ECHR SHOULD RESPECT VOTE BAN
The European Court of Human Rights should respect Britain’s “sensible and proportionate” ban on prisoners voting, Labour said today as the Government prepared to offer Parliament a fresh say on the issue.
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling is to publish draft legislation on Thursday setting out three options, including a retention of the outright ban ruled illegal by the court in 2005.
That is a day before the deadline to comply with the ruling set by officials at the ECHR in Strasbourg, which has the power to issue fines for any breach.
Last February, the Commons called by an overwhelming margin of 234 to 22 for the blanket ban to be maintained and David Cameron has flatly ruled-out defying parliamentary opinion.
The Prime Minister told MPs last month that he was happy to introduce legislation to “help put the legal position beyond doubt”.
“But no-one should be in any doubt: prisoners are not getting the vote under this Government,” he vowed.
Mr Grayling insists Parliament can reject the ECHR’s ruling – despite concerns raised by Attorney General Dominic Grieve that Britain is under an international legal obligation.
But he admits there would be “consequences” for the UK.
The draft legislation – which will not be voted on this week – is expected to offer three options: votes for prisoners who have been imprisoned for up to four years, for up to six months or the status quo.
The ECHR says individual countries can decide which prisoners should be denied the right to vote from jail, but cannot impose a blanket exclusion.
Tory MP Peter Bone welcomed what he said was “the Government for the first time… saying Parliament’s decisions will overrule the European Court”.
He added: “The British people want Parliament to be supreme, ignore this Mickey Mouse European Court.”
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said a vote on legislation would strengthen the UK’s argument that it should retain its ban – which is backed by Labour.
“You have to keep going back to the European Court on this because I think the job of the European Court is to look at what is proportionate, what is responsible,” she told the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme.
“We haven’t passed laws on this before, even though we have passed motions, and I think when we do so, the European Court should look at it again.”
British courts operated on the basis of assessing whether Parliament was acting in a “responsible and proportionate” way, she said.
“I think the European Court should take the same thing into account.”
But speaking on the same programme, Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn said ignoring a ruling of the court would leave Britain unable to criticise countries which flout the rules and summarily lock up citizens.
He said: “We elected Parliament to take decisions on British law, we signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights after the Second World War, we have consistently supported the European Convention.
“If you say total defiance of the European Court of Human Rights, your influence criticising any other country that breach the European Court of Human Rights is zero.”
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “Is it wise for the Government to flout international law, face a substantial fine and millions in mounting compensation claims, ignore the advice of its Attorney General, prison governors, bishops to, and inspectors of, prison, and take up Parliamentary time and taxpayers’ money in order to stop sentenced prisoners from acting responsibly by voting in democratic elections?
“People are sent to prison to lose their liberty not their identity. A 19th-century penalty of civic death makes no sense in a 21st-century prison system whose focus is on rehabilitation, resettlement and the prevention of re-offending.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “The Government is considering how best to proceed following the judgment of the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights.
“An announcement will be made to Parliament shortly.”
Sean Humber, a lawyer who represents 500 prisoners pursuing compensation from the Government through the ECHR over being denied the vote, said it was “a matter of shame” that the UK has ignored the court’s rulings.
Mr Humber, a partner at Leigh Day and Co solicitors, said: “The Government is already facing claims for compensation running into the millions for refusing to allow serving prisoners the vote.
“Simply allowing Parliament to vote on a limited range of unsatisfactory options that would still leave all or many prisoners without the vote is unlikely to satisfy the court or stave off further costly legal action.
“The Government, from the Prime Minister downwards, must now take the lead in bringing the UK’s unlawful action to an end by voting to give all prisoners the vote.
“For a Government that trumpets the importance of law and order, it should be a matter of shame that for the best part of a decade the UK has wilfully ignored a succession of court rulings and continued to act unlawfully in refusing to allow prisoners the vote.
“My clients are frequently told that our legal system is not based on the principle that you only need to obey the laws you want and can ignore the rest. The Government needs to practise what it preaches.”