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Prisoners: Voting

Volume 715: debated on Tuesday 15 December 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they intend to legislate to lift the complete ban on convicted prisoners voting.

My Lords, the Government are currently analysing the responses to the second stage consultation, which closed on 29 September 2009. The Government take their obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights seriously and are committed to implementing the judgments of the European Court. But we must arrive at a solution which respects the judgment of the Court and takes into account the political context and traditions of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that predictable reply. Can he explain to the House whether the Government intend either to ignore or take action to prevent what the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe last week expressed as serious concern that the substantial delay in implementing the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights given on 6 October 2005 has given rise to a significant risk that the next United Kingdom general election, which must take place by June 2010, will be performed in a way that fails to comply with the convention? Is that a risk that the Government are prepared to prevent?

My Lords, the Government note, of course, the interim resolution by the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers’ Deputies in this case. We have, as I have told the House, recently completed a two-stage consultation. We are carefully analysing the response. We take our obligations seriously, but we have to arrive at an approach which respects the judgment of the court and the political context and traditions of the United Kingdom. If the concerns of the European Court expressed in Hirst were not remedied by the next general election, this would not, in the Government’s view, call into question the legality of the elections themselves as challenges go to the right of individual prisoners to take part in the elections rather than the legality of the elections themselves.

My Lords, can we forget about the general election? May we concentrate on this incessant moan that we are thinking about this and thinking about that and considering the other, and get on with the job that is a humanitarian commitment?

My Lords, the concerns are slightly broader than the noble Lord will have it. These are complex issues and remain complex issues. They require full consultation and consideration. Apart from the principle of the issue, there are many practical issues that need to be thought through and decisions taken on what criteria should apply to make a fair decision on whether a prisoner should be able to vote.

Will the Minister indicate how much longer the Government need to come to a decision on this issue, having taken four years already? The order of the Court is quite clear. Can my noble friend give me other instances of when this pick-and-mix approach to decisions of the Court has been put into operation?

Our record on committing ourselves and effecting the decisions of the Court is a good one over the years. The Court made it absolutely clear that there is a wide margin of appreciation for member states in issues such as this. We are coming to a view and want to ensure that it is right; then, of course, it will be for the British Parliament to decide in the end what to do next.

My Lords, I am sure the Minister will agree that for there to be an interim resolution by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe of this character is a very serious matter, which affects the reputation of this country to abide by the rule of law. The noble Lord has not answered the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, about whether the Government will do what the Committee of Ministers wish and legislate rapidly so that there will not be a continuing breach when the next election comes in respect of prisoners’ rights and the judgment of the Court. I wonder whether he would be kind enough to answer that question.

My Lords, we will respond when we are ready to respond. We hope that it will be soon, but these are complicated and complex matters. I believe that the Opposition agree with us that this is not an easy matter. It is not clear, for example, that popular feeling is anything other than strictly against this proposal. We realise that the Court’s judgment has to be obeyed, and we will do so.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that one reason for the considerable concern about the extraordinary length of time that the Government have taken to implement a decision dated 6 October 2005 is that they appear deliberately to be delaying this matter until after the next general election? Can the Minister give the House an unequivocal assurance that that is no part and has been no part of the Government’s motivation?