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Prisoners: Voting

Volume 714: debated on Thursday 12 November 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they will announce the results of the second consultation on prisoners’ voting rights.

My Lords, the second consultation on the voting rights of convicted prisoners closed on 29 September 2009. The Government are carefully studying the responses and will set out the next steps in due course.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that non-answer. When the first consultation was announced in 2006, we were told that it would be completed and that legislation would be published early in 2008. In fact, it was not until April 2009, almost two and a quarter years later—at the end of the first consultation—that the second consultation was announced, with no legislation. The consultation took six months as opposed to three, which is normal. Will the Government explain these inordinate delays in responding to a ruling of the European Court?

My Lords, our record on responding to the European Court is good, as has been acknowledged generally. This is a particularly difficult and complex issue, involving both what we should do and how we would do it when we allow some prisoners to vote. We have completed a second consultation on the enfranchisement of prisoners. It set out a range of options for prisoner enfranchisement based on sentence length, as well as a number of questions on the practical aspects of implementation, which is not easy. We are studying carefully the responses to the second stage and, as I have told the noble Lord on many occasions, we will consider the next step in due course.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm—I think that he will—that following the judgment there is no obligation on this country to give the vote to all prisoners? We can limit it to some prisoners and that “some” can be very limited.

I can confirm what the noble Lord, Lord Henley, has put to me—he is absolutely right. The European Court of Human Rights did not say which prisoners should be given the vote. The court held that the blanket ban was unlawful—of course we accept that—but expressly recognised that each member state has some discretion as to who should be given the vote. It is on that basis that the second consultation has been held.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the court judgment was in March 2004 and that it has been an inordinately long six years while the Government have been deliberating on this? Will he explain to the House what purpose is served by punishing all prisoners, irrespective of the gravity of their crime, in this manner?

My Lords, it has been a substantial time, although the date that the noble Baroness should go back to is October 2005, when the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights upheld the court’s initial ruling. It is a substantial time but, as I have said, these are complex and difficult issues, about which the public also have views. It remains our view that the right to vote goes to the essence of an offender’s relationship with a democratic society and that the removal of the right to vote from some convicted prisoners can be a proportionate and proper response following conviction and imprisonment.

Does the Minister not agree that, with so many years having elapsed since a clear and unambiguous judgment was given by the European Court, however sincere the Government may be in their desire to obtain a perfect solution to the situation, inevitably the impression will be given to other countries that they would not be heartbroken if the matter sailed on for all eternity like some legislative “Flying Dutchman”, never finding port or harbour?

My Lords, we are looking not for a perfect solution but for a workable one—one that will work in practice. Of course we accept that we have to implement the judgment.

I will draw, if I may, on my previous experience, which I had better declare: I was chairman for many years of Nacro. For a number of years I lectured in Pentonville, particularly to prisoners on release. One should think about this in terms not simply of whether they should get a vote, but of whether we can give them the vote and use that constructively. That could be done on the basis that they get the vote but we so contrive an educational system—I use those words, but they are not exactly what I mean—whereby they are introduced to general issues of concern to us all. In my experience, once you have dealt with the one rogue element in a group, you can get them interested, working and thinking for themselves.

My Lords, there is a lot in what my noble friend says. The educational part of the work that goes on in prisons these days is much improved from what it was in the past. There is absolutely no reason why we should not do as he says.

My Lords, from the Minister’s Answer I was not clear whether there will be a chance for the changes to take place before the next election. If they are to take place before the election, are the Government undertaking any polling on which way prisoners will vote?

On the second part of the noble Lord’s question, we have undertaken no polling of that kind, but I should be interested to hear his views on that. As to the first part, I can only repeat that the Government are carefully studying the responses to the second stage consultation and will consider the next steps in due course.

That sounds rather like the “Flying Dutchman” example referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan.