Skip to main content

Prisoners: Voting

Volume 706: debated on Monday 15 December 2008


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government why they have not implemented the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in Hirst v United Kingdom of 6 October 2005 that the disenfranchisement for parliamentary and local government elections of all prisoners is a breach of Protocol 1 to the European Convention on Human Rights.

My Lords, in response to the Hirst judgment, the Government committed to undertake a two-stage consultation: the first stage concluded in March 2007. We remain committed to a second-stage consultation, looking at how the judgment could be implemented. In doing so, the Government will need to take account of the wide spectrum of opinion on the issue, as well as the practical implications for the courts, for prison authorities and for the conduct of elections.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Can he please tell the House when consultation will begin on implementing the 2005 judgment of the European Court and will he please give the House an assurance that the Government are not seeking to delay implementation of that judgment until after the next general election?

My Lords, I cannot tell the noble Lord when the second-stage consultation will begin. The second consultation will cover some very big issues, not least how voting rights might be granted to serving prisoners and how far those rights should be extended.

My Lords, will the Minister explain to the House how it is that the Republic of Cyprus and the Republic of Ireland, which are not even parties to the Hirst judgment, managed to give effect to the judgment, giving postal votes in the case of the Republic of Ireland, without difficulty? Can he explain why it is that we remain among the top 10 countries in the Council of Europe that have delayed unduly, in leading cases, in giving effect under the convention to our international treaty obligations?

My Lords, I hope the noble Lord will forgive me if I quote him. He said:

“Neither I nor the committee—

the Joint Committee on Human Rights—

“is suggesting that the Government have an overall bad record in terms of implementation of the judgments of Strasbourg. That is not the case”.—[Official Report, 24/11/08; col. GC 143.]

I remind him that this Government have done more for human rights than any previous Government. I cite the Human Rights Act, the Freedom of Information Act, the Access to Justice Act, the Constitutional Reform Act and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. We have not just talked about it; we have actually done it.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is very important that the Government maintain their reputation as supporters of human rights, not only for the furtherance of human rights in this country but also around the globe?

My Lords, I agree with the noble and learned Lord entirely. Of course it is important that our high reputation continues in this field for exactly the reasons that he gives.

My Lords, while clearly it is up to states which adhere to the convention to abide by the decisions of the court, some of us find it surprising that a bare commitment by signatories to the convention to hold free elections has been interpreted as a commitment to grant to people in prison the right to vote. In the light of that and other cases, may not the time have come to look at the convention to consider whether perhaps it needs amending, so that while continuing to safeguard basic freedoms, it does not go far beyond that and in some cases—I am not referring to the instant cases—even offend against common sense?

My Lords, the European Convention on Human Rights, which was first formulated largely by British lawyers in the late 1940s and early 1950s, is something that both Governments have signed up to in the past. I presume that a Conservative Government in the future would support the continuation of it because it represents an important statement of rights. We introduced the Human Rights Act to support it and back it up and I hope that we have support from the Official Opposition for that.

My Lords, I am sure that what the Minister said about what the Government have done to further human rights in this country, including introducing the Human Rights Act, will be welcome. It is therefore a little disappointing that, in terms of this judgment, the Government seem to be dragging their heels. Does my noble friend agree that a simple device would be to give these prisoners postal votes and that could be done very quickly? I do not understand what the difficulty is. Can my noble friend explain?

My Lords, I know that my noble friends feel strongly about this issue. It is not about the liberty of the individual in the sense that so many cases are decided by the European Court of Human Rights. It is at heart about policy—a policy that Governments of both colours have supported for many, many years and a policy that probably attracts public support—so of course it is unusually difficult to come up with a satisfactory solution to the judgment by the Grand Chamber. The Grand Chamber said at paragraph 82 of its judgment that the “margin of appreciation” is wide though not all-embracing. It is that margin of appreciation between national member states and the judgment that is so difficult in this particular case.

My Lords, this is about human rights and the rights of the individual. More than three years have elapsed since the Hirst judgment. In the light of the excellent record of Her Majesty’s Government in relation to human rights, can the Minister give an undertaking that months rather than years will be allowed to elapse before this matter is resolved? Does he agree that, even in the case of prisoners in a prison, the delay of justice is a denial of justice?

My Lords, I cannot give any guarantee to the noble Lord, sympathetic though I am to him usually. I cannot do any better than quote what my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton, then the Lord Chancellor, said in the foreword to the first document that was published on this in December 2006:

“Successive UK Governments have held to the view that the right to vote forms part of the social contract between individuals and the State, and that loss of the right to vote, reflected in the current law, is a proper and proportionate punishment for breaches of the social contract that resulted in imprisonment”.

That has been the policy of successive Governments. We have to find a way now of implementing the court’s judgment.