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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Mr Philip Hollobone Voting rights for prisoners

Mr Philip Hollobone Voting rights for prisoners

Westminster Hall 9.30 - 11.00am

(only first 90minutes related to prisoners).


By Theo Usherwood, Press Association Political Staff

The Government is "going soft on criminal justice" by "bailing over" to demands from Europe to allow prisoners the right to vote, MPs were told today.

Conservative backbencher Philip Hollobone (Kettering) said the coalition needed a "hardened spine" so it could resist a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights that inmates should be able to vote.

He said the British public was "sick and tired of being lectured to by unelected judges", adding the Tory party should consider meeting its election manifesto pledge and replace the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights - a promise "kicked into the long grass" under the coalition agreement.

Government plans to allow only prisoners serving less than four years to vote were not necessary as 13 other countries signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights, including Slovakia, Moldova and Latvia, operated a "blanket ban".

Other European states such as Belgium only allowed those serving sentences of a few months or just a year the right to vote, the MP said.

Mr Hollobone said: "My constituents, and many other people up and down the land, are furious that once again the Government seems to be bailing over to the human rights lobby to introduce measures which are frankly inappropriate to the balance of crime and justice in this country.

"Once again we seem to be going soft on criminal justice issues and the British people will not put up with this for much longer. Here is a golden opportunity for the new coalition Government to say we are going to put Britain first.

"I can say to the Government with some confidence that if they continue to press this issue in the House they will be defeated."

In response, Cabinet Office minister Mark Harper told MPs at the Westminster Hall debate that many members of the Government would prefer not to give prisoners voting rights but that it had no choice.

He said "assiduous" no-win, no-fee lawyers would be "running round prisons" signing up inmates for compensation, a move which would cost the taxpayer millions of pounds, if the Government did not introduce proposals before August.

Mr Harper said prisoners would not be allowed to vote in local elections or for the new police commissioners and that the changes would require primary legislation so MPs would be able to debate the issue in the Commons.


Page 2: 11:59

Mr Harper said: "Frankly, this is not something that I want to do and there are many members of the Government that don't want to do it but we have a legal obligation.

"Lawyers are very assiduous if there is money on the table at running round getting lots of people to sign up for cases under 'no win, no fee'. There are already 2,500 cases pending.

"You can be absolutely certain that if there is a successful case for compensation, lawyers will be round prisons so fast signing up prisoners to these legal actions on the basis that there might be £1,000 compensation, that the Government will be faced with thousands and thousands of cases.

"There would nothing worse than giving hard-earned taxpayers' money to some of these criminals."


Page 3: 12:39

The debate heard that prisoners lost the right to vote in 1870 under the Forfeiture Act which protected offenders' homes and land while they were in jail but meant they could not visit the ballot box at elections.

The law has remained in place since but, five years ago, prisoner John Hirst, who was jailed for 15 years for manslaughter, argued in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that he should be allowed to vote.

The ECHR ruled in his favour, finding that it was illegal for ministers to deny voting rights to all prisoners. But Labour kicked the issue into the long grass and did not change the law.

Prison reform groups then made a formal complaint to the Council of Europe, accusing ministers of using delaying tactics.

As a result, the council warned the British Government last year that its failure to comply with the ECHR ruling risked sparking many more compensation claims.

In November, the coalition said it now planned to give voting rights to nearly 30,000 inmates serving less than four years.

Judges would also be given the discretion to withdraw voting rights when passing sentence in cases they deemed appropriate in a move designed to stop those jailed for serious offences but serving less than four years voting.

Liberal Democrat Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) said the Government was between a "rock and a hard place" but Tory MP Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) said the ECHR had no powers over the British Government and ministers could resist any change if they wanted.

Mr Raab added: "We have one silver lining in all this, which is the back-stop written into the Strasbourg machinery and that is that Strasbourg cannot enforce its own judgments.

"There is no enforceability under UK law, there are no sanctions, there is absolutely no possibility of being kicked out of the Council of Europe. We can say no if there is the political will."

His Conservative colleague, Christopher Chope (Christchurch), supported this view, saying he had spoken to an official at the ECHR who said it was "utter nonsense" that the Government would have to pay out millions in compensation if it refused to adhere to its earlier ruling.

Tory Gareth Johnson (Dartford) said the coalition should be "far tougher" in deciding which prisoners could vote, while Mr Hollobone suggested only prisoners who were jailed at magistrates' courts could be given the right.


Page 4: 13:01

Labour's Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) said it was "morally right" that prisoners should be allowed to vote.

She said: "It is quite impossible for us to run our criminal justice system around the basis of the rule of law if we then decide which laws as a country we choose to follow and which ones we will not.

"I am favour of it because I think it is morally right and I don't accept that they (prisoners) lose all aspects of citizenship in losing their liberty as a result of a custodial sentence.

"I fundamentally disagree with those who feel that their fundamental human rights should be weakened. In a decent and civilised society it is right that we should treat all prisoners with respect."

But shadow justice minister Chris Bryant said it was "wholly inappropriate" that so many prisoners should be given the right to vote under the coalition's plans.

He said the Government should look at countries such as Belgium, where only those serving terms of less than four months were allowed to vote, adding that the Government was being "far more generous" than other European nations.

Mr Bryant said: "A lot of people in the House are understandably angry about our (Labour's) inaction in the past but I must say I prefer our inaction on the subject to the Government's action thus far."



Speaking after the debate, John Hirst, who was convicted of manslaughter in 1980 for killing his landlady with the blunt end of an axe, said: "It is not true that the Government is going soft on criminal justice by having to fully comply with the ruling made by the European Court of Human Rights.

"The real problem is that the Coalition proposals do not go far enough to meet the test set out in my case; that is that all convicted prisoners regardless of the seriousness of their crime or length of sentence must get their human right to vote.

"Philip Hollobone is wrong to try to hide behind the shield of public opinion, because the court was against the state abuse of human rights of prisoners. Judge Caflisch stated, 'The decisions taken by the court are not made to please or indispose members of the public, but to uphold human rights principles'.

"This debate is an attempt to stall for time, because the court has already answered the question in the afffirmative.

"If the UK fails to fully comply in the Hirst case by March 8, 2011, and allow prisoners in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland the vote on May 6, and English prisoners the vote on the referendum for AV on the same day, then the compensation bill already at £135million will double to £270million."


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