation incompatible with the convention but no power to strike down that legislation. In that way, the sovereignty of Parliament is respected and indeed protected by the Act. Our senior judiciary, without question among the best in the world, have applied the Act with the sensitivity that one would expect. As the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden said a moment ago, when the British courts first considered the Hirst case, prior to its going to Strasbourg, they found no breach of the convention whatever. In addition, they said that any change in the law was a matter for Parliament. For the avoidance of doubt, let me put it firmly on record that the tension and conflict that we have to resolve today can in no sense be laid at the door of the Human Rights Act or, in my judgment, at that of the plain text of the convention.
I need to make progress, but I will give way to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) a bit later.
Rather, the problem has arisen because of the judicial activism of the Court in Strasbourg, which is widening its role not only beyond anything anticipated in the founding treaties but beyond anything anticipated by the subsequent active consent of all the state parties, including the UK.
In his major lecture two years ago, to which reference has already been made, Lord Hoffmann spelled out in eloquent detail the difficulties that the situation was causing, including for the UK judiciary. He said that the Strasbourg Court
“lacked constitutional legitimacy”
in intervening in matters
“on which Member States…have not surrendered their sovereign powers”.
He added well-founded criticism of the highly variable quality of its judges and administration.
Where the Court has given judgment against the UK in respect of fundamental human rights, successive Home Secretaries and UK Governments have readily complied, whether on specific cases, such as terrorist deportations, or on matters such as the need for proper regulation of phone-tapping and the intelligence agencies—and so has this House, whether or not it agreed with what the Court was saying, because we have voluntarily and readily accepted its jurisdiction.
No, they are not, and I will come on to that. The fundamental distinction to be drawn is this: all of us, as I have just spelled out, are required to respect and observe decisions of the Court on fundamental human rights, because it was in respect of those that we and other countries signed up.
No, I have to make progress.
The issue before us today—here is the heart of the matter—is by no stretch of the imagination a breach of fundamental human rights. Rather, it is a matter of penal policy, which the minority of judges at Strasbourg—and very senior they were, too—said should be left to the UK Parliament. Through the decision in the Hirst case and some similar decisions, the Strasbourg Court is setting itself up as a supreme court for Europe, with an ever-widening remit. That is why the tension that I mentioned now threatens to become a collision.
Even in countries with supreme courts much more powerful than ours, there is a democratic override of their decisions. For example, in the United States or Germany, which have very strong courts that can strike down primary legislation, the courts’ decisions can be overridden by, for instance, democratic amendment to their constitutions. There is no such democratic override available for decisions of the Strasbourg Court, so we are faced with a court judgment following which, without warrant from the treaties to which we signed up, we as elected MPs are expected to do the opposite of that in which we believe.
My predecessor as Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, and I wrestled for five years to find a way through the problem. Initially, Lord Falconer’s view was that the requirement on us following the 2005 Hirst decision was simply
“to consider carefully the basis”
of our law. He went on that it could be the case
“that it is a proportionate conclusion that all people who are convicted and sent to prison cannot vote.”
He began one consultation, and when that was inconclusive I launched a second. However, unless and until I found a way—if one existed—that could satisfy the Strasbourg Court, this House and the British people, there was no appetite throughout the House, or among our Whips, for me to bring forward legislative proposals.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and for how he is articulating his powerful case. Does he not agree that, with hindsight, it is rather unfortunate that such a debate did not take place? When we were first confronted with the problem we had only the Hirst judgment, but since then we have had a number of further judgments without the UK Parliament’s having had an opportunity to influence how the Court’s jurisprudence evolved. He may recall that I asked for such a debate when we were in opposition.
I understand the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s point, and hindsight is a wonderful thing. If I thought that the only thing preventing the Court from coming to a reasonable compromise was the fact that I had not organised an earlier debate, I would be happy to be taken to Strasbourg to make my apologies. He knows better than anybody that neither set of Whips was keen on such a debate, not least because it was clear that it would be impossible, particularly in the pre-election atmosphere, to have the sober debate that we are to have today.
That is true. I shall now move on.
Our motion has been carefully drafted. It is respectful of the Court and our treaty obligations, but is intended to answer one of the three objections that the majority of the Court in Strasbourg had to our so-called blanket ban—that there had not been any substantive debate on the matter in the light of modern penal policy and human rights standards. This debate is a response to that.
One cannot judge the fairness and effectiveness of penal policy with reference to just one aspect of it, such as the ban on prisoners voting. That judgment has to be made in the round. Since the Strangeways riots of 20 years ago and the Woolf report that followed, there has been a quiet revolution in penal policy. As the chief inspectors of prisons have recognised, conditions for prisoners have been transformed. Every effort is rightly made to treat prisoners with dignity, and to prepare them better for the outside world. The overall environment of our prisons stands up to comparison with any in the world, and is far above that in many European countries.
However, the exact mix must be for domestic Parliaments to decide. They have the knowledge and legitimacy to make appropriate judgments, and we have supervision by our courts of our Executive’s administration of our prisons. The ban on prisoner votes is part of the mix of our penal policy. It is the subject of wide consent among the public, and at least of acquiescence by the vast majority of prisoners, as the silence of our postbags makes clear. Our motion is intended as part of a process better to strengthen the hand of the UK Government in arguing in Strasbourg that the majority of members of the Court are seeking a change in UK legislation which, on the face of it, is difficult or impossible to deliver, and in inviting them to find a constructive way forward.
Two objections to our approach have been raised. One is about the example that we may set, and the other is about compensation. On the first, the argument is that if we fail fully to implement the Court’s decision, we will be unable to put pressure on others who also have outstanding Court judgments against them. That argument does not take account of the reality of the situation. There are scores of as yet unenforced judgments against countries such as Russia—but not just Russia—for egregious breaches of human rights, and for presiding over standards so low as to lack any notion of fair trial.
If I thought that our acquiescence in the Court’s decision in Hirst would be the instrument for a change in approach to those recalcitrant countries, I might be persuaded to drop my objections for the greater good. However, there is no evidence of that—indeed, I suggest the reverse. By extending its remit into areas way beyond any original conception of fundamental human rights, the Court in Strasbourg is undermining its own legitimacy and its potential effectiveness in respect of the purposes for which it was established. In other words, the Court and the Council of Europe would have greater success if they reined in their unnecessary excursions into members states’ policy. In that way, we might see some of those judgments better enforced.
This is my last set of points and I shall be brief. On compensation, I simply say this: there are many predictions that the Court in Strasbourg will award compensation against the UK Government, but as yet there is no certainty. In 2005, the Strasbourg Court denied Hirst compensation. Unless the Court now sees the purpose of compensation as some kind of gratuitous fine on the elected British House of Commons, I fail to see by what algebra or alchemy any court could equate the absence of a vote for prisoners, which almost no prisoners of their own volition ever sought, and which still fewer would exercise, with some monetary amount.
I am a strong supporter of the Human Rights Act 1998, the Council of Europe and the text of the convention. I seek no train wreck, but a solution—that is the purpose of our motion. In turn, I hope the Court pulls back from placing the supporters of those instruments in a near-impossible position.
I support the motion. This matter is not really about whether prisoners in this country have the right to vote, but about whether this House has the right to make its own laws for its own people.
There are 85,000 prisoners in this country, about 12,000 of whom are foreign nationals who would have no right to vote in any event. The remaining 73,000 are spread over 650 constituencies, so even if they all voted, which as hon. Members know full well from the sort of people whom we have visited in prisons is most unlikely, just over 100 votes would be added in each constituency. On that scale, the rights of prisoners to vote is relatively unimportant. Nor is it the case that the removal of the right to vote acts as a deterrent. Few burglars in my constituency have ever, I suspect, hovered at the windowsill, jemmy in hand, and thought, “Oh no! I’d better not break in or I’ll be unable to vote for that nice Mr Streeter.”
The motion invites us to address a much more fundamental issue: whether or not we can pass our own laws. I completely understand the inclination of civil servants to advise Ministers to comply with the European Court of Human Rights judgment. I am sure that that advice is technically correct, and certain that that is how we have always done things, under Governments of all colours. In addition, I recognise the understandable reluctance of Ministers to go against that advice and to ignore a decision of the Court that we helped to create, especially if there could be financial implications in this time of austerity.
However, there comes a time when it is necessary to take a stand. I argue that right now, on this issue, it is right for this House, today, to assert its authority. The judgment of the ECHR in the Hirst case flies in the face of the original wording and purpose of the European convention on human rights, in which it was clearly intended that each signatory should have latitude in making decisions on the electoral franchise in that country.
I completely agree and I intend to address that point in a moment.
We decided in this country centuries ago that convicted criminals should not have the right to vote, and I support that decision. After all, the punitive element of incarceration is the denial for the time being of certain rights and privileges that our citizens enjoy. We decided long ago that in addition to surrendering their liberty, convicted criminals while in prison would also give up their right to vote. That was the case in 1953 when the treaty on human rights was signed, and it remains the case.
What has changed since 1953? The answer is simply this: the European Court of Human Rights decided in 1978 that it could interpret the convention as a living document and effectively create law rather than purely reflect the provisions of the original convention.
There appears to be some sloppy thinking here. I oppose incorporation into our law, but the Supreme Court will always uphold prisoners’ appeals because we cannot pick and choose between the judgments we like and those we dislike. I am afraid that that is the law.
If my hon. Friend exercises a little patience, I will give him the solution before my five minutes are up. I can assure him that there is no sloppy thinking down this end of the Chamber.
The rights taken to itself by the ECHR is the clearest case of mission creep that we will ever see. It is the ECHR’s decision to award itself more power—much more power than the authors of the convention ever intended—that we must challenge today. That decision has led to a steady trickle of judgments and pronouncements over the past 30 years that have frequently left the British public baffled and extremely angry.
That is the real problem with the ECHR conducting itself in that way. Yet again, it has undermined the authority of this House, which leaves us wringing our hands hopelessly on the sidelines, and widens the gap between the electorate and their Parliament. If we, the people whom they send here on their behalf, cannot change things, what is the point of us being here, and therefore, what is the point of them voting?
I will not give way, if my hon. Friend does not mind, because I have done so twice.
It is time to take a stand. I suggest three things—we are coming now to solutions. First, I suggest that we vote overwhelmingly today to reject the ECHR judgment and support the motion. In doing so, we will send a clear signal to our constituents that we understand and echo their desire not to put up with this nonsense any longer. We will also send a signal to ECHR judges that we do not appreciate, and will not accept, their attempts to legislate for us here in the United Kingdom. That is our job, not theirs.
Secondly, we need to start work immediately on amending, or at least on restricting or clarifying, the European convention on human rights. That will require the political will of the House and of the Government on this side of the channel, and political muscle and skill on the other side. Fortunately, machinery for that is in place—it is called the Council of Europe, which among other duties oversees the work of the European Court of Human Rights. I suggest that our Government, working with the British delegation of MPs to the Council, immediately set on a course to suggest to our friends across the channel amendments to the convention. They could suggest narrowing the rules governing the scope of the Court, or further protocols. We should use whatever the correct procedures are—I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General can advise us on those—to take this important but increasingly abused convention back to its original purpose; namely, to underpin basic human rights, and to prevent the excesses of torture, imprisonment without trial and persecution perpetrated on European people in the second world war from ever being visited upon us again. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) that that will not be easy, but it is not impossible, and we should start that journey today.
Thirdly and finally, I know not whether Mr John Hirst, the axe murderer—nice man—fought his case on legal aid, but I am certain that he fought it either on legal aid or on a no win, no fee basis.
My hon. Friend shouts in my ear that Hirst fought his case on legal aid. In any case, we should now make a further change to the consultation process on legal aid reform that is currently being conducted by the Ministry of Justice, and make it clear that legal aid will no longer—from today—be available to prisoners or former prisoners suing the Government because they have been denied a vote. We are in the process of reducing legal aid for all kinds of legal action, so why not expressly exclude those claims, which the whole country deprecates? We have the power to do so and we should exercise it.
I was never any good at physics at school, but I remember one law: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Convicted criminals and their lawyers and the ECHR have conspired to create an action. Let this House today decide to put into place an equal and opposite reaction. I support the motion and hope that it receives an overwhelming majority.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter), although I was a bit worried by his suggestion that legal aid should be taken away from people, so that only the rich—the Max Mosleys—have the right to go to Strasbourg.
I am nervous of getting between my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), the former Foreign Secretary, and the former Deputy Prime Minister, whom we heard on the “Today” programme this morning. When these two Labour buffaloes lock horns, smaller beasts in the jungle are advised to stay away. However, I want to make the case to the House that we should not completely throw away the good and honourable tradition of British liberalism. I know that this will make me unpopular with the Daily Express, the Daily Mail, The Sun and The Daily Telegraph, which have constantly supported my political views over so many years, but surely we can still find a tiny space for classic, do-gooding, bleeding-heart British liberalism in contemporary politics. It is sad that there is no one left on the left to say that the right is not right, as we are told to bow to this atavistic tabloid hate against prisoners.
What are the facts? Different democracies in Europe take different approaches. In January, I was with Conservative colleagues at a meeting with Swiss parliamentarians. In non-EU Switzerland, all prisoners have had the right to vote for 40 years. That is also the case in Conservative-governed Sweden, Denmark and other EU countries. Britain stands with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova and—let us not forget—Russia in banning the right for prisoners to vote. Since WikiLeaks has told us that the mafia runs politics in Russia, it has been clear that criminals there get elected rather than end up in prison.
The hon. Gentleman takes me on to my next point. In other EU countries, prisoners can vote according to the sentence. In France, a judge adds a loss of civic rights to sentences for serious crimes, which is a compromise that satisfies the European Court of Human Rights and could easily be introduced here. However, sadly we are turning out backs today on more than a century and a half of prison reform. Retribution seems to be the order of the day for those who commit crimes. My view is that although someone may enter prison as a criminal, we should hope that they leave prison as a future citizen. Allowing people to take part in, think and read about, and ultimately—for non-serious cases—vote in elections would help the osmosis of turning criminals into future citizens.
Ah! Some Government Members might want to bring back beating for children in school.
The ECHR outlawed domestic violence and upheld the right of British Cypriots not to be dispossessed of their homes in northern Cyprus. As has been rightly said, the European convention was written 60 years ago, mainly by British jurists. It does not mention prisoners voting, but nor does it mention gay rights, domestic violence or capital punishment. The European Court has handed down rulings—yes, like the US Supreme Court, it interprets old language. However, I believe that we are all the better for expanding liberal, democratic British values across Europe. Right now the ECHR is bogged down with 100,000-plus cases from Russia, but is that not a good thing? Russian citizens can now appeal against the neo-authoritarian concept of politically dictated justice in Russia. I am sure that there are comrade ex-Supreme Court justices in Russia who also think that the ECHR should keep its nose out of Russian business.
This has nothing to do with the European Union. Like the Council of Europe, the ECHR was shaped by Britain under Winston Churchill after world war two. It quietly and steadily upholds the values of liberal democracy. Britain began decriminalising gay relationships and abolished hanging in the 1960s. The ECHR took this British example and used it to prod other nations to follow suit. Some 47 countries adhering to the treaty and convention of the Council of Europe are expected to follow its rulings. I believe that the peoples of other regions of the world—such as Africa, Asia and south America—would die to have an ECHR to tell their Governments what to do.
I hope that hon. Members will forgive me, but we only have five minutes each, and I do not want to overrun.
Traditional social and political liberalism has now been replaced by a raw economic liberalism—or perhaps a Labourist punitionism—since May 2010. There are no Roy Jenkins, no Jo Grimonds, no Michael Foots and no leading Liberals such as the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy) and the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) to stand up for unpopular or even lost causes. The press has only to indicate its displeasure at a proposal for giving prisoners serving short sentences the right to vote, and MPs of all parties queue up to join this illiberal campaign. Populist illiberalism is the new politics of much of the continent, and it is a shame to see it arrive in the Commons. I hope that my country does not tear up the treaty or quit the Council of Europe. However, the fact that we are having this debate shows how far we have moved from the promotion of human rights that Winston Churchill and his successors up to May 2010 always believed in.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) and the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) on securing this debate. My right hon. Friend quoted my belief that this was a subject that needed debate. That was something I said in opposition, but it is a view that I continue to hold in government. I am therefore delighted that the House at last has an opportunity to have this debate. If I quipped the right hon. Gentleman, I am grateful to him for having facilitated it now that he is freed from the shackles of Government.
If the House is to have the debate that I think can help to inform this tension between ourselves and the European Court of Human Rights, it is important that as many Members as possible participate. I note, therefore, that the Government Benches are well crowded; I am sorry, however, that, for reasons on which I cannot speculate, the Opposition Benches seem to be, with a number of notable and eminent exceptions, rather bare. That might be a problem later in terms of the impact that this debate may have. From that point of view, the contribution of the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane), even if many Members disagreed with it, was nevertheless very valuable.
My reason for speaking at this stage of the debate, with the leave of the proposers of the motion, was to try to provide some assistance to the House in explaining the legal considerations relating to this complex, difficult and extremely controversial issue. As the House is aware, there will be a free vote for Government Members, so that the Back Benchers can express their views. Ministers will abstain. The Government believe that the proper course of action will be to reflect on what has been said and think about what proposals to bring back to the House in the light of the debate. The Government are here to listen to the views of the House, which are central and critical to this debate, as was acknowledged in the Hirst case and as was the subject of the critique that I raised earlier about the fact that we have not had this debate before. I look forward to taking on board and considering all the points raised, and to doing my best, as far as I can, to join the debate and assist the House.
I am sure that it will be useful to the House that my right hon. and learned Friend intervenes at this stage. However, when he says that the views of the House are critical, does he not mean that they are decisive? We are a sovereign House; we make the law and the courts interpret it. This is a matter of policy, not a question of legal technicalities. If we do not want prisoners to have the vote, Parliament can legislate for it and that will be final. Does he agree that that is the power of the House?
First, I would say this to my hon. Friend. I am very respectful of the powers of this House and, having been a Member of it for 13 years, consider it to be very important. As he will also be aware, it is Parliament that is sovereign. I hope that he will excuse my making that delicate point. The Queen in Parliament is sovereign, and that includes the ability of both Chambers to legislate and to enact primary legislation. We are dealing with an international treaty. That international treaty was signed by the United Kingdom Government under the royal prerogative and was laid before both Houses of Parliament for their consideration. The rule that has been long established in this country is that once a treaty has been ratified by the United Kingdom Government through that process, the Government and their Ministers consider themselves to be bound by its terms. Indeed, as the right hon. Member for Blackburn will know, the ministerial code specifically says that that is the case, and the new ministerial code says it in exactly the same way as the old one did. From that point of view, although my hon. Friend is absolutely right, that does not remove the necessity for the Government to be bound by their treaties and international obligations.
It is certainly true that our international legal obligations may alter by virtue of what Parliament has enacted, but the current position is that we have an international obligation that, if I understood correctly from what they said, is not one from which, in its principles, my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden or the right hon. Member for Blackburn would wish to resile. We are bound by it as Ministers of the Crown. However, if my hon. Friend will bear with me, I will come to that in a moment.
I repeat the point that the Grand Chamber in the Hirst case commented on the lack of any substantive debate in Parliament. It must be the case, therefore, that the existence of a substantive debate—indeed, we may have to have more than one substantive debate on this issue—will be helpful to the process of finding a way through the problem that is exercising many Members of this House. However, although Members are fully entitled to express their disagreement with the judgment of the European Court—indeed, I have done so myself: I said that I consider the judgment in the Hirst case to be an unsatisfactory one, for precisely the reasons, which I will not repeat, that the right hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend articulated—the fact that we may be in disagreement does not in itself solve the problem.
In order for the views of this House to be helpful, we need to demonstrate that we are engaging with the concerns of the Court and that we are not just expressing our frustrations—although I have to say that on occasion I have felt very frustrated on this issue in the last few years, and actually rather angry. Through a dialogue about what the House considers to be proper and reasonable in respect of prisoner voting, we have to see whether we can bring our weight to bear as a legislature in the development of the jurisprudence of the Court. That will give us the best possible chance of winning the challenges that may arise thereafter. As we know, given the litigiousness of those who think that there is a gravy train on which they might be able to climb, we can guarantee that, whatever we do, there will be legal challenge to it that will go back to the European Court of Human Rights for determination.
I appreciate the Minister’s helpful guidance. Will he address the point made by the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) when he quoted Lord Hoffmann, the former Law Lord, saying in a lecture that it cannot be right for a European supranational court
“to intervene in matters on which Member States of the Council of Europe have not surrendered their sovereign powers”?
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give us some guidance on that point?
The hon. Gentleman is right that there has been a great deal of commentary, including in some learned lectures by judges, such as Lady Justice Arden, Lord Hoffmann and others, who have expressed growing concern about the way in which the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights is being developed and about the Court’s tendency towards micro-management. That is the nature of the challenge. That said, for the reasons I gave a moment ago, the judgments of the Court constitute an international obligation, so far as we subscribe to the convention and to membership of the Council of Europe. That is the dilemma the Government face, as did the previous Government: how can we find a way to persuade the Court to respect the views that the legislature may express without having to withdraw from the convention or the Council of Europe entirely, which, I have to say, would not come without cost or consequence for this country?
There is no mechanism to enforce—[Hon. Members: “Ah!] My hon. Friend must listen carefully. The truth is that enforcing something against a Government who do not wish to have it enforced against them is very difficult, because the Government retain Executive power. If a judge in our High Court said that the Government should do something and the Government said, “We won’t do it,” it would be very difficult to do. Equally, however, it is worth bearing it in mind that the Government would be in rather serious breach of the principles of the rule of law and would, in fact, be behaving tyrannically. One needs to be careful. The principles on which United Kingdom Governments have always operated is that if international obligations confer a power on a court and a court orders compensation, we will honour those international obligations as it is our duty to do so, because without that we diminish our own status, in terms of our respect for international law as much as domestic law. It is therefore a bit of a red herring to suggest that just because something cannot be enforced, that is a justification for ignoring it. It might be a justification for enacting other legislation or taking other steps, but it would be a fairly momentous change in UK practice if we ignored something to which we had indicated by international treaty we subscribe.
We of course have confidence, by and large, in our judicial system and our courts. I see this issue as a crisis in the question of whether we have confidence in the workings of another court system. That is the tension that underlines so much of what we are discussing today—whether we are talking about a credible court, with the extension of its remit as a living instrument, and so on. That is the criticism that is now coming from judges too. We respect one court; do we respect the European Court, and therefore the international obligation that my right hon. and learned Friend mentions?
There is no doubt that there has been criticism of the Court, just as I have at times heard views expressed in this House applauding judgments made in the European Court of Human Rights—the judgments on stop and search and on DNA databases come to mind. We therefore need to be careful about too much picking and choosing of what we might think is desirable or not. I recognise that there is a fundamental issue in this debate, which the right hon. Member for Blackburn and others touched on, about the extent to which the Court is turning into a micro-manager.
That is an interesting proposal from the hon. Lady, but, if I may say so, I would not seek to answer that question at the Dispatch Box today. It raises a number of ethical and practical issues to which, on the whole, I would want to give further consideration.
I must make progress; otherwise I will not be able to do what I principally came here to do.
I want to deal with the point about the Grand Chamber in the Hirst case. The Grand Chamber declined, properly, to provide any detailed guidance on how to make our current regime compatible with the convention. It also made it clear that special weight should be given to the role of the domestic policy maker. Despite the difficulties that the House might face, we have a real opportunity, through debate, to shape the dialogue with the Court if we focus on the key issues.
I will now deal with the main legal issues on prisoner voting. I will set out the main points raised by the main judgments, because it might make the debate more difficult if the House does not have them in mind. I shall first outline the key points in the Hirst judgment, which dates back to October 2005. The Court took the view that it was well established that article 3 of protocol 1 to the convention, to which we are signatories, guarantees individuals the right to vote and to stand for election. The Court considered that to be a right, not a privilege. It also considered that that principle was important in ensuring an effective and meaningful democracy governed by the rule of law. It therefore felt that departure from the principle of universal suffrage risked undermining the democratic validity of the elected legislature and the laws that it promulgates. That might not have exercised us very much here, but in the context of the many east European states that have joined the European convention it is probably right to say that those are really serious, material considerations.
In the view of the Court, prisoners continue to enjoy all the fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed by the convention. I do not think that either my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden or the right hon. Member for Blackburn disagree with that. The Court’s reasoning, with which I appreciate many hon. Members disagree, is that, in view of the fact that the convention does not allow prisoners to be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment or to have restrictions placed on their freedom of expression or freedom to practise their religion, a restriction on their right to vote should have the aim only of
“preventing crime by sanctioning the conduct of convicted prisoners, and enhancing civic responsibility and respect for the rule of law”.
The Court also recognised that the participating states had a wide margin of appreciation in deciding on such restrictions, but that that was not an unlimited discretion. It felt that the restriction should be proportionate and—this is the nub of the issue—that section 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 imposed a blanket ban, which was seen as being so indiscriminate as to fall outside the acceptable margin of appreciation.
The central questions are whether the interpretation of the treaty that we signed has gone beyond what the original treaty contained, and who, thereafter, has the right to make a decision on the matter. Should it be this Parliament or an unelected European institution that makes such decisions? The clear evidence is that it should be this House, and that the interpretation has gone beyond the terms of the original treaty. That is what this vote is about today.
I appreciate that that is what my hon. Friend and many others believe the issue for debate to be. I recognise that it is going to be a major topic for debate this afternoon, but, if he will forgive me, I will suggest that hon. Members might also wish to focus on why they consider the current ban, or some variant of it, to be reasonable and proportionate in our own national context. It was the absence of debate on that issue that appeared to make the Court take the view that our ban was indiscriminate—
I hope that I have understood my hon. Friend correctly. I do not think that the Court has suggested that there should be an absolute rule. In fact, it has made it quite clear in that and later judgments that there could be substantial flexibility for national legislatures to set their own criteria, which could be variable. For example, leaving a blanket prohibition to one side, it might be desired that a prohibition could be imposed after a particular period, so that someone could be banned from voting if sentenced to one, two, three or four years. The criteria could be different if the judiciary were given complete discretion over whether people should be banned and when such a ban should be applied. So there is a whole range of possible variants available to a legislature, if it were minded to consider them, that might well satisfy the Court’s concerns.
I am mindful of the strong views held in the House on this matter. On the maintenance of a blanket prohibition on all sentenced prisoners, the House should note that the Hirst case was followed by two other cases. This was the cause of my criticism of Labour’s dilatoriness on this matter. The first was Frodl v. Austria, in which the Court found that a ban on voting imposed on people sentenced to more than 12 months was wrong. The second case was Greens and M.T., in which the Court appeared to make it clear that it wanted the United Kingdom to enact some form of legislation.
It seems that everyone who has spoken so far is trying to have their cake and eat it. They all say that they want this incorporated into our law, but they do not like this particular judgment. They think that a debate will solve the problem. If the vote goes against us this afternoon, will the Attorney-General do the right thing and withdraw us from our incorporation in the convention?
Is not the fundamental issue that the European convention on human rights applies to everyone, including those who are in prison, and that when people are convicted they do not lose their convention rights? They have to suffer a penalty following conviction, but losing their right to vote is outwith the terms of the convention.
The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly reasonable point. Indeed, in some countries, the removal of the right to vote effectively forms part of the sentencing exercise. However, that has not been part of our national tradition in this country. I will be interested to hear hon. Members’ reasoning in the debate. I assume that the underlying principle behind the ban—given that many people are convicted and not sent to prison—was that a person who was sent to prison had done something so antisocial towards the civil order that it was justified to remove their right to vote. Speaking personally, I have never thought that there was anything unreasonable about that approach, although I appreciate that some hold other views, including non-governmental organisations such as the Prison Reform Trust, which has argued powerfully in favour of giving prisoners the right to vote.
In answer to the Court’s concerns, may I point out that criminals in this country choose of their own free will to commit serious crimes, and they know that, if they are found guilty and sent to prison, they will lose their right to vote?
That is a very good argument, and it might be helpful to me if I ever have to stand up in front of the European Court of Human Rights to explain the reasoning of the United Kingdom Parliament.
I have pointed out that matters were made more difficult following the judgment in Frodl v. Austria, in which it was held that the disfranchisement of a person sentenced to more than one year in prison was a violation of article 3, and in the Greens and M.T. case, although the Court clearly stated at that time that judicial discretion was not a requirement. From that point of view, it is clearly open to the United Kingdom Government to put in place a system that would not involve judicial discretion. I have some hesitation, in any event, about whether the judiciary would wish to have that discretion inflicted on them. As hon. Members might be aware, however, the Government have made it plain that, even on minimal sentences, the power to remove the right to vote—in cases involving electoral fraud, for example—ought to be retained by the judges in any event.
It is for the House to provide a response today. I hope that that response will be useful to the Government in representing the House’s views in what I anticipate will be a rather drawn-out dialogue between ourselves and the Court.
I concur that we have already set quite a high bar for getting behind bars in this country. Given that, why is it any more reasonable to pick an arbitrary figure of one, two, three or four years than to set the bar at the point when people pass through the prison gates?
My hon. Friend makes a very reasonable point. If she looks around other European countries, she will find a great deal of variety in approach. Some countries do not allow any convicted prisoners to vote, although they might well be in serious difficulty as a result of the Hirst judgment. The Irish Government, for example, changed the law and gave their prisoners the vote. Others lay down differential criteria, and it seems clear that the Court is influenced by the consideration of whether those convicted to very short terms of imprisonment should retain the right to vote and those with longer terms of imprisonment should lose it. Four years, for example, has usually been regarded in our judicial system as the benchmark that separates a long sentence from a medium or short sentence. That is one reason why such benchmarks might play a role, and used to play a role, in providing some definition.
The Republic of Ireland provides an interesting case. Although the Government have allowed their prisoners to register to vote, they do not necessarily guarantee that they will be able to vote in the sense of attending a polling station to exercise their franchise. I suspect that this is an interesting example of sleight of hand.
I am slightly worried by what my right hon. and learned Friend said earlier about the purpose of this debate. Surely the purpose of this Chamber hitherto has been to form statute law. He suggests that we should now take on the function of influencing the jurisprudential evolution of the European Court of Human Rights. Would it not be helpful to him if this debate also engaged with the realm of the relationship between this House and the European Court?
I certainly do not want to prevent my hon. Friend from debating such an important issue. He must forgive me for perhaps being too much of a lawyer, but on the whole I tend to look at the terms of the motion, which are very specific and quite interesting. The motion first emphasises our respect for our international obligations, which I do not believe was included accidentally by the right hon. Member for Blackburn or my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden. I assume that the motion thus encompasses our international obligations under the European convention on human rights. Secondly, the motion expresses what I take to be a view that we believe that our existing arrangements, which deny sentenced prisoners the right to vote, are fair, reasonable and proper and we wish to continue them. That seems to be the motion that we have to debate, and which we ought to debate, which is why I sought to answer the question in this way, although I accept that some wider issues could also be considered. At the end of the day, as I have also emphasised, the Government are bound by their international obligations. They have to think, sometimes laterally if not horizontally, about how to get themselves out of the conundrum of respecting the views expressed in this House while also wanting to see that the international obligations that this House wants to be respected are respected.
On that very point of international obligations, Lord Hoffmann has said that
“with support of other European states”
that have also been at odds with the Court,
“we can repatriate our laws on human rights.”
What steps are we taking to work with other European states that have also been badly treated to withdraw from the scope of the Human Rights Act 1998?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right; I have not had time to develop the point. Quite simply, negotiations have taken place concerning the difficulties facing the Court, in which the different countries making up the Council of Europe are, in many ways, expressing the common view that the Court is not functioning properly. Quite apart from anything else, there is a backlog of 120,000 cases. This matter is therefore not being ignored by the Government; we would like to make some progress to see whether reform can be achieved.
Does the Attorney-General accept that, in being a lawyer, he has the problem of over-complicating matters? [Laughter.] Is not the basic issue whether we in this country should decide our line on whether prisoners should be able to vote—or should it be decided by somebody else? Where do the Government stand on that question?
The object of lawyers is to take people’s concepts and to try to navigate them to their correct destination, if at all possible. [Interruption.] In this case, there is no specific financial benefit, however pleasant it would be to be able to charge a special fee to my Government colleagues for appearing here this afternoon. I do not think that they would have condescended that to me.
I hope that what I have said has been of assistance to the House. I look forward to hearing the rest of the debate and, above all, to helping the House further if I can during the course of it.
It is a delight to follow the Attorney-General, who puts me in mind of Peter the Great when he visited Britain and our Parliament. He commented to our monarch that there were an awful lot of lawyers in Parliament and that, so far as he was aware, there were only two lawyers in his kingdom, one of whom he was going to execute on his return.
I have three opening points. First, I believe that when someone breaks the law so seriously that the courts send them to prison, they should also be deprived of the right to vote. That is why it has never been Labour policy to give prisoners the vote and why we vigorously contested the Hirst case.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I would like to make a bit of progress and give way later.
Secondly, it is not the role of the European Court of Human Rights to legislate on who gets to vote in the UK. As the President of the Court and others argued in their dissenting opinion on Hirst,
“it is essential to bear in mind that the Court is not a legislator and should be careful not to assume legislative functions.”
That is why we argued in the Grand Chamber that the Court was acting ultra vires and why we believe it is for Parliament—and Parliament alone—to legislate on this for the UK.
Thirdly, the Government’s proposals that prisoners sentenced to custodial sentences of less than four years should retain the vote—if indeed they still are their proposals; they might not be, given what we have just heard—are far too generous and will not be acceptable to the vast majority of the British public. That is not to say that prisoners should be deprived of all their rights. Of course not—prisoners are humans. Torture and degrading treatment are repugnant. We abhor it when prisoners are treated as less than human in jails in Latin America, in Turkey or in Russia. In depriving someone of their liberty, however, the state should be able to decide that someone has also forfeited other freedoms. Prisoners retain a right to family life, as the European Court of Human Rights has rightly adjudged, but while in prison they cannot pick their children up from school or kiss them goodnight. They retain the right to freedom of expression and, for that matter, freedom of religion, but, by definition, they lose the right to freedom of assembly.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that choosing four years as the threshold is far too generous. I wonder whether Members have reflected on what that really means. It means 4,370 drug dealers getting the vote; it means almost 10,000 people involved in theft, burglary or robbery getting the vote; it means 1,753 rapists or people involved in serious sexual crimes achieving the vote; and it means 5,991 people involved in crimes against a person getting the vote. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that although we do not get a lot of letters from prisoners demanding the vote, we will get a heck of a lot of letters from victims and their families if we give those people the vote?
I am very puzzled by my friend’s approach. If we as a country are signed up to the European convention on human rights, which we frequently use—all of us as Members of Parliament use it in representing our constituents—and if the Court makes a judgment on the question of prisoners’ voting rights within that convention, we are bound by that judgment, by treaty and by law. Why on earth are we debating this issue unless the long-term agenda—and I suspect that it is the agenda of many Members—is complete withdrawal from the convention? Surely that is the real agenda of many people.
No, and, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind my saying so, I think that that was a rather fatuous contribution.
I know that many of my close friends disagree with me on this issue—indeed, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the former Bishop of Worcester, both of whom were my spiritual directors, disagree with me—but I reiterate that I think it perfectly reasonable that if a person puts himself outside the law, he should lose his vote when he loses his liberty. I will not, however, be joining any wholesale attack on the European Court of Human Rights. I lived in Spain under Franco, and I saw friends of mine tortured in Chile under Pinochet without the benefit of any court to stand up for their human rights.
The Court has been a vital part of the infrastructure of freedom in Europe since its inception. When David Maxwell Fyfe, later a Conservative Home Secretary and Lord Chancellor, advocated its creation and drafted the original convention for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, he rightly saw the Court, and the Council of Europe, as a bulwark against both the atrocities of the Nazi and fascist regimes of the 1930s and the brutality of the communist thugs who ruled eastern Europe.
It is true that Maxwell Fyfe was no human rights saint—he made sure that Derek Bentley hanged, and waged a ferocious anti-homosexual campaign throughout his time as Home Secretary—but Britain’s instincts in seeking a European structure for freedom and signing up to the European convention on human rights were right, and are still right.
The hon. Gentleman speaks of Maxwell Fyfe, but it was, of course, a Labour Government who signed up to the convention. The hon. Gentleman will recall from his researches that Lord Jowett and the Cabinet had the greatest difficulty in reconciling that with the establishment of a court that would be outside the jurisdiction of this country. That is the issue that haunts what we are discussing today: that a court elsewhere reaches beyond our own competence.
People have claimed that either a Labour or a Conservative Government signed up to the convention, but in fact there was a cross-party agreement that we should move in that direction, just as we agreed on how we should prosecute throughout the Nuremberg trials. Hartley Shawcross was Attorney-General, but he none the less allowed Maxwell Fyfe to conduct the vast majority of the interrogation. Similarly, our approach to human rights was shared by both the main political parties throughout the period following the second world war.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I seek, just once, to help him. I do not know whether he is aware that Winston Churchill, speaking at the Congress of Europe in The Hague in 1948, said:
“The Movement for European Unity must be a positive force, deriving its strength from our sense of common spiritual values… based upon moral conceptions and inspired by a sense of mission. In the centre of our movement stands the idea of a Charter of Human Rights, guarded by freedom and sustained by law.”
I hope that that helps the hon. Gentleman.
It does help me, and I think that it helps the House as well. What Britain was seeking to do was enshrine throughout the rest of Europe the freedoms that we had enjoyed for centuries in this country from the Bill of Rights onwards. That was Churchill’s vision.
Even in Britain, rights have been won thanks to the Court. The Attorney-General cited a couple of instances in which he agreed with the Court and disagreed with the previous Labour Government. Successive Governments, for instance, held out against allowing gays in the military in this country. It was the European Court that insisted in 1999, and today I am not aware of a single Member of Parliament who thinks that someone should be sacked from the Army, the Navy or the RAF solely by virtue of his or her sexuality. Likewise, it was as a result of the Court’s judgment in the case brought by Denise Matthews against the Labour Government that Gibraltarians were granted the right to vote in elections to the European Parliament in 2004. So Labour supports the European Court, but as a critical friend.
We have heard several criticisms of the Court’s operation today. Let me add a couple. The court has a backlog of many thousands of cases, which would take 47 years to complete. Its members are not all equally qualified. It has no effective triage system to filter out vexatious claims of little or no merit. There is no requirement for an appellant to seek leave to appeal to the Court from a national court in the first place, which is something that we might want to consider. Most important, some of its members believe that they are, or should be, a supreme court for all the contracting parties—to which I simply say that they are wrong.
Every high or supreme court in Europe has a democratic safety valve which allows its duly elected Assembly or Parliament to overrule the courts in certain circumstances. In the UK, that is our parliamentary sovereignty. We firmly contend that the 1688 Bill of Rights was right to assert that proceedings in Parliament cannot be
“impeached or questioned in any Court or Place”.
Perhaps my hon. Friend will allow me to provide the answer to the question asked by our right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane). Even in the case of decisions by the European Court of Justice, there can be, and sometimes is, the equivalent of a democratic override through decisions made by the European Council of Ministers. They will often change a directive in order to correct some judgment of the Luxembourg Court. The fundamental difficulty with the Strasbourg Court is that there is absolutely no mechanism for achieving that.
I am extremely grateful.
A moment ago the hon. Gentleman was advancing a compelling argument, supported by Members on both sides of the House, about the enlightened way in which the European Court of Human Rights has been able, through its legislation, to change people’s idea of what is right and of morality. Does he not agree that if we pass the legislation that will give prisoners voting rights, in another 20 years that idea may prove just as unpalatable as some of the other measures introduced by the Court?
I have a problem with the position adopted by the Liberal Democrats since the general election. I should be happy to hear their arguments in favour of the substantive issue. Let them put the case, and put it convincingly, rather than hiding behind the process and the European Court. It would be quite nice to hear the Deputy Prime Minister say a single word on the subject.
Let me turn to the Court’s decision in Hirst v. the United Kingdom that the blanket ban on prisoners from voting contravenes article 3 of protocol 1—a decision which, I should point out, was not unanimous, and was not supported by the then Swiss President of the Court, Professor Luzius Wildhaber. The problem is simple. As is stated in the report of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, published yesterday,
“however morally justifiable it might be, this current situation is illegal under international law founded on the UK’s treaty obligations.”
Clearly, as some have already suggested today, we could tear up our treaty obligations. I believe that would be wrong in principle and foolhardy in practice. For the UK to leave the Court would be fatally to undermine its authority. It would be to abandon much of Europe to precisely the same disregard of human rights as was evident when the Court was founded, and for British industry and British citizens living, working and doing business across the continent, that rule of law, enforced through the right to petition the Court, is vital. Alternatively, we could seek to reform the Court, steering it away from trying to be a form of supra-national supreme court and quasi-legislature.
It may be that today’s motion could help in that process, as the Attorney-General has suggested. After all, the Court asserted that
“there is no evidence that Parliament has ever sought to weigh the competing interests or to assess the proportionality of a blanket ban”.
It was wrong on that, although there have not been many debates on the matter, but I think that is because there was unanimity in the House rather than because Members did not have a view on it. Following today however, a robust vote from this House will make it impossible for the Grand Chamber to maintain that claim.
The third course of action open to us is to enforce the Court’s judgment, and here there is another problem. While the Grand Chamber maintained that a blanket ban on all convicted prisoners was disproportionate, it also argued that
“Contracting States must be allowed a margin of appreciation in this sphere”
“the margin in this area is wide.”
Subsequent judgments, not least those referred to by the Attorney-General of Frodl v. Austria, Py v. France—which he did not refer to—and Greens and M.T. v. the UK all point in different directions. In particular, Frodl v. Austria seems to suggest putting a new gloss on the Hirst interpretation, while Greens and M.T. v. the UK appears to be rather more lenient in its approach and allows a greater margin of appreciation.
The key question is: how wide is the margin, or how much wriggle room do we have? We know there are wide variations in European practice on prisoners’ voting. In Belgium, four months is the length of time, whereas in some countries the ban on voting can continue after the imprisonment has ended. That is why I wholly agree with the dissenting opinion of Professor Wildhaber and others in the Hirst case when they say
“the legislation in the United Kingdom cannot be claimed to be in disharmony with a common European standard.”
They said that because there is not a European standard, and it is therefore difficult to see how the courts could enforce in this direction. What is the absolute minimum the Government would have to do in order to appease the Court?
Does the hon. Gentleman further agree that part of the problem in defining this on a pan-European basis is that we have completely different definitions of what constitutes a crime and what sentencing should be applied? Therefore, trying to apply a blanket ban on a cross-border basis is inane.
Indeed, the Court itself has made it clear in successive judgments that a whole series of matters would determine how a national legislature decided to approach the issue of voting. The proportional representation issue has been raised in the debate, but that is not a matter of particular concern to the Court. Matters of concern to it include the history, tradition and pattern of voting. The Court has always accepted that, which is why a lot of us are very keen to make sure that the wriggle room that is allowed—the margin of appreciation to use its term—is as extensive as possible.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the criteria we ought to adopt are not simply about votes for prisoners, but votes for the guilty? The guilty includes two categories: those who are sent to prison and are therefore prisoners, and those whom it has not been deemed appropriate to put in prison. This House and other institutions constantly review the question of who is to be sent to prison and who is not, so there is constant evolution on this matter.
My hon. Friend makes a remarkably subtle and nuanced point, which is unusual for him. [Interruption.] I think he knows that I mean that in the kindest way. Following on from his point, I would add that the Court has been wrong to assert that we have a blanket ban in the UK. As has already been said by several speakers, we do not ban those on remand, or those who are in prison by virtue of contempt of court or for fines. It is therefore not a blanket ban, and I think the Court should have taken that into consideration.
I want now to refer briefly to the Government’s record, as they have hardly covered themselves in glory. [Interruption.] I was not going to make these points until the Attorney-General decided to attack the previous Labour Government; I had crossed these remarks out, but I have now decided to reinstate them.
In opposition, one Conservative right hon. and learned Member dismissed the idea of prisoners’ votes as “ludicrous” and said that
“it will bring the law into disrepute and many people will see it as making a mockery of justice”.
I think many people would agree. The right hon. and learned Member who said that was the current Attorney-General. He also said that
“there is no reason why our courts should be bound by Strasbourg Court jurisprudence”
“the obligation on the UK to respect Strasbourg Court adverse decisions, in a particular case to which it is a party, is an international treaty obligation and not a legally enforceable matter at all.”
I do not think that is quite what he said this afternoon.
I thought I had made the position clear. First, this Parliament is entirely sovereign in both Houses in the enactment of primary legislation and can resolve what it wants. Secondly, the Executive are bound by the ministerial code to observe their international treaty obligations that have been ratified.
That is not quite how the right hon. and learned Gentleman expressed it on the radio before the general election, but I just want to check this: is it still the Attorney-General’s legal advice that there is no need for Parliament to adhere to the treaty, the convention and the judgment of the Court? That seemed to be the point that he was making previously—I know the point that he is making about the Government’s requirement.
If I may say so, I think the hon. Gentleman has taken my comments slightly out of context in the following sense. The debate that was taking place, and which has often been a problem, is about conflating EU law and the EU with the Council of Europe. EU law, by virtue of the treaty of accession—
Yes, the European Communities Act 1972. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that. By virtue of the ’72 Act, EU law has direct application in this country, whereas the Council of Europe and European convention on human rights do not, except in so far as we incorporate that in the Human Rights Act 1998. That is the distinction.
Fine; I am glad that the Attorney-General has clarified that. Can he clarify one other point, too? The one element on which he has not given us any advice today—and if he has any legal advice, I would be grateful if he published it—is his interpretation of the wriggle room or margin of appreciation that is genuinely available to us. He seems to have suggested today that one area that was insisted on in Frodl v. Austria—namely that judges should have to be able to make an individual decision on each person for that to be valid—is no longer necessary for us, although that was in the ministerial statement issued by the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, on the day before we broke for Christmas. [Interruption.] The Attorney-General appears to be disagreeing with that, but it was in that ministerial statement.
I also want to know whether the Attorney-General has had legal advice on whether four years is necessary, or whether one could get away with less than that. Those of us who want to be able to do everything we can are keen to know the absolute minimum that the Government would have to do to comply.
The hon. Gentleman knows the conventions in government—one of which is that Law Officers’ advice, and whether it has been sought and what they have advised, is not published. I can say two things, however. First, I have sought to explain something of the legal framework. As for the questions about Greens and M.T. and Frodl, read on its own the Frodl judgment would suggest that judicial discretion was required. Subsequently however, Greens and M.T. does not appear to insist on judicial discretion. Judicial discretion appears to have particularly exercised people in this country, because they do not think the judges should necessarily make such a determination. In those circumstances, although the House might wish to look at judicial discretion issues—and it has been suggested that that might be a way of dealing with those who fell below a benchmark for normally being allowed to retain the vote—that is not necessary.
Again, I am grateful to the Attorney-General, as I agree with him; my reading of the Greens and M.T. case is wholly consistent with his in relation to judicial oversight. That was one of the questions that we raised in the debate in January, and I received responses from the Minister who took part in that debate only at 8.31 pm yesterday.
I reiterate that the Government have made various statements over the past few months. The Lord Chancellor made one yesterday on the radio, the relevant Minister made one in the House of Lords and the Minister who responded to the Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall made one then. Those statements have not been consistent with each other, but they have adverted to legal advice. It is the tradition of this House that when one relies on evidence, that evidence is published.
So what is the Government’s policy? What is the absolute minimum that they believe the UK has to deliver to meet its treaty obligations?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not mind if I do not give way, because others want to speak and I ought to be drawing my comments to a close.
Would it be sufficient for the Government to present proposals—[Interruption.] I would be grateful if the Attorney-General would listen, just briefly. Would it be sufficient for the Government to present proposals—introduce legislation—but for Parliament not to agree them? Would that, in some sense, satisfy the Court? What do the Government believe will happen if the House supports the motion this afternoon? How have the Government arrived at the compensation figure? Previously it has been said that £160 million-worth of compensation will be entailed, but I gather that last night the media were briefed that the compensation figure will be £143 million. I understand that that has been arrived at on the basis not of the Attorney-General’s legal advice, but of advice given to the Government by others. Will that be published? Can he explain how the compensation would be enforced, given that all applications for compensation to the county court should surely be struck out by dint of section 6(2) of the Human Rights Act 1998, which reinforces parliamentary sovereignty? Indeed, is there not a claim in the High Court today from the Treasury solicitor to that effect?
All I will say on the issue of compensation is that it is very difficult to know how much compensation might or might not have to be paid. Let us suppose that there were two elections in which the entirety of the sentenced population in the prison system were deprived of the right to vote and they were all to bring a claim. On the basis of there being about 73,000 people in the prison system in that category and on the basis that about £1,000 to £1,500 of compensation and costs might have to be paid, the hon. Gentleman will be able to start to work out what sort of total cost might be involved. Of course, lots of prisoners might decide not to bring a claim, so I must accept that all the Government can do is provide a reasonable guide of the potential for the matter to be very costly. The hon. Gentleman will have no difficulty acknowledging that when he does the calculation.
I note that the Attorney-General was referring to general elections, but of course it was stated in evidence last week to the Select Committee that the Scottish and Welsh elections in the next few weeks present a real problem. I accept that there are problems, but I wonder how anybody conceives that compensation payments would be enforced.
I apologise for intervening, and the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I had to bring my remarks to a close earlier as I did not want to take up too much time. He rightly says that arguments were placed before the Select Committee by lawyers saying that they thought that the matter applied also to voting in devolved legislatures. That is not the Government’s view.
I am grateful to the Attorney-General for that. This is a Back-Bench debate and it provides an opportunity for the Government to take the temperature of the House without the intervention of a Whip. We believe that the Committee of Ministers, which is charged with ensuring the execution of the Court’s judgments, should take proper cognisance of a clear, un-whipped majority in this House. The Court should step away from insisting on its most draconian interpretation of the margin of appreciation available, not just to this country, but to others, as there is no one European standard on this matter. Indeed, many countries maintain a complete ban. Finally, any British Court considering compensation or action based on the Hirst judgment should also think twice before “impeaching or questioning” this proceeding in Parliament.
I congratulate the right hon. and hon. Members who have succeeded in securing this debate, but may I start by busting one myth? We have heard the mantra, “These are unelected and unaccountable judges.” I am not sure that I can recall any elected judges in this jurisdiction or in most other jurisdictions. Judges who are unelected are not that unusual. However, the judges in question are elected and I voted for one just two weeks ago. The new judge representing Portugal was elected by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and 18 Members of this Parliament are mandated to vote for judges in the European Court of Human Rights. A number of them have been here for this debate, including my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) and for Devizes (Claire Perry) and others who were in Strasbourg two weeks ago.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend has raised that matter, because the next point that I was going to make was that a sub-committee vets the candidates. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) is one of the members of that sub-committee who successfully rejected a slate of three candidates put forward by Portugal four months ago, and Portugal had to go back to find some candidates who were acceptable to us. However, may I say that the candidates who come forward are not always of the highest calibre and the quality of judges in the Court has to be taken on board?
For more than 200 years, our criminal justice system has been guided by a simple and sound formula: if someone commits a serious crime, they forfeit the right to freedom. When someone breaches the contract with society they compromise their right to participate in civic processes. When someone breaks the laws of the land, they have no say in who makes those laws or governs this country. So it follows—I support this—that convicted prisoners automatically lose the right to vote. I believe that that is a proportionate and proper response following conviction and imprisonment.
Yet, today, we find ourselves debating whether prisoners should have the right to vote: whether a principle enshrined by our Parliament, endorsed by successive Governments and supported by the public, should be rescinded by this European Court ruling. I believe that the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights was wrong. I share many colleagues’ unease at the potential sea change that it could bring about. The notion that those who knowingly place themselves outside the rule of law could have electoral sway equal to that of law-abiding citizens strikes me as illogical and unfair.
My constituency is home to Guys Marsh prison, which has 578 inmates. The prison lies within the Melbury Abbas and Cann parish council area, which has 614 electors. So if we take this measure to its logical conclusion and prisoners are allowed to vote where they reside, they could potentially overrun the parish council elections. If they were also entitled to stand for election and if they were elected, where might the parish council meet?
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the logical position were there such a right to vote, as there is in some cases, is that the prisoner’s home address would be the place where they would vote? That is how we work as MPs and how a voting system would work for prisoners.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. What he describes would be a logical and proportionate way to proceed, but many prisoners had no fixed abode before they came into prison, so where would they then “reside” or have their vote registered?
Withdrawing from the convention would be counter-productive, if not dishonourable. I appreciate that the Hirst ruling has raised legitimate constitutional questions that go right to the heart of the Court’s credibility and I also recognise that the Court is not perfect and is struggling to cope with a massive backlog of cases. It is in need of serious reform.
May I ask my hon. Friend a question as he is an expert on these matters? Would resiling from the 1965 agreement, under which petitioning to the ECHR would be allowed, constitute a withdrawal from the convention, or could we do that and remain a signatory to it?
I am not a lawyer and would defer to the Attorney-General for a legal answer. As was said earlier, “We are where we are”—I think we have to go from that particular point.
We need to put all this into perspective. Since the convention came into force, Russia has faced more than 1,000 adverse judgments; Turkey has had more than 2,000, 228 of which were in 2010 alone; Poland has had 761; Ukraine has had 709; and Romania has had just over 700. What if the UK defied the Court? Dissent is unacceptable, because we would be saying it was acceptable for countries that face thousands of charges, many on grave human rights abuses, to flout international law. That is clearly unacceptable.
How do we reconcile our opposition to the Court’s judgment?
Sadly, I have only 30 seconds left, so I shall not.
The reform process that several hon. Members have mentioned is under way. It refers to subsidiarity and is very clear. The Interlaken process, which was started in Interlaken last year, will be continued in Izmir and I hope that the Government will support that when they take over the chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers.
I support the motion, particularly the part noting that this House should be the place where legislative decisions of this nature are made. There have been a number of contributions from learned Members, but I should like to take the debate in a different direction. I read with interest the report, “Voting by convicted prisoners: summary of evidence”, of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, which states at paragraph 4:
“We took the evidence summarised in this Report with a view to exploring the current legal position, not with a view to questioning whether extending the right to vote to convicted prisoners in certain circumstances would be philosophically, morally or politically justifiable.”
Those words are important because those are exactly the kind of judgments that our constituents expect us to make and to use in the Chamber. However sophisticated or complicated the arguments get, this is about a basic belief system and whether giving prisoners the right to vote is right or wrong. I take the view that someone who has committed a serious crime or series of crimes and who has been incarcerated, apart from the exclusions that have been mentioned already, should lose that right.
I am not prepared to flinch from that position and I shall tell hon. Members why. The general public might not wish to discuss the details of the principle of proportionality put forward by Aidan O’Neill and they might not be too concerned about Lord Mackay’s conclusion that the right to vote is not an absolute right, but they know instinctively when something is right or wrong. I believe that the public think it is wrong to give prisoners the vote.
I am just about to go into that. I have asked them, because I wanted to test my beliefs and whether my view that it would be wrong to give prisoners the vote would be taken on board by the public who elected me. The reaction I got from people was very similar. After I explained the issue, there was a pregnant pause because people thought that I was about to give them the punch line to a joke, rather than tell them about an issue that we were going to debate in Parliament. Then a look of disbelief came across their face at the very thought of giving criminals the right to vote.
I was lucky enough to visit Sandhurst earlier this week along with other hon. Members as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. We saw young men and women being prepared to be the officers of the future. In about six months’ time they will be serving in Afghanistan. I took that opportunity to ask those fine young men and women, as a litmus test, whether they believed it was right to give prisoners the vote. To an individual, they said no; it is very important to listen to them as well.
It is interesting to listen to the people who come to the debate from the other side. Liberty argues that denying prisoners the vote undermines the Human Rights Act, but I believe the reverse is true. The Howard League for Penal Reform suggests—ludicrously, in my opinion—that extending the right to vote to prisoners would be a natural progression of the ECHR. I disagree with that completely: it is an example of how risible an argument can become when it is over-egged.
What should we say to people who think we are over-hyping this issue when we say that rapists, paedophiles and murderers will get the vote? I looked up three examples of people who have been imprisoned for less than four years. Are we going to give the vote to Corey Smith, aged 19? He was sentenced to just under four years for threatening to stab commuters on the Central line in a three-week crime wave in December. Should we give the vote to the Mazambi family, three of whom were convicted for less than four years for stealing £500,000 from Comic Relief? That money should have gone to good causes. What about the motoring case of Jonathan Francis McGonagle, aged 23? He was sentenced to less than four years for killing a 25-year-old pedestrian while being drunk in charge of a car. Are they the type of people who should be given the vote?
If I make a speech today, I am not going to argue for a blanket right to vote for prisoners, but what does the hon. Gentleman say about the fact that in most other countries that subscribe to the Council of Europe the same view is not taken and the right to vote is given to some prisoners? What is the difference between the British culture and the rest of Europe that means that people just a few miles away have such very different views?
Because we are different. Northern Europeans’ view of life can be somewhat different to that of southern Europeans. They are entitled to their point of view, as are we; as Members of this House, we are entitled to take decisions on these matters. I dismiss the right hon. Gentleman’s point because this is about interpreting the European convention on human rights and how it is incorporated into UK law.
I was mindful of the words of Louis D. Brandeis, who was an associate justice of the Supreme Court in the United States of America. That gentleman said:
“If we desire respect for the law, we must first make the law respectable.”
That is an important point, which we should remember.
In my opinion, laws that command the support of Members of the House are being manipulated in unacceptable ways. It is perverse to argue that those who break our laws, and who have been incarcerated for doing so, should be given the right to vote, and there is a burden of responsibility for Members in this House to speak out. I have done so today and I will be backing the motion.
I am pleased to be able to say that I support the motion. I am disappointed that my amendment was not selected, because several hon. Members have raised the spectre of what this step will cost, and we cannot have that elephant in the room. We cannot grandstand today or make large speeches and not accept that someone, somewhere is looking at the detail of what is said and seeing whether they can bring us to heel with threats. Hanging over us is the fact that prisoners around the country will be studying what is said and queuing up to test the strength of our resolution.
Once somebody has been convicted of a crime so serious that they are jailed—not just any crime—they go to prison and their voting right is suspended. It is not removed; it is suspended until it is considered right for them to leave jail. If we pick an arbitrary figure of one, two or three years, or certain categories of prisoner, it is my absolute belief that people will test the reasonableness of that decision. That is a deeply unsettling thought. The litigation will not stop because we have decided to draw the line in the sand at that particular point just because some other countries have done so.
I absolutely concur with the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann): what other countries choose to do is completely up to them. They have found the level of reasonableness that is acceptable to them and to their population, and to the constituents who voted for them to make those decisions. We are here to represent our constituents. I am not a lawyer; I do not know the legalese, but it depresses me profoundly when I hear that we, a sovereign Parliament, are looking for wriggle room. Why are we looking for wriggle room? We should be able to say that this House’s view is that we do not believe that anyone who is convicted of a crime so serious that they are going to jail can then exercise the right to vote.
In case there is a question whether we should be making that decision, I would like to read a quote that appeared yesterday on the Prison Reform Trust website. Juliet Lyon advocates:
“Instead of listening to MPs…the coalition government should listen to the advice of experienced prison governors and officials, past and present bishops to prisons and chief inspectors, electoral commissioners, legal and constitutional experts and most other European governments.”
I say no. The people whom the coalition Government should listen to are the elected Members of this House, who serve thousands and thousands of law-abiding citizens, most of whom—not all, because I believe Liberal Democrats would argue to the contrary—find it repugnant that the Mr Hirsts of this world can believe, as he says, that the decision is
“going to be a great leap forward once the prisoners get the vote. They will start voicing their opinion and they’ll start getting changes that they deserve, whereas before they were getting kicked and they’re last in the queue when things were being dished out. But now they’ll be on an equal footing to everybody else because their vote counts.”
No, they are not on an equal footing. They have lost many of their liberties as a result of being in jail, and this right is something that they should also lose.
I have listened to my constituents for 27 years. I am quite clear that the majority would be in favour of restoring the death penalty. I do not accept that view. We do not have to accept the view of the majority. There is a perfectly reasonable view that, actually, the minority are sometimes right.
And I respect the right hon. Gentleman for his own judgment on that matter, but we are talking today not about getting rid of someone’s life but about suspending their voting rights while they are incarcerated at Her Majesty’s pleasure, because 12 good men and true—and women—decided that their crime was sufficiently bad, and the judge agreed with them, to send them to jail. Bringing the argument about the death penalty into this debate does not help us one jot.
We should be saying, as part of the motion, that if the crime is so serious that someone is sentenced to jail, that is the benchmark. Other countries may have set a benchmark of a year, two years or three years, but our benchmark is perfectly just and reasonable.
If we leave this elephant in the room, leading to compensation, costs and judgments against us, costing our taxpayers money, we will be treading a path that most of our constituents would find incomprehensible; and if today we cannot debate that amendment because it was not selected, I propose that it be brought back as a motion before the House. I took comfort from the Attorney-General when he said he hoped there would be further debates on the subject, and I think that is a crucial debate. We should vote today in the certain knowledge that the will of House is that we do not extend voting rights to prisoners who are incarcerated, and in the next debate we must make it clear that we do not believe they should be compensated for that loss at all.
I apologise for the fact that immediately after my contribution I will have to leave the Chamber owing to circumstances beyond my control.
Before I begin, I am sure that hon. Members will wish to join me in expressing their condolences to the families of those who today lost their lives in a plane crash on a flight from my constituency in East Belfast to Cork. I know that hon. Members may have heard the news and will want to extend their condolences to the families affected and their best wishes to those who have survived that crash.
I join the hon. Lady in those expressions of sympathy. It was a matter that I raised at business questions this morning, and Members from Northern Ireland sympathise with her and her constituents at this time. It has been a grievous loss which is felt deeply across the Province.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his words of condolence, and I am sure that the people involved will appreciate them very much.
In the short time available, I want to touch briefly on two issues, namely the effect of the blanket ban and the Government’s preferred option for change, which has been outlined. I share many of the concerns expressed about the idea of extending the right to vote to prisoners, which, I concede, is counter-intuitive. This debate has to be considered and balanced if it is to meet the requirements of the European Court of Human Rights, and, most importantly, to reach a just and reasonable position on the matter. Essentially we need to consider the rationale for removing the right to vote in a blanket ban and what purpose that serves. While gut instinct may tell us one thing, the rationale for it does not stand up to scrutiny.
Prison serves three purposes, the first and most important of which is to protect the public. Therefore, I agree with the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) that it follows that those in prison ought to be those who have committed serious offences, although that is not always the case. It is also important that it is about punishment for the offence that has been committed. However, Members who have spoken in favour of retaining a blanket ban have themselves questioned whether it is effective, either as a punishment, given that few prisoners actually want to exercise the right to vote, or as a deterrent for future criminals.
The third aspect of prison is to rehabilitate offenders so that they can effectively rejoin society at the end of their prison sentence and make a positive contribution. There is an argument that by re-engaging prisoners in civic responsibility in the latter parts of their sentences in particular, it is possible to establish more positive behaviours, which may then follow them into wider society on their release. Voting in certain circumstances may play a role in that. We have international treaty obligations, which have been outlined in some detail.
I would prefer any changes to UK law that introduce limited voting rights for prisoners to be based on length of sentence rather than left to the discretion of the individual judges and the courts. The Government proposal to allow voting for sentences of four years or less seems an overly generous response and not necessarily more proportionate and considered than a blanket ban. A preferable option, bearing in mind the rehabilitation argument, may be to limit the right of voting to prisoners serving sentences of one year or less, and to reintroduce the right to vote in the final year of a longer sentence as part of a wider programme of reintegration and rehabilitation. That may be seen as a more considered and more positive response.
Prisoner voting is a reserved matter. However, justice is devolved in Northern Ireland, so decisions taken in Westminster will have an impact on the devolved Administration, who will be responsible for implementing it directly. It is therefore critical that the Government consult fully with the devolved Administrations about their approach, and listen to their concerns and their input as they take it forward.
It is important that we have had the opportunity to discuss the subject, and I hope that it will not lead simply to the removal of the blanket ban with nothing more considered being put in its place.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. Before the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) leaves the Chamber, may I add my sympathies to those already expressed to her and her constituents? I must also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) on obtaining the debate, and the Backbench Business Committee on giving time for it. I will try to keep my comments short given how many hon. Members want to contribute, but the fact that so many do is indicative of the interest in the House and throughout the country on this matter.
I was elected to be the voice of my constituents in this place, and many of them have contacted me to express their concern about the matter. They are firmly, to a man and a woman, against any move to give votes to prisoners, and I am wholeheartedly in agreement with them.
Prison should fulfil three functions: protect the public, rehabilitate the prisoner and punish them. This debate is most concerned with its punishment function. Depriving someone of their liberty is in itself the strongest of punishments. There is the obvious physical restriction—the inability to move freely—but there is rightly another aspect to the punishment of a prison sentence: through the actions that have deserved such punishment, prisoners set themselves apart from civil society in an important way. The right to vote is an important part of a citizen’s rights; it is not something to be taken lightly. In fact, it is an indication of full participation in society. Losing the right to choose a democratic representative is an important part of the punishment, but it is also recognition of the nature of the punishment, which is more than the inability to go where one pleases.
I am following my hon. Friend’s argument closely and totally support it. Does she agree that a legal anomaly that should perhaps be considered in this debate is the fact that prisoners serving a year or less in prison have the right to stand for election to this House, even though they do not have the right to vote?
That is a good point, and I am sure that we will come back to it.
Removal of the right to vote does not mean that prisoners are not represented. Indeed, I am sure that every Member of this House has had reason to act for a constituent in prison, by ensuring that appropriate rehabilitative courses are available or that inappropriate conditions are addressed, for example. Therefore, it would be wrong to say that prisoners are not represented. They must be treated fairly, and they are represented here. However, representation is a separate issue from the right to choose the representative. As well as a mark of full participation in society, the right to vote is a hard-fought privilege.
I agree wholeheartedly.
It is not only particularly difficult to accept that the will of Parliament should be challenged on this matter of all things in the way we find it challenged today, it is also a direct insult to those men and women who fought, both politically and physically, to extend the franchise; it is an insult to the principled men who fought for the right to vote in the 19th century to grant the right to vote to serious criminals; and it is a terrible insult to suffragettes, such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Wilding Davison, the latter, as Members will know, having hid in this House to make her case.
I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Lady’s argument. The fact is that the suffragettes were fighting for women’s right to vote, something of which she and I are welcome beneficiaries. It would be a great insult to their memory to allow prisoners who have abused women to enjoy the same rights that they suffered to earn.
As Members of this House, we are privileged to represent our constituents and should recognise the value that the electorate place on that right. Giving the vote to prisoners who have committed serious offences equates them with the rest of society. Of all people, we should support the importance of the vote. It is no physical or psychological hardship, but a mature part of society’s position. While a person is in prison, they should not have the right to vote.
The debate is about whether prisoners should have the right to vote, but it seems to have been turned into an opportunity to bash the European Court of Human Rights, the convention and the Human Rights Act. That is completely unfair, because over the past 30 or 40 years the European Court has been making judgments in cases where it is now accepted that the correct decision was made.
We have heard constant references to Lord Hoffmann’s opinion. When I was training to be a barrister, I was told that citing dissenting and minority opinions of judges is the last refuge of a desperate advocate. Let me tell the House a little about Lord Hoffmann’s background, and let us see whether, by the end of that, people still believe that he is the man by whom one should judge whether the European Court is right or wrong.
I shall start with the case of Peter Sutcliffe. His last victim’s mother sued the police over the negligence of the investigation that led to her daughter’s death, but the House of Lords decided that the police and local authorities could not be sued for negligence in any actions that they took. That principle existed in our courts for 10 years until, eventually, it was challenged, and, believe it or not, it was the European Court in Strasbourg that said, “No, local authorities and public bodies can be responsible and can be sued when there has been a dereliction of duty.”
Cases of children who have been abused or not taken into care by local authorities—
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. When I might have tried in the past to go through a history of a Member of the other place, I might have been called to order, so I wonder how much of this background we are going to get.
Order. I have to rule. Please, take your seat.
Sir Peter Bottomley has made a point of order and is absolutely correct. We should not mention another person in another place in that way, so I am sure that the hon. Lady does not need to continue down that line.
If I may just finish, I should say that nobody now would think that suing a local authority or a public body over the negligence of their actions was wrong. So, using one person to criticise and castigate the whole European convention is plainly not right.
On prisoners’ right to vote, I know that some people say that, because the prisoner has committed the offence, all their rights should be taken away, but does that mean that we should go back 100 or 200 years when hard labour was considered to be the right punishment? I am sure that, in those days, when people said that our penal policies should be much more humane and liberal, just as many people said, “Oh no, these people have committed crimes and therefore should be punished to the hilt.” As we did not adhere to those policies then, why are we reacting so strongly to this issue now?
I agree with several Members who have said that, in reality, the number of prisoners who exercise the right will probably be quite small. In my years before becoming a Member, I represented and prosecuted many defendants, and I met many people who became prisoners, so I can say, anecdotally, that most of them are unlikely to vote, but the question is one of principle: what do we as a society and as a nation stand for?
Many years ago, we abolished the death penalty, bar for two offences: high treason and burning Her Majesty’s shipyard. A few years ago, a Labour Government abolished the death penalty even for those offences. Why did they do that? We had not issued the death penalty to anyone since the ’60s, but we abolished it for those two offences because we felt that as a society in the 21st century that was the right thing to do. A point of principle was involved, and for me the issue of prisoners’ rights is a point of principle, too.
The disfranchisement of sentenced prisoners dates back to the Forfeiture Act 1870, and the origins of the ban are rooted in the notion of civic death: a punishment entailing the withdrawal of citizenship rights. But Dr Selby, the former bishop of Her Majesty’s prisons, and now the president of the National Council for Independent Monitoring Boards, states:
“Denying convicted prisoners the right to vote serves no purpose”—
I am not a lawyer, which I think might be helpful in this debate. As we heard earlier, a lot of the lawyers in the Chamber and in Her Majesty’s Government are over-complicating this issue, which I believe is quite straightforward. It is the settled view of the British people, through their elected representatives in the British Parliament, that prisoners should not have the right to vote, and it has been that way since 1870. Everyone understands and accepts that—it is one of those issues that, in modern parlance, has cut through. My role here, as an ordinary, humble Back Bencher, is to represent the views of my constituents. My constituents do not want sentenced prisoners to have the right to vote. If I walked down Kettering High street and asked shoppers whether that was a sensible policy, the overwhelming majority would say, “That is absolutely right, and Her Majesty’s Government should not be trying to change the law.”
We were told by Her Majesty’s Government not so long ago that they had to agree to the judgment of the Court and that the minimum they could do was to limit this right to prisoners sentenced to four years or less. The consequences of that are absolutely appalling. There are 28,770 prisoners serving sentences of less than four years: 5,900 for violence against the person, 1,753 for sexual offences, 2,500 for robbery, more than 4,000 for burglary, and almost 4,500 for drug offences. My constituents in Kettering do not want those people to have the right to vote.
The hon. Gentleman takes a perfectly reasonable position. I totally disagree with him, but he is a principled man and he makes an important point. The bottom line for me is that there would be less shame in leaving the European convention on human rights than in giving prisoners the vote. He may disagree with that, but it is the line that I would take. What people do in other countries is up to them.
I would like to stay in the convention, but we are dealing with a court that has gone wrong. It is clearly not functioning properly. It has a backlog of tens of thousands of unresolved cases. Many of its so-called judges have no legal training at all; they are probably less qualified than me to make judgments on these things. How has it come about that we, in a sovereign Parliament, have let these decisions be taken by a kangaroo court in Strasbourg, the judgments of which do not enjoy the respect of our constituents?
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is extraordinary that we should allow judges in Strasbourg to tell us that voting is not a privilege but a right? Try telling the people who fought so long and hard to get the right to vote in their Governments democratically that it is not a privilege. Privileges can be conferred on those of us who contribute to our communities as law-abiding citizens, but they can also be taken away.