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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ministers in climbdown over prisoner vote rights

Ministers in climbdown over prisoner vote rights

By Nick Robinson BBC political editor

The government is preparing to scale back plans to give the right to vote to thousands of prisoners serving sentences of under four years.

Ministers, who proposed law changes after a European Court of Human Rights ruling, now hope to limit the right to those sentenced to a year or less.

However, they say they are aware this policy could be tested in the courts and that they might lose again.

The initial voting plans faced strong opposition from Conservative MPs.

David Cameron himself recently said giving inmates the vote made him feel "ill" but warned at the time that the government faced paying out more than £160m in compensation if it did not do so.

Ministers proposed changing the law on voting rights for convicted prisoners, who are currently all banned from voting, following a ruling by the European court dating from 2004 that was upheld the following year.

Backbench meeting

John Hirst, a prisoner convicted of manslaughter, successfully argued that his human rights had been violated by not being allowed to take part in elections.

The government had indicated it was prepared to grant voting rights to all prisoners serving under four years.

However, the prime minister is now thought to accept that the Commons is unlikely to vote for a proposal that could involve granting the vote to up to 28,000 prisoners, including 6,000 jailed for violent crime, more than 1,700 sex offenders, more than 4,000 burglars and 4,300 imprisoned for drug offences.

The BBC understands that ministers now hope they will be able to give the vote only to those prisoners sentenced to serve a year or less.

Ministers are aware they might lose again in the courts and that even this concession may not persuade many MPs who want to make a stand against the Strasbourg court.

The Commons will have the opportunity to defy the court's ruling in a couple of weeks' time when the Commons debates a motion tabled by the Conservative David Davis and Labour's Jack Straw.

Mr Cameron met the executive of the 1922 Committee of Conservative MPs on Wednesday and was left in no doubt about the strength of feeling on this issue.

'Absolute minimum'

Hirst told the BBC the government's attempts to water down the plans did not "have a cat in hell's chance" of succeeding.

"If I'd have gone to court and said I'm not accepting a judge's life sentence where would that put us?" he said.

"You have to accept that the law applies to everybody and it applies to the government, and David Cameron is not above the law and he'll find out that very shortly."

Everyone was entitled to their human rights, he added, and no prisoners should be barred from voting.

The Cabinet Office said ministers were determined to do "the absolute minimum" to meet their legal obligations and would ensure the most serious offenders were barred.

"Removing the blanket ban on prisoners voting is not a choice but a legal obligation as a result of a court ruling," a spokesman said.

"Failure to implement the ruling would not only put the government in breach of its international obligations but risk paying out taxpayers' money in compensation claims."

Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan welcomed the government's "U-turn".

He said: "The government should be standing up for the victims of crime but instead they are slashing police numbers and giving dangerous convicted prisoners the vote."

But the director of the Prison Reform Trust, Juliet Lyon, said the professionals running the penal system now felt it was time to enfranchise convicts.

"It's been described as 'nasty medicine'," she told BBC Breakfast, "when it should be seen as people taking responsibility."

The voting rights of prisoners is a UK-wide issue and will affect Scotland and Northern Ireland even though the administration of justice is devolved.

The Westminster government has said it will work closely with ministers in both regions before legislation is introduced.


Tim said...

They seem to be dragging their heels when coming around to obeying the law. So I find it embarrassing when we lecture other countries on human rights.

I hope more prisoners ask to able to vote and then take action if they are denied.

Charles Cowling said...

Great quote, John.

It begins to look like extra canteen for the MRP community. Cheers, lads!