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Monday, September 20, 2010

Nick Clegg to reconsider prisoner voting ban

Nick Clegg to reconsider prisoner voting ban

Prison reformers welcome reports of deputy PM's support as Council of Europe gives coalition three months to reverse ban

Prison reformers have welcomed reports that Nick Clegg is to move to end the ban on prisoners taking part in elections, despite the government being compelled to do so after a European judgment.

A report in the Times of the deputy prime minister's backing for enfranchising prisoners surprised penal reformers because it follows strong criticism last week from the Council of Europe on the government's failure to abide by a 2005 European court of human rights ruling that the ban was unlawful.

The Cabinet Office confirmed today that responsibility for prisoners' voting rights was moved in July from Ken Clarke's justice ministry to the office of the deputy prime minister, which is in charge of electoral reform. A spokesperson said the issue had been given consideration over the summer, but would not say that was continuing.

Lord McNally, the Liberal Democrat justice minister, promised a House of Lords debate in June that the coalition was "looking afresh" at ways of lifting the ban and would report by September. McNally told a fringe meeting at the party's conference in Liverpool at the weekend that the government now intended to comply by December.

Clegg's spokeswoman told the Times: "There needs to be a change to the current situation in the light of the court cases but we don't support the blanket rights of prisoners to vote."

Ministers had been considering excluding prisoners convicted for violent offences, including murder and rape, from being enfranchised, but a case involving an Austrian prisoner in April made clear that all prisoners should be entitled to vote.

Prison reformers are hoping the coalition will act in time to enable prisoners to vote in next May's elections scheduled in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland's devolved parliaments and the local elections in England.

A total of 1,340 prisoners in England and Wales have so far applied to join three test cases for compensation for being denied the right to take part in elections in Britain despite the 2005 ruling.

Juliet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust said government foot-dragging over prisoners' voting rights would no longer be tolerated by the Council of Europe, which last week gave ministers three months to comply with the judgment.

"This unequivocal decision should concentrate ministers' minds as they make plans for electoral reform. People in prison, with the exception of those proportionately punished for electoral fraud, must be taken into account and enfranchised in time for the elections in 2011," she said.

The Liberal Democrats know the move will be unpopular among Conservative backbenchers. Philip Davies, the MP for Shipley, has already described it as unacceptable.

Lord McNally acknowledged the problem in the Lords debate in June: "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," he said.

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