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Prisoners: Voting

Volume 729: debated on Wednesday 6 July 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they intend to respond to the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in April that they should make proposals to grant prisoners the vote within six months of that ruling.

My Lords, the Government are considering the next steps and Parliament will be the first to be informed when the decisions on the way forward have been reached.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for that helpful reply, but it does not take us very much further. In February this year, the other place voted by a majority of 212 against giving prisoners the vote, and during the passage of the EU Bill the Government made great play of the sovereignty of Parliament. Which body is actually sovereign? Is it the UK Parliament or the European Court of Human Rights?

On the question of the commitments made last April, we have promised to make our position clear on 11 October. On the question of sovereignty, of course this Parliament remains sovereign. In many cases over the years, Britain has signed up to conventions and treaties as the will of Parliament, and that is still the case with regard to the European Convention on Human Rights.

My Lords, as the United Kingdom is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, are we not bound to accept the jurisdiction of the court unless we seek to withdraw from it, which would hardly be in the interests of this country? However, if there is a widespread concern, not only in this country but in other countries, about the jurisprudence of the court, is it not more sensible to enter into discussions about possible amendments to the convention on human rights rather than its break-up and withdrawing from the jurisdiction of the court?

One reassuring thing is that I am not aware of any party represented in this House that is looking for us either to withdraw from the convention or to see it break up. My noble friend is right: we are looking to see whether we can put forward a proper and sensible programme of reform for the court. My right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor spelled out our agenda, as it were, in a speech in Turkey a few months ago, and we will be taking that agenda forward when we take up the chairmanship of the Council of Europe in November.

Does the Minister agree that while there may be a case for asking for an extension of time while awaiting the Grand Chamber judgment in the Scoppola case, which also involves prisoners’ rights, and a case for negotiating with the court on the broad margin of appreciation allowed in the Hirst case, there is no case whatever for defying the court, as a number of Members of the other place seem rather keen to do, particularly at a time when the UK will assume the chairmanship of the Council of Ministers in November? What sort of precedent would that give to defaulting members such as Turkey and Russia?

The noble Lord makes the key point in all this. It looks rather macho to say that we are going to defy the court, but one of the real benefits of the convention over the past 60 years has been that it has levered up respect for human rights right across Europe and continues to do so. If I, any of my noble friends, or any member of the Opposition were to meet marginal observers of human rights and put pressure on them, our words would not carry much weight if they were able to say, “Well, when it got tough for you to accept the decisions, you did not accept them”.

My Lords, does my noble friend believe that it is fair and right that prisoners convicted of crimes should be allowed to vote, whereas Peers in this House are not?

There is a saying, “You can tell a man who boozes by the company that he chooses”. I am well aware of the reasons why Peers cannot vote, because we already have a vote in Parliament. I do not think that that rules out the case for prisoner voting—it is an ongoing debate and the Government are studying the various issues. Another reason why the Government are continuing to have to study those issues is that there are changes in the court’s position. The Italian case that the noble Lord referred to means that again there is a slight change in the court’s view on these matters, which may change future actions.

The noble Lord speaks very clearly and enthusiastically about our responsibilities of adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights. Instead of concentrating so much on this micro case of prisoner voting, will he concentrate equally on the macro problem of making the court work? The biggest problem at the European Court of Human Rights is the backlog of cases—over 100,000 cases—and the real reason for the backlog is because the court is being starved of money by the members who have to finance it. Will he make sure that that problem is now seriously addressed so that the court can get on with its real work on the big scale?

I am not sure I entirely agree that it is simply a lack of money or budget. I know that the noble Lord has made this point about the financing of the court before, but that is why my right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor has made this such an important part of our presidency of the Council of Europe; as the noble Lord says, any court that has a backlog of over 100,000 cases ain’t working. We are going to do our best, and we are gathering support for the idea of trying, to get some fundamental reform of the court.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that if we deny all prisoners one of the most basic rights of citizenship—that is, the vote—they are less likely to fulfil their responsibilities of citizenship on release?

That is an opinion that, quite frankly, I share. Perhaps the noble Baroness could come down the Corridor with me and we will try to convince David Davis and Jack Straw.