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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Prisoners: Voting - House of Lords

Prisoners: Voting - House of Lords

18 Oct 2010 : Column 708

Prisoners: Voting
3 pm

Asked By Lord Ramsbotham

To ask Her Majesty's Government what action they are taking to comply with the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights on the voting rights of prisoners.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally): My Lords, the Government have been actively considering the issue over the summer and this work is continuing.

Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I understand that responsibility for the issue has now been passed to the Deputy Prime Minister, who announced that action was being taken. When I last asked this question in June, the Minister told the House that we would receive an answer in October. I gather that has now been deferred until December. I dread to think what would happen in this country if anyone who was made the subject of a court order did nothing about it for six years-the time that has passed since this order was made, and it has been five years since the appeal. Can the Minister assure the House that intentions are being carried out to enable those prisoners who will be allowed the vote to vote in the elections next May?

Lord McNally: My Lords, that is a trick question because it assumes that a decision has been made about the vote being granted to prisoners. I have said that the Government have been actively considering the issue over the summer. It is only five months-not five years-since this Government came into office. We are looking at the situation and will make a report to the European Council of Ministers, as we promised over the summer, at its meeting on 30 November.

Lord Trefgarne: My Lords, is it not the case that there is room for more than one respectable view on this matter? Is it not further the case that, apart from the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and, presumably, the judges of the European court, very few people are in favour of this proposal? Will the Minister be guided accordingly?

Lord McNally: I agree with my noble friend that there are people who believe passionately that the removal of the vote is a proper sanction for someone who has committed a crime that justifies a prison sentence. There are also people-the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, is one-who see the granting of the vote to a certain category of prisoner as being a useful way of rehabilitating them into society. Both views are perfectly respectable. The Government are considering both views and will make their decision in due course.

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: My Lords, I remind the Minister-

Noble Lords: Question!

18 Oct 2010 : Column 709

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: It is a question. I remind the Minister of the view taken by David Howarth when he was the Liberal Democrat justice spokesman. He said:

"It is unacceptable for the government to pick and choose which human rights treaty obligations it fulfils just because it feels the issue is unpopular".

Is this another fault line within the coalition and one of the areas where the Government want to remain silent? It is important that we hear clearly from the Government-and soon-what is intended with regard to an order that was made about the civic rights of prisoners. What does the Minister have to say about whether there is a fault line here?

Lord McNally: I can absolutely assure the noble Baroness that no such fault line exists. As I have explained already, over a period of five months we have been looking at the situation and listening to various points of view. There is a Council of Ministers meeting on 30 November and we will update that council meeting in due course. We have not been unduly laggard in looking at the issue and, as I have said, the work is continuing.

Lord Scott of Foscote: Is the Minister aware that the rulings of the Strasbourg court are not binding on our domestic courts? Section 2(1)(a) of the Act states that Strasbourg court rulings should be taken into account, but an amendment to make them binding was rejected by this House and was never part of the Bill. Is the Minister aware also that the Hirst (No. 2) judgments contained a dissenting opinion from five of the 17 judges, including Judge Costa, and that in the opinion of many, including myself, the dissenting opinions are far more convincing than those of the majority? In these circumstances, does the Minister agree that it is not open to the Strasbourg court to add to the human rights enshrined in the convention in the manner in which it from time to time does, and that, so far as the issues in the present case are concerned, the Government should do no more than simply reaffirm the present position? Does the Minister finally agree-

Noble Lords: Speech!

Lord Scott of Foscote: Does the Minister finally agree that the Government must govern this country according to the laws in force in this country without regard to the occasional extravagances of the Strasbourg court?

Lord McNally: My Lords, one of the values of Questions like that of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, is that it provokes interventions such as that. It means that we get, for free, legal opinions that would on normal occasions cost us a fortune.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords-

Lord Janner of Braunstone: My Lords-

Lord Bates: My Lords-

Noble Lords: Lester!

18 Oct 2010 : Column 710

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Strathclyde): My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Janner, might give way and let the noble Lord, Lord Lester, speak.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is an obligation under Article 46 of the convention to abide by the judgment? Is he aware that the British judge, Sir Nicholas Bratza, formed part of the majority? Is he aware also that Ireland, Cyprus and Hong Kong have all managed to introduce postal voting for prisoners without the slightest difficulty? Finally, is he aware that in November and December, the British Government will have to hang their head in shame in the Committee of Ministers when dealing with compliance with other judgments for being in default for more than six years?

Lord McNally: My Lords, slightly more respectfully perhaps, I again make the point that one of the advantages of a Question like this is that it enables us to learn the broad spectrum of opinion and hear details of research, which probably reassures Members over why we are taking such a time carefully to consider this matter before the meeting on 30 November.

Hat-Tip to UK Human Rights Blog. Lords clash over prisoner voting and European meddling

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