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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Scots prisoners a step closer to voting rights

Scots prisoners a step closer to voting rights

Lucy Adams, Chief Reporter

9 Jun 2010

Scottish prisoners are in line to choose MSPs next year after a final warning from the Council of Europe about inmates’ rights to vote.

UK Government has been told it could face sanctions if it fails to give prisoners the right to vote

The UK Government was told yesterday that it could face sanctions if it fails to give prisoners the right to vote in time for the elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland next May.

A ruling by the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers indicated that it was ready to draw up a resolution for action at its next meeting in September, if the UK does not allow some prisoners to vote in next year’s elections.

In 2005, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that a blanket ban on prisoners voting was a breach of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) but the UK Government, which is responsible for electoral reform, has so far failed to comply with the ruling.

Instead the previous government oversaw two separate consultations, including proposals to give prisoners serving terms of four years or less the vote.

Currently all prisoners are banned from voting under the 1983 Representation of the People Act, but legal challenges by Scottish and English inmates made clear that such a blanket ban was incompatible with ECHR.

More than 60 Scottish prisoners are taking their cases to the European court in Strasbourg to claim compensation from the UK Government. They are expected to be awarded €1000 each.

Tony Kelly, solicitor to the Scottish prisoners involved, said: “The interesting thing is that up until now all the council could do was rack up their language but now they can invoke new provisions for enforcement.

“The pressure has been increasing since the judgment in 2005. The UK Government has since allowed two separate elections to proceed which were convention incompatible. It means more applications will be made to Strasbourg for compensation from the UK Government.”

The committee voiced profound regret that the blanket ban was not lifted in time for last month’s General Election.

It means the UK could be the first country to fall foul of new powers that came into effect earlier this month allowing non-compliance proceedings in the Grand Chamber of the Strasbourg court, with potential sanctions including suspension or expulsion from the Council of Europe – a separate body from the European Union.

In its ruling, the committee recalled its expression last year of serious concern over the delay in the UK responding to the court’s judgment.

The failure to lift the ban in time for the General Election created “a substantial risk” of repeated appeals by prisoners to the European Court, the committee warned.

And it “expressed confidence that the new United Kingdom Government will adopt general measures to implement the judgment ahead of elections scheduled for 2011 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and thereby also prevent further, repetitive applications to the European Court”.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “The Committee of Ministers has given the Coalition Government a valuable opportunity to overturn this outdated and unlawful ban.”

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: “This [the committee’s] stance is not something we agree with or support but electoral reform is reserved.”

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