COURT RULES ON VOTES FOR PRISONERS
The row over prisoners’ voting rights has erupted again as human rights judges gave David Cameron six months to change the law in Britain.
The European Court of Human Rights acknowledged that it was up to national authorities to decide exactly who can vote from jail – but denying the right to all inmates indiscriminately is illegal.
The ultimatum was issued as the Strasbourg court ruled in a separate case that depriving an Italian convicted murderer of voting rights did not breach his human rights.
But the judges emphasised that this was because in Italy, unlike the UK, there is no “general, automatic, indiscriminate” ban in place.
The ruling pointed out that in Italy, the loss of voting rights only applied to prisonersguilty of certain types of offences and where a sentence of at least three years is imposed. Even for those affected the right to vote can be restored three years after the sentence has been completed.
The judges effectively challenged the UK Government to agree within six months on what parameters to set for British prisoners, and scrap the total ban.
A Cabinet Office spokesman said the government would now consider carefully the ruling on Italy “and its implication on the issue of prisoner voting in the UK”.
Mark Leech, editor of Converse, the national newspaper for prisoners, welcomed the ruling but said he could not understand what all the fuss was about.
“The reality is that the public are up in arms about this – when most prisoners really couldn’t care less.
“Politicians don’t take a blind bit of notice of the public millions who can vote now – what makes anyone think giving 80,000 prisoners the vote will make any difference?”
“That said, prisoners should be allowed to vote, if for no other reason than we live in a democracy, and in a demoncracy everyone counts – black, white, male, female, tall, small, fat, thin, gay or straight, everyone, every single person counts.”
But Tory MP David Davis slammed the ultimatum, saying: “This regrettable decision is an infringement of the UK Parliament’s right to decide on matters which are fundamental to the British way of life, and which are not appropriate to judicial intervention.
“This will inevitably lead to a clash between the express wishes of the UK Parliament and the assertions of the European Court and will not help the court achieve its important functions in stopping breaches of fundamental rights throughout Europe.”
The judges said that if the UK now complies within six months with the order to grant some prisoners voting rights, the Court will “strike out” all similar pending cases from UKprisoners - about 2,500 and counting.
That would remove the current threat of massive potential government damages payments to prison inmates if all complaints went through the Strasbourg court and were upheld.
The ruling declared: “It is up to (Council of Europe) Member states to decide how to regulate the ban on prisoners’ voting.”
The judges said they now accepted the UK Government argument that “each State has a wide discretion as to how it regulates the ban, both as regards the types of offence that should result in the loss of the vote and as to whether disenfranchisement should be ordered by a judge in an individual case or should result from general application of a law”.
The wrangle with Strasbourg began when UK inmates complained that the loss of voting rights violated a Human Rights Convention Article guaranteeing the “right to free elections”.
The European Court of Human Rights has twice ruled the UK’s total ban illegal.
But the Prime Minister has previously told MPs: “It makes me physically ill to contemplate giving the vote to prisoners. They should lose some rights, including the right to vote.”
UK Independence Party MEP Paul Nuttall, said: “Pass David Cameron the sick bag, because this judgment means that British prisoners will get the vote – some of them at least.”
He added: “This is a bad judgment from a Mickey Mouse court. It is a slap in the face to the British democratic process.
“We should not have to come cap in hand to a foreign court seeking to defend the clear wishes of the British parliament and people.”
But Isabella Sankey, director of policy for Liberty said: “After all the political hot-air and raised tempers over prisoner voting, today’s judgment shows that whilst the Court of Human Rights must uphold core values against blanket and irrational Victorian laws, it will allow individual countries a great deal of discretion about how best to apply human rights at home.
“The Commons huffed and puffed but the Court had no intention of blowing its House down. Perhaps we can now have a more rational domestic debate about what prisoner voting bans really achieve and if and when they might be appropriate?”
A London Law firm currently acting for more than 550 prisoners challenging UK voting rights laws warned that further delays in changing domestic rules could leave the Government facing damages payouts.
Leigh Day & Co, is handling applications relating to inmates’ inability to vote in the May 2010 general election. Partner Sean Humber commented: “In its latest judgment, the European Court of Human Rights has confirmed again that the UK’s continuing blanket ban on prisoner voting is unlawful.
“The UK Government must now come forward with the necessary legislative proposals to rectify the continuing breach.
“Continuing inaction is likely to leave the UK further exposed to claims for compensation by serving prisoners.”