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Prisoners: Voting Rights

Volume 779: debated on Thursday 16 March 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to introduce legislation in this Parliamentary session to give effect to the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights on prisoners’ voting rights.

My Lords, the Government have made it clear that there is no realistic prospect of bringing forward legislation to amend the Representation of the People Act 1983 or of Parliament lifting the current ban on prisoner voting in the current Parliament. The Government continue to engage in dialogue with Strasbourg on this issue.

My Lords, until 12 years ago in the prisoners voting case, the United Kingdom had an unparalleled record of compliance with its obligations under the European convention, upholding the rule of law. Is the Minister aware that the example given by the United Kingdom in the last almost 12 years of flouting the binding judgment of the Strasbourg court has encouraged the Russian Federation, for example, to follow suit by authorising its Parliament also to flout judgments of the European court? Will she bear that in mind and enable Parliament, in exercising its sovereign powers, to pass judgment on this in an actual Bill in the lifetime of this Parliament?

My Lords, I say straightaway to the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, that this Government have an exemplary record on human rights and he will know that this is an exceptional case. With regard to Russia, there is no comparison between the track record of the UK and that of Russia in ensuring European convention rights for citizens. In 2015, the UK committed to a period of enhanced dialogue with the Committee of Ministers secretariat to discuss how best to address the judgment given the lack of appetite in our Parliament to enfranchise prisoners. The Government have fulfilled that commitment.

My Lords, the Government have been in dialogue with Strasbourg for 12 years. Does the Minister agree that we give a very poor precedent—indeed, a welcome precedent—for Russia, Turkey and other serial defaulters, particularly when, under the margin of appreciation available and given the results of the parliamentary committee on this, several compromises are available?

My Lords, I am afraid I cannot agree with the noble Lord. A number of countries have argued that we should implement the judgment to ensure that the authority of the court and the power of the convention are upheld. However, we also know that a number of other countries—members of the Council of Europe—sympathise with our position. They recognise that, on the one hand, we want to respect the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, as we do in other cases, but, on the other, this parliamentary sovereignty is the essence of our democracy. We have no reason to suppose that our Parliament thinks any differently from when this whole issue was last debated in another place, whereby a Back-Bench Motion to enfranchise prisoners was resoundingly defeated by a margin of 234 to 22 on a free vote.

My Lords, I served on the Joint Committee on the Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill and we made our recommendations over three years ago. They included this comment in relation to parliamentary sovereignty:

“We agree with the evidence of Lord Mackay of Clashfern, that the principle of parliamentary sovereignty is not an argument against giving effect to the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights. Parliament remains sovereign, but that sovereignty resides in Parliament's power to withdraw from the Convention system; while we are part of that system we incur obligations that cannot be the subject of cherry picking”.

Will the noble Baroness kindly remind the Prime Minister of the need for this country to comply with its obligations under international law?

My Lords, I think the House is showing that there is a difference of opinion on this subject. I hear what the noble and learned Lord has said, but I must also make clear that at a Committee of Ministers human rights meeting in December 2016 my right honourable friend in another place, the Minister of State for Courts and Justice, Sir Oliver Heald MP, focused on this issue of prisoner voting and said that the UK would provide further information on its planned approach in December 2017. This is a complex—I would rather call it a difficult—issue and not one that we are ignoring. We are considering it and will be there in December when the Council of Europe will review the UK’s ban on prisoners voting.

My Lords, I wonder if my noble friend the Minister can help the House. The 2010 Conservative Party manifesto included a British Bill of Rights, which would have withdrawn us from the convention. Was it similarly a Conservative Party manifesto commitment in 2015 to have a British Bill of Rights, because that would sort out the issue just mentioned by the noble and learned Lord? By the way, I do not think Putin has needed any encouragement from us to behave in the way he has.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for making that point. I want to stress that the UK has a proud tradition of respect for human rights which long predates the Human Rights Act 1998, brought in by the then Government. This Government remain committed to reforming our domestic human rights framework. We will consider the Bill of Rights further once we know the arrangements for our EU exit and we will consult fully on our proposals in the knowledge of the new constitutional landscape that will have been created.

My Lords, in the light of the ECHR judgment, will the Government take account of their own welcome commitment to promote offender rehabilitation?

My Lords, what arrangements exist for the large number of remand prisoners who are entitled to vote, and what would be the difficulty in extending those arrangements to, for example, prisoners who are coming towards the end of their sentences whom we are seeking to rehabilitate into society?

My Lords, that point is under consideration at the moment. During the Hirst case, which brought about this situation, the Government stressed that only the most serious of crimes receive a prison sentence and therefore the removal of the vote for all prisoners is proportionate. They argued that many other people in this country who have committed crimes receive non-custodial sentences and therefore retain the vote.