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Prisoners: Voting

Volume 724: debated on Tuesday 25 January 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they are making in their plans to give prisoners the right to vote.

My Lords, removing the blanket ban on prisoners’ voting is not a choice but a legal obligation. The Government will bring forward legislation in a first-Session Bill for the current blanket ban to be replaced. Work is currently under way to deliver this.

I thank the noble Lord for his reply, but does he not see the irony in the Government’s position? On the one hand, they are seeking to give votes to prisoners and, on the other hand, they are denying law-abiding citizens the right to make their case at local boundary inquiries—people are allowed only to send in a letter. Is that not a ridiculous position for the Government to be in?

My Lords, I am sure that we will have an opportunity to debate that question shortly—indeed, we seem to have been debating it for quite a number of days in the recent past. It is important to emphasise to noble Lords that this Government believe in fulfilling their legal obligations. Development of policy on this issue is being brought forward. We believe that it is important that we comply with the European Court of Human Rights.

My Lords, if convicted criminals are to get the vote, would there be any possibility of the reasonably law-abiding Members of this House having the same privilege? Do we not, too, have some human rights?

I note what my noble friend says, but when we came into this House the Reading Clerk very carefully stated that we had a seat, place and voice in this place. We are truly privileged, for we are indeed Members of Parliament in our own right and need no one to represent us.

What is the Government’s view on the clear and tested proposition that the public are likely to be endangered? Do they agree that suitable steps should be taken to protect the public in those circumstances?

My Lords, I do not think that that necessarily affects the voting right of prisoners, which is a matter of a human right. How the Government facilitate that is a matter of debate. Indeed, there will be debates on this issue; one has been arranged for 10 February in another place. At the moment, the Government’s thinking is that this is not a blanket ban to be removed by a blanket enabling, but that there should be restrictions on which prisoners are entitled to vote. The view of the Government at the minute is that sentences of fours years or more should disqualify anyone from the right to vote.

My Lords, the idea of giving prisoners the vote was described as ludicrous by the current Attorney-General when he was the shadow Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice and has been described by the present Prime Minister as making him sick. Does the noble Lord agree with his right honourable friends?

Sometimes one’s legal obligations give everybody the opportunity of revisiting things that at first sight might strike one as being contrary to one’s instinctive reaction. I think that noble Lords in this House may well feel the same. There are clearly defined opinions on this matter, but there is an argument for saying that, by establishing prisoners’ voting rights, we enable their rehabilitation to be that much more effective. That must be something that the debate will bring out.

I am glad to hear that the Government are bringing forward a Bill. Bearing in mind the furore that has accompanied the decision to determine whether prisoners should vote on the length of sentence, can the Minister say whether consideration has been given to the way in which this is done in France and Germany, where, instead of length of sentence, it is the crime that decides whether people should vote? When the judge sentences somebody in court, they decide whether the vote should be removed. We have the Sentencing Guidelines Council, which is perfectly capable of drawing up such guidance as judges may require.

Will my noble friend answer a question that I put to the noble Lord, Lord Bach, when he was in government? When were the British people given the opportunity to express their view on this matter?

The British people express their view on these sorts of issues through Parliament and through parliamentary debate. We are signatories of the European Convention on Human Rights—indeed, we were one of the founding signatory states—and generally I think that the British people believe in obeying the jurisdiction of conventions to which we sign up.