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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Prisoners: Voting

Prisoners: Voting
3.23 pm

Asked By Lord Dubs

To ask Her Majesty's Government what are their plans to give prisoners the right to vote.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally): My Lords, the Government are considering afresh the best way forward on the issue of prisoner voting rights.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I am trying to think what "afresh" means. Will the Minister confirm that the Council of Europe yesterday gave the British Government three months in which to comply with a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights and that the previous Labour Government were committed to doing so? Will the Minister give some indication whether "afresh" means "some time" or "not likely"?

Lord McNally: My Lords, "afresh" probably means "with a greater sense of urgency than Ministers in the last Government approached the issue".

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Lord Bach: My Lords, as the Minister will recall, this question has been asked many times in this House during the past 18 months. Before the election, the Conservative Official Opposition were strongly in favour of the steps taken by the then Government to implement the ECHR ruling. The Liberal Democrats were equally strongly against our approach, accusing the then Government of dragging their feet, so I think that the House would be grateful to know the view of the present Government. Why is there no mention of this issue in The Coalition: Our Programme for Government? Is the issue not important enough for the document, or is it just too difficult?

Lord McNally: That comes from a Minister who did not even get "afresh" into any of his answers over a long period of time. He will be well aware that the court slightly moved the goalposts, in its decision of 8 April on Frodl v Austria, which narrowed even further the terms under which votes could be denied to prisoners. Given that and the fact that Ministers have just come into office, I think it perfectly reasonable that we be given some time to look at this. At the meeting of the Council of Europe in September, we intend to fully update the council on our thoughts on this matter.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, I was on the Joint Select Committee on Human Rights when this judgment was made, and I hoped at the time that grass would be heavily fertilised around this issue. It is the sort of judgment that does not really help to bring the general issue of human rights to the forefront of an Englishman's mind. That is something that I regard as extremely important. We should be clear on human rights-and we should allow grass to grow in great dollops around issues such as this one.

Lord McNally: I think that the noble Lord's Question was about whether the Government were committed to the basic, underlying human rights commitments in our membership of the council-and that is absolutely true and firm. But as at least two of the former Ministers now gazing at me know, there is a range of options. They were working on an option that might have been quite acceptable to a broad base of British public opinion, but the Frodl judgment has moved the goalposts again. That is why we are looking at the matter afresh.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, can I tempt the Minister to define "afresh" as meaning a period shorter than the seven years which, regrettably, the last Labour Government took to do nothing about this issue? Is it not an absolute disgrace, given the support all around this House for much more emphasis on rehabilitation of people in prison, in this day and age to deny prisoners the vote as part of that rehabilitation process? It is totally wrong.

Lord McNally: My Lords, my senior colleagues in government are considering this matter. All that I can do is to guarantee that the expertise and experience in this House will be transferred to those colleagues.

Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords-

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Lord Tebbit: My Lords, can my noble friends' noble friend on the Front Bench tell us if there is any evidence whatever that this measure has any support outside this House among the general public?

Lord McNally: I am not sure that it has support in the editorial columns of the Daily Express or the Daily Mail, but in the broader general public there is a willingness to consider the experience of other countries, both in rehabilitation of prisoners and the kind of punishment meted to them. We will report to the September meeting, and the contributions of this House-both from my noble friend and from the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, I hope-will be taken into consideration.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords-

Lord Grocott: My Lords-

Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords-

Noble Lords: Cross Bench!

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, may I assist the House? There is plenty of time remaining on this Question. May we hear for the first time from the Cross Benches and then, perhaps, from the Liberal Democrat Benches?

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, I suspect that one of the reasons the previous Government took so long to come to no decision was that they were asking themselves, and indeed asking the public through the consultative process, the wrong question. The European Court of Human Rights laid down that every sentenced prisoner had the right to vote. Therefore the question is not who has the right to vote but who does not. In France and Germany, that is decided in court at the time of sentence by the judge according to the crime. Is that approach going to be tried in the fresh look, rather than continuing the sterile one that produced no answer?

Lord McNally: I am well aware that that is one consideration before Ministers at the moment, but it is one of a wide variety of considerations.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords-

Lord Grocott: My Lords-

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I accept that there is great expertise and a great interest in this subject. We have already heard from the opposition Benches. May we hear from the Liberal Democrats?

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: In reaching their conclusions, will the Government bear in mind that we should in no way give the impression to the less well informed members of the public that we can pick and choose which rulings of the European Court of Human Rights to implement as the Executive determine?

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Lord McNally: I agree, my Lords, but when the court makes rulings and then makes new ones, it is up to the Executive to consider them carefully and consider the implications before they come to a decision. That is what we are doing, and I have already said that we will update the council of our view-not in seven years' time, but in September.

Lord Grocott: There is clearly difficulty here, particularly between the two parties to the coalition. In an effort to be helpful to the Government, I therefore suggest that they do for this issue what they have done already for so many other aspects of the coalition agreement document-set up a commission.

Lord McNally: Even for a former Chief Whip, that attitude is shameless. As has already been pointed out from the noble Lord's own Benches, that lot sat on this decision for seven years. We have to face a new decision made on 8 April, and we have said that we will bring our conclusions to a September meeting of the council. I think that that is pretty good going.

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