Attorney General Warns Of ‘International Anarchy’ Over Prisoner Voting


Flouting European judges over prisoner voting would risk international “anarchy”, the Government’s chief law officer has warned.

Attorney General Dominic Grieve, above, said sticking to international rules could be “irksome” at times.

But it had been the “settled view” of British governments for centuries that such obligations should be met.

The intervention came in evidence to the parliamentary Joint Committee on prisoner voting.

The MPs and peers are considering how to respond to a European Court of Human Rights ruling against the UK’s blanket ban on convicted prisoners taking part in elections.

David Cameron has said that the idea of overturning the ban makes him “physically sick”, and the Commons overwhelmingly rejected the prospect in an indicative vote.

The committee has been asked to consider three options for a draft bill: giving the vote to convicted prisoners serving up to six months, giving it to those serving up to four years or keeping the existing blanket ban.

Mr Grieve said parliament had the power to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, or any other commitment.

“Many of these international legal obligations, they impose obligations on others which we think benefit the international order and indeed us,” he said.

“But at the same time they may at times impose obligations on us.

“That obligation may at times be irksome.

“You can always withdraw from an obligation by leaving a treaty or denouncing it.

“But while you are adhering to it, it seems to me that one has to think very carefully about what the consequences are in deciding that you can cherrypick the obligations that you are going to accept.

“Whilst it may be perfectly possible to disregard them you are creating a degree of anarchy in the international order that you are trying to promote.”

The Tory MP and QC – who personally argued the Government’s case to the court – said it would be “no slight matter” to ignore the ruling.

“You can’t expect to be able to get other countries to observe international legal obligations if you choose not to,” he said.

Thorbjorn Jagland, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, told the committee it would be impossible for the UK to leave the convention on human rights and remain a member of the council.

He warned that Britain’s international influence would be diminished if it decided to go for the “nuclear possibility” of not complying with the ruling, and the whole ECHR system would be compromised.

“The implications for the Council of Europe would be… that other countries will start to do the same and it will be the beginning of the weakening of the whole convention system,” he said.

“If one says that we can pick and choose the judgments that we want to execute, then others will say exactly the same and then this convention will be another convention, for instance like they have in the United Nations.

“They are very weak.

“They are there but there is no enforcement of the standards.

“If you start to pick and choose the judgments from the court of course the court will be weakened and in the end have no meaning.”

Mr Jagland added: “The impact for Britain as I see it would be negative.

“It would harm UK reputation and influence in Europe and in the world.

“Can you imagine what would happen if the UK as the founding father of this institution is to leave it?”

Mr Jagland said: “Europe cannot afford to let the UK leave the whole convention system, which is so important.

“None of us should put that to the (test).

“We should try to avoid it.”

The strength of the ECHR was that individual citizens from member states were able to petition it on points of law, he said.

Mark Leech editor of Converse the national newspaper for prisoners in England and Wales said the issue of prisoner voting brought into focus the sharp distinction between political reality and rhetoric.

Mr Leech said: “Politicians of every colour continually tell us they want to reduce reoffending, they want to help those in prison to lead law-abiding lives both in custody and after release, in fact there is a large notice to that exact effect pinned to the front gate of every prison in the country.

“And yet, when you try and see the translation of that theory into practice it falls at the first hurdle by refusing prisoners the ability to vote, excluding them from society, refusing to follow the judgment of the highest human rights court in Europe, a court the UK has signed up to and in which we played a central part in creating – criminal justice policies on rehabilitation are, sadly, shown to be nothing more than a sham.”

Prisoner Votes in Supreme Court Tomorrow


The Sunday Times report that the government’s most senior legal officer is to make an unprecedented appearance before Britain’s highest court to oppose a bid by a child rapist and a murderer to win the right to vote in elections.

In a case starting tomorrow, Dominic Grieve, the attorney-general, will argue in the Supreme Court that parliament, rather than Europe, should decide prisoners’ voting rights.

Grieve’s decision to fight the case in person — the first time an attorney-general has appeared in the Supreme Court since it was established in 2009 — is a clear sign of the government’s concern about the claim, the latest round of Britain’s fight with Europe over prisoners’ votes.

George McGeoch, who befriended a deaf man and then murdered him by slashing his throat, and Peter Chester, who raped and strangled his seven-year-old niece, are using European law to claim the right to vote.

Experts are concerned that, if the claim is successful, it could hamper attempts by the government to give parliament the opportunity to assert its power over prisoners’ votes.

Parliament is to vote on whether to defy a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg that a blanket ban on prisoner voting has to end. MPs will be given the option of maintaining the blanket ban or introducing some voting rights.

McGeoch’s lawyers, however, plan to invoke European Union laws, which are separate from the human rights convention overseen by the Strasbourg judges.

Chester is seeking the right to vote in parliamentary and European elections. McGeoch claims he should be allowed to vote in European and Scottish parliamentary elections.

The European laws, unlike the convention, can be directly enforced by British courts without being subject to parliament. If McGeoch is successful, it could undermine the parliamentary vote and provoke fresh demands for powers to be repatriated from the EU.

Dominic Raab, the Tory MP for Esher and Walton and a former Foreign and Commonwealth Office lawyer, said: “The fact that the attorney-general is defending the case shows how serious an assault on our democracy it is.

“The EU’s backdoor attempt to dictate human rights to Britain is dangerous . . . and will strengthen calls for a wholesale renegotiation of British terms of [EU] membership. It is a battle we must win.”

McGeoch, 41, originally from Glasgow, was jailed for life in 1999 after he beat and smothered Eric Innes, a bakery worker, before slitting his throat. Since then he has held prison nurses hostage with a blade, slashed a fellow prisoner with broken glass and once escaped from custody.

Chester, from Blackpool, Lancashire, was handed a life sentence in 1978 for killing his niece at his sister’s home.

In 2009, he made an unsuccessful legal challenge to the ban on prisoner voting. In his ruling, the judge said the bid was “offensive to constitutional principles”.

However, European judges have refused to back down in the face of Britain’s defiance over votes for prisoners. Last week, Dean Spielmann, the president of the Strasbourg court, was highly critical of the British failure to implement its rulings.

“Such an attitude . . . undermines the whole system and it causes great damage to the credibility of the UK when it comes to promoting human rights in other parts of the world,” he told the BBC.

A government spokesman said: “The government has made its position on prisoner voting rights absolutely clear — we believe prisoner voting is a matter for national parliaments to decide.

“The attorney-general will strongly defend that position at the Supreme Court.”

Mark Leech editor of Converse the national newspaper for prisoners said the Supreme Court ‘should put the Goverment in its place”.

Mr Leech said: “In the same way that prison officers intervene to free a prison officeer taken hostage, so too should the Surpeme Court intervene and free the issue of prisoner voting which has been unlawfully taken hostage by successive governments.

“The UK is a signatory to the European Convention of Human Rights, and Judges of the ECHR have made clear the UK should either implement judgements of the ECHR or get out of the European Court altogether.

“The Supreme Court should put the Goverment in its place and tell it to implement the judgement on prisoner voting which politicians have disgracefully ignored now for eight years.”