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Prisoners: Voting

Volume 711: debated on Wednesday 17 June 2009

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether, following the remarks of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe on 12 June, they will take steps to allow prisoners to vote.

My Lords, the Government have noted the remarks of the Committee of Ministers and remain committed to a two-stage consultation process on this issue. The Government launched their second consultation paper in April, outlining their proposals for how the judgment in Hirst (No. 2) might be implemented. The consultation closes on 29 September 2009, after which date the Government will consider the next steps towards implementing the judgment in legislation.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, which is very much what I expected. Is he aware that it is now two years and three months longer than the entire duration of World War II since this issue was raised in the High Court? In view of that time, it is hardly surprising that on Friday the Committee of Ministers in the Council of Europe expressed concern at the significant delay in implementing the judgment of the European Court; condemned the United Kingdom’s delay in organising voting for prisoners; warned that there was now a pressing need for action to be taken; and called on the Government of the United Kingdom swiftly to set in measures that prisoners would be able to vote in the general election predicted for the next spring. In view of that, my question to Her Majesty’s Government is simple: do they have any intention of speeding up the process to ensure that those prisoners whose crimes are not such as to warrant removal of the right to vote as part of their sentence may be able to vote in the next general election?

My Lords, the Government believe that the issues around prisoner voting remain complex and require full consultation and consideration. The practical issues—and there are some—need to be thought through and decisions taken on what criteria should apply in order to make a fair decision on whether a prisoner should be able to vote. We are currently consulting on the enfranchisement of prisoners. We have set out in the consultation paper a number of questions on the practical aspects of implementation and a range of options for prisoners’ enfranchisement based on sentence length. As I have said, when the second consultation is concluded, we will consider the next steps towards implementing the judgment in legislation.

My Lords, there is a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights on this issue, and as signatories—this would apply whichever Government were in power—we are obliged to follow that ruling.

My Lords, the Government have a very good reputation, of which they should be proud, in abiding by judgments of the European Court of Human Rights. This, unfortunately, is a gross exception, which creates a bad example to the rest of Europe. Could the Minister expand on the answer he gave on 20 April to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, when he said that there were serious practical difficulties for the prison authorities and courts? What I do not understand—perhaps he can help the House—is why Ireland and Cyprus gave postal voting, and South Africa and Canada managed to do the same. Why cannot the Government introduce a remedial order, and get the judgment complied with, as the Committee of Ministers is asking should happen by Christmas?

My Lords, consultation ends on 29 September and we then have to look at the way forward. Although of course the noble Lord is right that a remedial order would technically be available by virtue of the decision made by the European Court of Human Rights, any legislation would clearly have to deal with a number of complex issues. Those are issues of principle such as where the line should be drawn on partial prisoner enfranchisement, what length of sentence should serve as the cut-off point—I mentioned that earlier—and how to treat classes of prisoner not subject to ordinary periods of detention. This is a matter in which the public have considerable interest anyway. Primary legislation, which Parliament will have proper time to consider, debate and amend, is much the most appropriate vehicle for this issue.

I think that we have had one Cross-Bencher, have we not, my Lords?

I agree very much with my noble friend’s observations. While we are on the subject of Europe and voting, would he like to comment on the deplorably low turnout in the recent European elections, based as they were on the system of proportional representation? Given that people in prison, as well as the rest of the population, have very little understanding of how I imagine the d’Hondt system works—a lack of understanding which I admit I share—will my noble friend give a brief explanation of it?

My Lords, last time we debated these interesting issues, my noble friend asked me pretty much the same question. I was not expecting him to intervene again in quite the same way. I had better say what I said last time, with great trepidation, he being my former Chief Whip: I think that what he asks is a little wide of the mark.