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Prisoner Voting Rights

Volume 553: debated on Tuesday 20 November 2012

5. Whether he has given legal advice to the Secretary of State for Justice on the potential financial penalties the European Court of Human Rights could impose on the UK in respect of its policy on prisoners’ voting rights. (128882)

By long-standing convention observed by successive Governments, the fact and substance of advice from the Law Officers is not disclosed outside government. I hope that my hon. Friend will therefore understand why I cannot say whether I have given any legal advice in relation to this matter.

It may be helpful for my hon. Friend to know that the Strasbourg Court can order the payment of compensation and of legal costs and expenses, but cannot impose any other financial penalty. Non-financial sanctions are a matter for the Committee of Ministers and, ultimately, for the Council of Europe itself.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer. Does he agree that this instance of judicial activism by the European Court of Human Rights seeks to undermine the democratic mandate of this House? Does he recognise that talk of the UK meeting its international obligations with respect to the Court’s judgment seems a bit premature when one considers that hundreds of unimplemented judgments are pending review by the Committee of Ministers at the Council of Europe?

No, I have to disagree with my hon. Friend. I do not believe that the democratic mandate of this House is challenged. Parliamentary sovereignty remains. It is open to Parliament to decide not to change the law. However, if Parliament chooses not to implement the judgment, it would be a serious matter, because it would place the UK in breach of international obligations to which it is a signatory. I accept that other countries are in breach of their implementation obligations, but that does not provide an excuse for not honouring our own.

In addition, it is right to point out that only one other pilot judgment, besides the Greens and MT judgment, has not been implemented. That is in a case concerning Ukraine. There are, of course, many hundreds of judgments at various stages of implementation, but that is a slightly different issue.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman’s answers are invariably works of scholarship, from which no matter that he judges could be of any conceivable interest would ever be excluded.

Does the Attorney-General agree that there are two good reasons why we should implement legislation on prisoners’ voting rights? Firstly, we would be adhering to our obligations under the European convention on human rights. Secondly, it is a useful part of the rehabilitative process that prisoners do not lose all their rights when they go to prison, but rather lose their liberty. The opportunity to vote is actually quite helpful, as the South Africans have found out now that they have universal voting rights for prisoners.

On the latter point, the hon. Gentleman may be correct. That is a matter for robust debate, which this House has had and may well continue to have on this subject. On the former point, it is right to say that the UK has always, in modern times, adhered to its international obligations. There are good reasons why a country should adhere to its international obligations, such as to set an example and to provide international confidence. Ultimately, of course, it is a matter for the House to determine.