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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Prisoners (Voting Rights)

Prisoners (Voting Rights)

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Westminster Hall
Tuesday 11 January 2011
[Mr Joe Benton in the Chair]
Prisoners (Voting Rights)

9.30 am

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): May I wish you a very happy new year, Mr Benton, and offer my grateful thanks to Mr Speaker for giving me permission to lead today's debate?

May I also wish the Minister and his shadow a very happy new year? The Minister is a personal friend, and I have always had high regard for him, both before he was elected to this place and since he took up his present position in the Government. I know, therefore, that we will not fall out on a personal level over this issue, but it is my job as a humble Back Bencher to stand up and to speak up for my constituents, whose view is that this country should not give prisoners the right to vote, and is my job to hold the Government to account on that.

Here is a question for hon. Members. Who said

"Frankly, when people commit a crime and go to prison, they should lose their rights, including the right to vote"?

He also said:

"It makes me physically ill even to contemplate having to give the vote to anyone who is in prison"-[Official Report, 3 November 2010; Vol. 517, c. 921.]

The answer is my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and I could not agree more with him. The vast majority of people in this country would also back him in those sentiments. One difference between the Prime Minister and myself, however, is that he is actually in a position to do something about this issue. We need some backbone-we need a hardened spine-if we are to take on the European Court of Human Rights and resist its judgment.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): In making that statement about public attitudes, is the hon. Gentleman aware that research carried out for the previous Government in 2009 showed that only a quarter of respondents favoured a total ban on prisoners having the right to vote?

Mr Hollobone: The previous Government's two consultations, which they did, by the way, to avoid having to make a decision-they kicked the issue into the long grass for five years-involved a pathetically small number of respondents. Given that there were fewer than 100 respondents, the statistical relevance of those consultations is almost meaningless. If I asked my constituents whether prisoners should be given the right to vote, the vast majority would say that they should not. I strongly suspect that if the hon. Lady spoke to her constituents, she would get a very similar reaction.

I also want to pray in aid the words of the now Attorney-General when he was in opposition:

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"The principle that those who are in custody after conviction should not have the opportunity to vote is a perfectly rational one. Civic rights go with civic responsibility, but these rights have been flagrantly violated by those who have committed imprisonable offences. The government must allow a parliamentary debate which gives MPs the opportunity to insist on retaining our existing practise that convicted prisoners can't vote."

I absolutely, 100%, agree, and I hope that this morning's limited debate will be a warm-up act for a proper debate on the Floor of the House.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I apologise for sitting on the opposite side of the Chamber to my hon. Friend, but there are 20 coalition Members in here, and there is just not enough room. My hon. Friend's one-and-a-half-hour debate is very important, but the issue surely deserves much greater coverage elsewhere in the House.

Mr Hollobone: As on so many issues, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are lots of Select Committee sittings on Tuesday mornings, and many hon. Friends and Opposition Members who would like to be here to voice their views are unable to do so.

We are talking about this issue because the European Court of Human Rights has decided once again to interfere in Britain's domestic affairs.

Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): Before my hon. Friend gets to the European Court of Human Rights, which was based on something written by David Maxwell Fyfe, will he please tell us when prisoners lost the right to vote and for what offence?

Mr Hollobone: Before I respond to that intervention, I congratulate my hon. Friend on his recent knighthood, which is extremely well deserved. His many years' experience in this place make him far more qualified to talk about these issues than I, but my understanding is that the British Parliament discussed these issues when it passed the Forfeiture Act 1870. Now, 1870 was 80 years before the European Court of Human Rights was established in the 1950s. British parliamentarians decided that it was appropriate for prisoners not to be given the vote way before the concept of a European court was even thought about.

By the way, there would be no human rights in any part of Europe today were it not for the brave actions that this country took on its own in 1940, and some of the European Court's judges should remember that. We are the mother of Parliaments and we have a long and proud history of democratic thought processes, debate and decision. Frankly, the British people are sick and tired of being lectured to on human rights issues by unelected judges in this pseudo-European court.

Mr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): My hon. Friend mentions unelected judges, but is he also aware that two people in the previous Parliament were keen to pursue this issue? One was my predecessor, who lost against me in the general election, and the other was the former Member of Parliament for Oxford West and Abingdon, who also lost his seat. Does that not show hon. Members and others that members of the British public have been very unhappy with the European Court of Human
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Rights and with the Human Rights Act 1998 and those who pursue it and that they have showed their displeasure through the ballot box?

Mr Hollobone: My hon. Friend makes a telling intervention, and he has done the country a national service by winning his seat in the general election. He ably represents his constituents on these and other matters. He is right. The manifesto on which he and I stood clearly states:

"we will replace the Human Rights Act with a UK Bill of Rights."

I am sure that my hon. Friend was asked about human rights issues during the general election campaign-I certainly was in Kettering. Whenever such issues were raised, constituents were adamant that it was time for us to take sensible action on the Human Rights Act, which the previous Government introduced. The coalition agreement has kicked the replacement of the Human Rights Act by a Bill Of Rights into the long grass; it may happen, but there is no timetable, which is a great shame. Nevertheless, there is huge public demand for us to take action on these human rights issues. We would be doing our constituents a disservice if we did not raise their concerns in this place. My hon. Friend's majority in Hendon, my majority in Kettering and the majorities of many of our hon. Friends in Westminster Hall this morning demonstrate that human rights are an important issue for our constituents.

Mr John Hirst, who is serving a life sentence for an axe killing, brought his case and subsequent appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. He celebrated with glee on the television when the appeal judgment was announced-how wonderful it was that the European Court was going to force Britain to give prisoners the right to vote. Many of our constituents will have seen that and have been disgusted by Mr Hirst's joyous celebration of the Court's decision.

The Court decision is interesting in several respects, because its main gripe is that there is a blanket ban on prisoners being given the right to vote. There are ways to tackle that issue, other than just caving in and getting rid of the blanket ban. It may interest hon. Members to know that 13 other countries that are signatories to the European convention on human rights also have blanket bans. Why is this country being singled out for the treatment it is getting from the European Court, when blanket bans continue in other countries, such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Moldova and Slovakia, among others? Our constituents will be outraged that the UK is being singled out for special treatment.

One of the issues that the European Court raised was that there has not been proper parliamentary debate about the issue. The judgment states that

"there was no evidence that Parliament had ever sought to weigh the competing interests or to assess the proportionality of a blanket ban on the right of a convicted prisoner to vote. It could not be said that there was any substantive debate by members of the legislature on the continued justification...for maintaining such a general restriction on the right of prisoners to vote."

I am sorry, but those matters were discussed in this Parliament in 1870, 80 years before the European Court was even established. The judgment goes on to say that
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perhaps courts could be given the discretion to award disenfranchisement to convicted prisoners on an individual basis. It says:

"It was also evident that the nature of the restrictions, if any, to be imposed on the right of a convicted prisoner to vote was in general seen as a matter for Parliament and not for the national courts. The domestic courts did not therefore undertake any assessment of the proportionality of the measure itself."

It also states that

"in sentencing, the criminal courts in England and Wales made no reference to disenfranchisement and it was not apparent that there was any direct link between the facts of any individual case and the removal of the right to vote."

There is therefore a way to address the Court's concerns by making sure that judges can award disenfranchisement specifically in individual cases and encouraging them to do so.

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. For the avoidance of doubt, if the Government do not change their policy enunciated in the statement of 20 December, I shall not vote with them, but in the Opposition Lobby. My hon. Friend touches on some interesting points. Is not it true that the recent case of Greens and M.T. v. the United Kingdom specifically allows the Government to proceed with a range of policy options, which, like the consultation in 2009, could be put out for public discussion? Instead the Government have gone for an arbitrary four-year limit, without any further debate or discussion in the House or with the public.

Mr Hollobone: My hon. Friend makes an interesting and brave point, and I commend his courage on the issue. He will be joined in the Lobby by many of our colleagues. The Government should be left in no doubt this morning that they have made the wrong decision on the issue and that they will not get the proposals through Parliament.

My hon. Friend is right: the Government can tackle the issue in far more imaginative ways. It was wrong for my hon. Friend the Minister to say in his statement of 20 December, which was sneaked out just before the Christmas recess, that

"we should implement the Hirst judgment in a way that meets our legal obligations, but does not go further than that."-[Official Report, 20 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 151WS.]

The Government have gone further than that by saying that the limit should apply to those sentenced to four years or less in prison, because there are many countries that are signatories to the European convention that apply the ban to prisoners serving far less time in prison. For example, Austria, Malta and San Marino ban all prisoners serving a sentence of more than one year. In France only prisoners convicted of certain crimes lose their right to vote.

I should therefore like to know why the Government have settled on the apparently arbitrary figure of four years. They say that it is the difference between serious and non-serious offences, but frankly I do not accept that definition. There are other ways to cut the cake. For example, the ban could be applied to those who have their sentence issued by the Crown court, rather than the magistrates court.

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): On the point about limits, does my hon. Friend agree that the crimes of rape, for which a three-and-a-half year sentence
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was awarded in November, in a case in Warwick, and armed robbery with a knife, which has also been given a sentence of less than four years, are serious crimes, and that it is shocking that the Government even contemplate that such things should be covered?

Mr Hollobone: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Her constituents and mine will be sickened if rapists are given the right to vote. It is shocking how many prisoners would be entitled to vote if the Government's proposals were to go through. I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm the present number of people serving time in prison. Statistics that, again, were sneaked out just before the recess, show that there are 28,770 prisoners serving sentences of less than four years, of whom 5,991 have been convicted of violence against the person, 1,753 of sexual offences, 2,486 of robbery, 4,188 of burglary and 4,370 of drug offences. If the Government were, for example, to restrict the limit to sentences of one year or less, the number of prisoners who would be enfranchised would go down from 28,770 to 8,096.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Those figures are startling, but does my hon. Friend agree that all the people represented in the numbers he quoted have not had the vote taken from them-they have removed it from themselves by committing the crimes that led to their ending up in prison? If voting is so important to them, there is presumably an easy way out: they should not commit the crimes that get them sentenced to prison.

Mr Hollobone: As always, my hon. Friend speaks not only for his constituents but for Britain. Lots of people would agree with him. As his local police commander will have said-and as mine has said-"Philip, everyone we catch and convict is a volunteer." No one is forced to go to prison for committing offences. Indeed, it is difficult to go to prison nowadays, under the liberal criminal justice regime that the coalition Government are starting to pursue.

There are therefore a number of ways in which the Government can respond to the European Court ruling, other than just caving in with the four-year rule. Primarily we need a proper parliamentary debate on the issue, so that colleagues can debate the pros and cons and be given the opportunity to vote to maintain the status quo. That would satisfy the European Court's judgment that Parliament has not debated the issue. I hope that the Government will think hard about putting that before the House.

Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Does my hon. Friend accept that what the Government put forward as a justification for the measure-namely that if they did not implement it there would be a substantial cost to the taxpayer, in millions of pounds in damages-was a specious and unjustified argument? Just before Christmas I spoke to an official of the European Court of Human Rights, who confirmed that the talk about millions of pounds of compensation being payable if we did not comply was a load of nonsense.

Mr Hollobone: As a Member of the Council of Europe my hon. Friend is closer to many of the issues than I am. I share his scepticism about the figure of £160 million, which we were given as the possible amount of
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compensation. I invite the Minister to justify where that figure has come from. It would be extremely irresponsible for the Government to bandy around those figures when they have no realistic basis in fact. I understand that there are 2,500 outstanding court cases, pending a resolution of this issue with the European Court. I would like to know how the Government established the basis of compensation for each of those 2,500 cases, because I strongly suspect that the Government may be guilty of making up those numbers and in danger of misleading Parliament.

This is very serious issue. The British public do not want prisoners to be given the right to vote. Many other countries in Europe successfully operate blanket bans and have not been challenged in the European Court. My constituents and many other people up and down the land are furious that once again the Government seem to be bending over to the human rights lobby to introduce a measure, which is frankly inappropriate to the balance of crime and justice in this country.

Once again, we seem to be going soft on criminal justice issues. The British people will not put up with that for much longer. Here is a golden opportunity for the new coalition Government to say, "We are going to put Britain first." If we have to pull out of the European convention on human rights, let us consider that and possibly do so. That would certainly have a lot of support in the country. However, if we are going to respond to the appeal judgment from the European Court there are many ways of doing it other than simply applying the four-year rule, which will not address my constituents' concerns. I say to the Government with confidence that if they continue to press this issue in the House, they will be defeated.

Mr Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order. Before I call the next speaker, as a number of people have indicated they wish to speak, I propose to commence the wind-ups no later than 10.40 am.
9.51 am

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): I thank the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) for bringing this matter to debate. I agree with him and other hon. Members that it is right to have a proper debate.

I suspect I will not be the most popular speaker this morning, but I want to place on the record that I am in favour of giving prisoners the right to vote. I am in favour of it in this situation, first, because we are required to comply with a Court order, and it is impossible for us to run a criminal justice system around the basis of the rule of law if we then decide which laws and legal obligations we as a country will choose to follow and which we will not.

Secondly, I am in favour of it because I believe it is morally right that prisoners should have the opportunity to vote.

Mr Offord: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Kate Green: I will in a moment. I want to expand the three bases of my argument and then I will be happy to take the hon. Gentleman's intervention.

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I believe it is morally right that prisoners should have the right to vote. I do not accept that they lose all aspects of citizenship in losing their liberty as a result of a custodial sentence. I fundamentally disagree with those who feel that prisoners' fundamental human rights should be weakened. In a decent and civilised society it is right that we treat all, including prisoners, with respect.

My third argument is that there is potential to see the right to vote in the context of a process of rehabilitation. Cleverly managed, it could contribute to the reintegration of prisoners in our society. Therefore, there may be some efficacy grounds for accepting a right to vote.

I am happy to take the hon. Gentleman's intervention now.

Mr Offord: The hon. Lady says she feels it is wrong for the United Kingdom to decide which laws it will implement as a result of the European judgment. However, only last night at the Oldham by-election, the Labour candidate decided that she did not wish to debate with one of the other candidates, whom she had removed by the police from a public meeting. The hon. Lady cannot have it both ways. If we as a country should accept all the laws, the hon. Lady and her potential colleagues should do the same.

Kate Green: I am not aware of the breach of law by the Labour parliamentary candidate in the Oldham by-election. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can enlighten me later.

The hon. Member for Kettering said-I suspect rightly-that many in my constituency would be disconcerted to hear me making the arguments I do today. That is why I strongly support his call and that of others for a full and informed discussion to take place in this House, because we have not properly considered the evidence or, indeed, the purpose of our criminal justice system and the role that the right to vote or withdrawal of it plays. I hope that this debate will make some contribution to that analysis and information, but I consider that we need a far fuller understanding in the country as a whole.

I have taken an interest in this subject because I served as a magistrate for 16 years. I have sentenced people to custody and have never done it lightly. I am mindful that it entails not just a loss of liberty but puts at risk people's jobs, homes and family life. Hence, magistrates follow a rigorous decision-making process in selecting an appropriate sentence. With 16 years' experience on the bench, I cannot think of a single sentencing objective that removing the right to vote from prisoners sentenced to custody would have helped to achieve.

Dr Coffey: What are the hon. Lady's thoughts on the Government's proposal to offer judges and magistrates the opportunity to remove the vote as part of the sentence?

Kate Green: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that issue, which I want to explore in my remarks. The hon. Member for Kettering was right to say that there is more than one way to skin a cat. I am not suggesting that a blanket rule that applies before or after a four-year
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custodial sentence is the most appropriate way to go, but it is a step in the right direction and one on which I would like to see us build.

I would like to say a little more about how we might see restoration of the right to vote as a positive by enabling prisoners to fulfil their responsibilities as citizens, and how that might in a small way-I see scepticism on faces opposite me-contribute to reducing reoffending, which is surely the prime purpose of the criminal justice system. If we fail to give prisoners any stake in our society, it is difficult to see why they should wish to reintegrate into that society-why they should feel any sense of obligation to mutual rights, dignity and respect when we do not afford that to them. I see an opportunity alongside this new legislation to improve education and rehabilitation in our prisons.

When I raised the matter with the Secretary of State at Justice Question Time before Christmas, he expressed scepticism as to whether prisoners would take advantage of the right to vote. However, before last year's general election the Prison Reform Trust participated in a debate with prisoners in a local prison. It reported that prisoners were intensely engaged in debating the political matters of the day: not just criminal justice but a wide range of issues that would affect them, their families, communities and society as a whole-a society, of which, like it or not, they remain a part.

Prisoners are rightly recognised as being among the most disadvantaged in terms of social inclusion prior to receiving custodial sentence. We should be looking to take steps to improve their social inclusion. What happens to them while they are in prison undoubtedly has a role to play.

Mr Stewart Jackson: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Kate Green: No; I am just coming to my conclusion.

I conclude with two questions which I hope the Minister will address. First, what plans does he have for a programme of prisoner education and engagement that takes advantage of the reintroduction of the right to vote, within the context of prison education-educating prisoners in their civic responsibilities-and how that will support their planned reintegration into the community? Secondly, I would like to follow the points raised by the hon. Member for Kettering in questioning the rationale for introducing a cut-off point at four years. That seems to suggest degrees of citizenship. One is more or less of a citizen, depending on the nature of one's sentence. I would be interested to hear the hon. Gentleman's view on whether discretion for judges might be applied more realistically if a blanket right to vote were put in place that gave judges the opportunity in certain cases to say that such a right was not appropriate and should be removed.

I am pleased that, after many years, we are seeing some modest steps to reintroduce a right to vote for prisoners. I support the direction of travel the Government are taking. As other Members have said, I very much hope we will move to an informed and rational debate about the effect of the measures now being brought forward.
10 am

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this debate. It has generated more interest in
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Westminster Hall than other debates that I have attended. I congratulate also the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). She said that she felt rather vulnerable taking part in the debate, but at least she positioned herself strategically with no one sitting behind her.

Some Members will acknowledge that an announcement was unavoidable because the Minister had been put in a position in which he had no alternative. Others, however, will argue that he could have disregarded the ruling. I should be interested to know whether a majority of Members present think that we should abide by the law and the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights, which clearly stated that the Government had to address the question.

The Government have known about the problem for a long time. Since 2004, we knew that the Government-any Government-would have to deal with it sooner or later. The previous Government found some imaginative ways to postpone taking a decision or responding to something that they knew was coming down the track, given the consultations that they launched and their unwillingness to take action.

During his speech, the hon. Member for Kettering was asked to confirm when the blanket ban came into place. As he said, it came about under the Forfeiture Act 1870. He deployed the argument that the Government and Members of Parliament clearly debated the matter in 1870. I do not know whether he thinks that once in every 140 years is appropriate, or whether those 140 years have brought about a change in the way in which Parliament and society should operate.

Philip Davies: Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that in those 140 years, there has been ample opportunity for Governments to change the status quo? The fact that change has not been debated is a fair indication that the will of the House-and of the public-in those intervening years was not to change it. It has been within Parliament's gift to change over for the past 140 years if it had so wished, but it did not so wish.

Tom Brake: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. That is why I support the call for Parliament to debate the matter, and we are starting that process today.

Sir Peter Bottomley: Our hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), has been very helpful. Parliament debated the matter in 1967, and gave prisoners the right to vote in 1967.

Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He may or may not be referring to something that I was about to say, which is that what the Government propose is not necessarily a radical departure. I understand that remand prisoners, people in prison for contempt of court and fine defaulters held in prison are eligible to vote. The principle is already established that some prisoners are entitled to vote.

Mr Bone: My hon. Friend makes his usual powerful speech, although I disagree with him on the principle. If prisoners are already given the right to vote, why are we being asked to extend it?

Tom Brake: Those exceptions notwithstanding, the view of the European Court of Human Rights is that
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the blanket ban that applies to all other categories of prisoner is so great that it requires the Government to take action.

Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): On a point of principle, does the hon. Gentleman think that the judges of the European Court should ultimately determine what happens-or should it be the Members of this House, who are elected by their constituents?

Tom Brake: The fact is that we abide by the rules of the European Court of Human Rights, and it has ruled that the Government should take action. I believe, as does the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston, that it is appropriate for the Government to do so. The hon. Gentleman may disagree, as may others, but they take the debate slightly away from the right of prisoners to vote to the subject of the European Union, on which there will be a longer debate-[Interruption.] I mean aspects of the European Court and human rights that will be the subject of another debate in the main Chamber.

It is right that the Minister should clarify why four years was chosen. In the briefings that I have seen, the justification is that four years is the cut-off point between a short-term prison sentence and a long-term one. I have seen no other argument for why that threshold should have been chosen. The Minister should respond to that point.

The Minister should also respond to the hon. Member for Kettering and others, who said that concern had been expressed that compensation might have to be paid. If a total of 85,000 prisoners claimed £750 compensation, it could amount to tens of millions of pounds. The Minister will have heard that some accuse the Government of making up the figures. I hope that he will tell us where the information about these potential compensation claims came from and say whether he stands by the contention that the Government might be liable for a large number of claims if no action is taken.

I hope that the Minister will also explain why the voting rights that he proposes are to apply to Westminster and European elections only, and not to other polls. If the Government were to allow prisoners to vote in local elections exclusively, it could be argued that prisoners would be less able to influence the Government's prison agenda than if they could vote only in local council elections. I would be interested to hear why those two elections were chosen.

Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tom Brake: In a moment. The Minister has rightly made it clear that if the proposals go through, prisoners will be allowed to vote only in the constituencies that they came from or with which they have a connection and not in the constituency in which the prison is placed. The risk of large numbers of prisoners swinging an election result will therefore be greatly reduced.

Mr Gray: The hon. Gentleman has partly answered my question. Does he accept that if prisoners are allowed to vote in local elections in places such as Wandsworth or Wormwood Scrubs, they would have a decisive number of votes in tight elections?

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Tom Brake: The hon. Gentleman has helpfully answered my question, so the Minister does not need to respond to it. I presume that that is why the Government have not gone down the route of allowing prisoners to vote in local elections. However, they could exercise their local votes as electors on the register in the constituencies from which they originally came; it would not necessarily have to be in the locality of the prison.

What this argument is clearly about, and the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston expressed it very well, is whether voting is an intrinsic right-a basic human right-or whether it is a right that should be forfeited when people lose their liberty. Of course prisoners lose their liberty; no one disputes that that is the appropriate response to a crime. However, to what extent do they lose other liberties that are associated with being a citizen? There are certain responsibilities that they retain. For example, prisoners pay capital gains tax on any capital gains transactions that they might be involved in and they pay tax on their savings. They are, therefore, making contributions that other citizens make, so to what extent do we inflict civic death on them and include withdrawing their right to vote as well as other aspects of their liberty?

Mr Offord: The picture that the hon. Gentleman paints is of prisoners being like the fictional characters of Andy Dufresne or Norman Fletcher-I am talking about paying capital gains tax and other tax. However, if we look at someone like John Hirst, who was originally convicted and sentenced to 15 years, we will find that he served another 10 years for his behaviour in prison. That shows that not only was he not a model prisoner when he was in prison, but he was not a contributor to society when he was out of it. Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that some prisoners deserve to lose the kind of rights that we have been talking about?

Tom Brake: Of course. The hon. Gentleman has quite rightly illustrated that there are certain prisoners for whom there should be no such thing as a right to vote. They have forfeited their right, and that is appropriate. However, this debate is not black and white, but shades of grey. For some prisoners at one end of the spectrum, a one-year cut-off might be more appropriate. Equally, there are other prisoners, at the other end of the spectrum, who have forfeited any right to vote in future elections.

It is also worth considering the arguments that could be deployed against allowing some prisoners the right to vote. For example, is there any evidence that disfranchisement helps to prevent crime? I am not aware that there is any evidence that suggests that withdrawing the right to vote from prisoners helps to prevent crime. Are there any concerns about the difficulties of implementation? Certainly, the Prison Governors Association and the National Offender Management Service have no concerns about the logistical difficulties of providing votes to certain categories of prisoners. As I stated earlier, is such a change a great departure? In other words, are we moving to a system in which prisoners are, for the first time, given the right to vote? The answer is no, because remand prisoners and people in prison for contempt of court and for defaulting on fines are already eligible to vote.

To conclude, it is very clear that this is an issue in which the coalition Government are between a rock and a hard place. The European Court ruling is clear. The
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Government, who are potentially at risk from compensation claims, have to take action within the framework of the law. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response on some of these issues of detail and on how the Government arrived at the particular threshold that they have chosen.
10.13 am

Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this extremely important debate. I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak because I believe that it is fundamentally wrong for prisoners to be able to vote. If someone has decided to step outside the law to the point where they have to be incarcerated, they should have no say on how the law is made. Part of the deprivation of liberty that comes with imprisonment is a loss of entitlements, and that should include the right to vote.

My hon. Friend quoted the Prime Minister as saying that even contemplating giving the vote to those incarcerated as convicted prisoners makes him feel physically ill, and he said that in response to a question that I asked him. It is nauseating to think of some of the worst offenders having a say over how this place, or any town hall or parish council, is run. What aggravates us is that this issue was ignored by the previous Government and kicked into the long grass. It is yet another mess that we have inherited and have been left to deal with.

Mr Stewart Jackson: Mindful of the comments of the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), is it not hypocritical of the Labour party to take a similar view, given that in 13 years, it made very little impact on rehabilitation in the penal estate in terms of putting prisoners to work and improving literacy and numeracy? To now say that preventing prisoners from having the vote is somehow attacking their human and civil rights is hypocritical and gets the priorities completely wrong.

Gareth Johnson: My hon. Friend makes an important point. During the 13 years of the previous Government, I worked in the criminal justice system and I saw their lamentable record. We are still waiting to hear what the Opposition would do about the issue of prisoner votes. We have heard the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston give her opinion, but we have yet to hear the official position of her Majesty's Opposition. We also want to know why nothing was implemented in the last four or five years since this particular judgment was passed by the European Court of Human Rights.

We all want to see prisoners obey the law. That is why they have been put into prison in the first place. We all have to obey the law. The United Kingdom is a member of the European Court of Human Rights and is, therefore, subject to its decisions. As members, we cannot pick and choose the decisions we want to comply with. We have two options: either we accept this judgment, hook, line and sinker, or we pull out of the European Court of Human Rights. Perhaps we need to review our membership, because it should be for Britain and not the European Court to decide whether or not British prisoners vote.

Mr David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): My hon. Friend was making a powerful argument, but he rather simplified the last point. It is not an issue of the ECHR versus Britain. A previous Home Secretary,
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now in opposition, said that he distinguished in his mind-I think he was right-between the ECHR overseeing the role of Governments and whether they properly obeyed the law, and the ECHR overruling the actions of Parliaments, which are not the same thing. One of the interesting points here is that what is being taken as a ruling to a Government is, in fact, a ruling to a Parliament, and we should challenge that point.

Gareth Johnson: My right hon. Friend makes a good point. I will come on to the issues relating to the judgment. I am concerned that it appears that through international law, which is always a bit of a hazy subject, we are being told that the United Kingdom has to comply with the direction given by that Court, or else we must pay compensation. My objection is that it should be wholeheartedly for the United Kingdom Government to make a decision on this issue, and there should be no kind of sanction against us if we say, "No, we feel that all convicted prisoners should lose the right to vote." I accept that there are advantages and disadvantages in the United Kingdom's membership of the ECHR, but this debate highlights one of the most significant disadvantages. It is therefore now up to us to weigh up whether we wish to continue being a member of that Court.

It is true that no criminal thinks that they will not commit a crime in case they lose their right to vote. I spent more than 20 years working in the criminal justice system, and I never met a defendant who took the attitude that they would not commit a particular crime because they were fearful of losing their right to vote. Nevertheless, I believe that giving back the right to vote on release can be part of a prisoner's rehabilitation, and there is a distinction there.

For me, however, the issue here is not crime prevention but the principle that it is wrong for incarcerated criminals to help decide how government should operate. It is laughable to suggest that convicted prisoners should decide how the criminal justice system is operated or what priorities should be given, for example, in the policing budget.

The Government have responded to the case of Hirst, which we have heard mention of in the ECHR; it is the reason we are having this debate today. The Government have said that votes will be allowed if prisoners are sentenced to less than four years' imprisonment, and that that change in the law would comply with the ECHR judgment.

I have a copy of that judgment. If we are simply trying to comply with it, I believe the Government can be far stricter than they are currently being. The judgment says the following in being critical of the UK Government's position so far:

"It had regard to the fact that it"-

the UK Government's position-

"stripped a large group of people of the vote; that it applied automatically irrespective of length of sentence or the gravity of the offence".

My interpretation of the judgment is that if we place a bar on those prisoners serving a particular length of sentence and on the categories of offence, that would still comply with the judgment. Therefore, the Government can be far tougher and still remain within the ECHR judgment if they wish to do so.

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For example, the Government could not only bar from voting those sentenced to at least four years, but those convicted of, say, sexual offences, which my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who was here earlier, mentioned, or any other category of offence. It is the blanket ban that the ECHR has rejected.

Imprisonment for committing a crime should bring with it a deprivation of liberty beyond a mere bar on the freedom of movement. That deprivation should include the deprivation of the right to vote.
10.22 am

Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): First, I want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on bringing this issue to Parliament and I hope that there will be a debate on it in the main Chamber too. I agree with him that we are the people who should make decisions. Secondly, I want to thank him for his kind words about my new year honour; in thirty years' time, I hope to be here to congratulate him on achieving the same thing. [Laughter.]

If I may, I do not plan to give way because there are two quotations that I want to give before developing one or two arguments of my own. The first quotation is from a Home Secretary:

"The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country. A calm and dispassionate recognition of the rights of the accused against the State, and even those of convicted criminals against the State, a constant heart searching by all charged with the duty of punishment, a desire and eagerness to rehabilitate in the world of industry all those who have paid their dues in the hard coinage of punishment, tireless efforts towards the discovery of curative and regenerating processes, and an unfaltering faith that there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of every man-these are the symbols which in the treatment of crime and criminals mark and measure the stored up strength of a nation and are the sign and proof of the living virtue in it."-[Official Report, 20 July 1910; Vol. 19, c. 1354.]

That Home Secretary was Winston Churchill, speaking in the Commons in 1910.

The second quotation comes from an American judge, so some of the expressions that he uses and some of the experiences that he refers to may not be identical to those in this country. He is Judge Dennis Challeen, and he is quoted in a document called "Making It Right" that was published in 1986, talking about prisoners:

"We want them to have self-worth...

So we destroy their self-worth.

We want them to be responsible...

So we take away all responsibilities.

We want them to be part of our community...

So we isolate them from our community.

We want them to be positive and constructive...

So we degrade them and make them useless.

We want them to be non-violent...

So we put them where there is violence all around them.

We want them to be kind and loving people...

So we subject them to hatred and cruelty.

We want them to quit being the tough guy...

So we put them where the tough guy is respected.

We want them to quit hanging around losers...

So we put all the "losers" in the state under one roof.

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We want them to quit exploiting us...

We put them where they exploit each other.

We want them to take control of their own lives, own their own problems,

and quit being a parasite ...

So we make them totally dependent on us."

I hope that the future debates that we have in this House will not be about the effect of the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights and I do not actually want them to be about the European convention on human rights. The issue is not whether we join the Court; it is whether we think that the points put in the European convention on human rights by people in this country are points to which we want to adhere.

To my mind, the dominant issue is how we got into this pickle in the first place. The Forfeiture Act 1870 lifted a lot of the problems of people who are convicted; it stopped all their land and property being taken away, and it stopped their wives and children from becoming dependent on the state. It happened to include, under the heading of "treason" in section 2:

"If any person hereafter convicted of treason..."

should be disqualified from

"being elected, or sitting, or voting as a member of either House of Parliament, or of exercising any right of suffrage or other parliamentary or municipal franchise whatever within England, Wales, or Ireland."

Incidentally, this measure did not apply to Scotland so the idea that there is United Kingdom symmetry on this issue is not right.

When I was allowed to intervene on one of my hon. Friends-my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake)-I referred to the part of the Act that came from the modification in the 1960s. Following a criminal law review process, from 1967 prisoners were able to vote.

Philip Davies: Not these ones.

Sir Peter Bottomley: Prisoners were able to vote.

Philip Davies: Not these ones.

Sir Peter Bottomley: I said that I was not planning to take any interventions; that applies whether they are made from a sedentary position and repeated, or made by a Member who is standing up and said for the first time. [Laughter.]

As it happened, in the mid-1960s, unless someone had established a proxy beforehand, I do not think that there were provisions for establishing proxies or for voting by post, so that is a change. Nevertheless, that modification takes away one of the difficulties of how voting by prisoners could be arranged now.

I want to put a question to my hon. Friend the Minister; if he does not know the answer now, I will be very happy to receive it in a letter later on. Is there a duty at present to register prisoners to vote, until we change the registration laws to enable individual registration, and even then does that duty apply? Indeed, one question is about whether people can vote; the second question is whether they appear on the register, whether they are qualified or disqualified. I would be very grateful to
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know from the lawyers in the Minister's Department, or through him from the lawyers, whether there is presently a requirement on a prison governor to register a prisoner on the electoral register and, if so, whether that prisoner is registered as being disqualified from voting in the prison or disqualified from voting from what would have been their normal address, as it were, if they were, say, an overseas elector.

The second question is about voting itself. I hope that the future debates that we have on this subject are about why it is an extra punishment or provision that someone who is convicted and then, as part of their sentence, has their liberty taken away, has their right to vote taken away as well. I am not terribly interested in the moment about the boundary problem of whether there should be a bar for those sentenced to more than four years or for those convicted of certain offences; I think that that is a subsidiary set of issues. I believe that the key point is whether we can actually say to people who are convicted, "We want to take away your liberty, but we want you to be a member of society". That is the essential issue. That is why we try to teach people in prison to read, to work and to be interested in things around them, and why we want them to have some sympathy and empathy for the feelings of others, whether victims or otherwise.

I end by asking a question that most people do not ask themselves. Each week, how many people in this country commit a serious criminal offence for the first time, one for which if they are caught and convicted they could be sent to jail for six months or more? I will give way just once to anybody who can give me the answer.

One would have thought that, dealing with crime and punishment, we would all be interested in knowing the answer to that question. The figure is about 1,800 people a week, who are mostly male and under the age of 30, who for the first time are convicted of an offence for which they could be sent to jail for six months or more. So the figure is presumably above 1,800 a week. A third of all men under the age of 30 have been convicted of an offence for which they could be sent to jail for six months or more. I think that the fact that most of the dispositions are not to send those men to jail is a good thing, although some of my hon. Friends and others in other parties might disagree. I think that we are talking about something that is rather common, and the provisions for allowing prisoners to vote are entirely separate from the issue of how we reduce the number of criminals.

Having said that I would end, I will say it again. When I was Minister with responsibility for painting white lines in the middle of roads, which is quite a dangerous position, rather like my position in this debate, it was estimated that young men drove cars after having consumed more than the legal limit for alcohol-which was a socially acceptable, body-bending, illegal habit- 2 million times a week. Within 2.5 years, that figure appeared to have decreased to 600,000. We cut that crime, which killed 1,200 people a year, by two thirds in 2.5 years with no change in law, sentencing or enforcement.

If we are seriously interested in reducing the number of victims, which is why we are interested in reducing crime, and in having fewer criminals, the way to do it is not by having long arguments about whether to give prisoners the vote; I would vote to do so straight away. I would also try to spend more time on effective reduction of the amount of crime in this country. I hope that this debate will be one of the first steps to doing so.

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10.30 am

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) in this debate. I congratulate him on his knighthood. Perhaps one reason why he got it is that he is an independent Member of Parliament who has always been willing to go against the popular tide. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on introducing this important debate. I must say that I am on his side on this issue.

I am aware that the winding-up speeches will start in nine minutes' time, so I will be extremely brief. Three members of the Backbench Business Committee are in the Chamber today, as are 24 coalition Members and a number of Members from Her Majesty's Opposition. It is wholly inappropriate that this issue should be left to a Westminster Hall debate, as Members speaking on all sides of the argument have said, so I will not discuss the issue itself, as it should be debated in the main Chamber under a substantive motion. I urge hon. Members to go along to the public sitting of the Backbench Business Committee next Tuesday and argue the case for having this debate in the main Chamber on a substantive motion.

The only thing that I will say on the issue is this. We have discussed the coalition Government's four-year rule. It is a classic case of the Government saying something and then caving in later-by reducing it to a year, for example-and saying, "There we are; we've listened to Back-Bench Members of Parliament, and we're complying." To me, the issue is straightforward: either no prisoners should have the vote, or all prisoners should. The arguments are clear. It either is or is not a good thing for society that prisoners should have the vote. If it is a bad thing, then no prisoners should have the vote; I take that view. The other, crucial matter is parliamentary sovereignty and who decides the laws of this country. That issue must be developed in much greater depth during a longer debate.

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend says that the Government have gone too far in order to be seen to be scaling back. Is not the other alternative that they have gone so far as a sop to our coalition partners? Does my hon. Friend agree that if that is the case, the Government have forgotten once again that they are in coalition with the Conservatives as well as the Liberal Democrats? It is rather ungrateful of the Liberal Democrats that only one has bothered to appear to support the Government's sop to them.

Mr Bone: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. There may well be some truth behind it. I will conclude so that other Members can speak. Again, I hope that hon. Members will go along on Tuesday and urge the Backbench Business Committee to hold a debate on this subject in the main Chamber.
10.34 am

Mr Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) (Con): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this debate. It is important because it asks a fundamental question: who is in charge of our criminal justice system and our democracy?

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In the time available, I will focus on the latter. The right to vote, hon. Members will recall, is not included in the European convention itself but in a protocol to that convention, for good reason. The French proposed including the right to vote in the convention, using language referring to universal suffrage. The British objected; the travaux préparatoires to the convention, which are publicly available, say explicitly that we did so because we wanted to retain restrictions on the franchise, including for prisoners. The proposal for the protocol returned two years later with the offending language removed. By the way, that was under Churchill.

I make that point because it is absolutely clear that Britain did not sign up to that idea. It is important as a matter of interpretation of international law under the Vienna convention. The Strasbourg judges should have heeded it; it is a basic canon of the interpretation of treaty law, and it is obviously critical as a matter of basic democratic accountability. We did not sign up to the idea.

It is one example among many of the rampant judicial legislation that has come from Strasbourg since the 1970s. The law of negligence as it affects the police was rewritten in the Osman judgment. Not just right-wingers or tabloids got upset about that; Lord Hoffmann, until recently the second most senior Law Lord, has complained bitterly about it judicially and extra-judicially. Deportation has been increasingly fettered, and Strasbourg has intruded into parents' right to determine how to discipline their children, overruling not only the prerogatives of elected lawmakers in this country but a jury. Now we face a demand to give prisoners the vote.

Strasbourg does not deny such judicial legislation. It embraces it, referring to the doctrine of the living instrument, according to which the convention is a living instrument which it is the courts' duty to update from time to time. Where did the mandate to engage in judicial legislation come from? Not from the convention or the protocol. It is not expressly or implicitly given anywhere. It was conjured up from thin air. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) made the point that Strasbourg is not only checking Governments but rewriting laws written by elected lawmakers. Why is that happening? Clearly, it is because Strasbourg is not really a judicial institution at all. I reviewed the CVs of all the judges in 2007. More than half had no prior judicial experience before going to the Strasbourg bench.

In the time available, I will make one point. The question is what to do now. There is one silver lining-the backstop written into the Strasbourg enforcement machinery. Strasbourg cannot enforce its own judgments, so if the UK refuses to adhere to this judgment, as I think it must, it cannot be enforced. Of course, we could face other awards against us in Strasbourg, including compensatory awards, or be referred to the Committee of Ministers, but the judgment is not enforceable in UK law. No sanctions will apply, and there is no serious prospect of our being kicked out of the Council of Europe. We can say no, given the political will.

My question to the Minister is this. If the Government are not willing to rebuff Strasbourg in this case, arbitrary as it is, at what point, if any, will they refuse to accept a ruling? How bad must things be before Ministers stand up for the prerogatives of elected UK lawmakers? If we
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do not draw a line in the sand now and send back a clear message, we are inviting even more perverse judgments in future. It is time to draw that line.
10.38 am

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): The contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) was so excellent that I would happily have given up the two minutes remaining to me to hear even more from him. This is the situation in which we find ourselves: a democratic Parliament in a democratic country is being told that we are not allowed to decide primarily moral issues, by unelected judges in a court set up to deal with the trashing of human rights by dictators and by countries very different from ours. Winston Churchill was quoted earlier. He was a great war leader, but he was not famed for consistency in domestic politics. His twice crossing the Floor of the House is evidence enough of that. Were he here today, and had we a vote on the matter, I venture to suggest that he would not vote to give convicted prisoners the vote.

People do not go to prison for light offences these days, but because they have done something seriously wrong. The real problem that we face is that judges all too often assert rights that really ought to be qualified rights as absolute rights. Even the right to life is not absolute, because it is infringed when countries legitimately go to war. Where the line is drawn should be a matter for democratic politicians, not unelected judges.

To conclude my remarks in the all too brief time that those of us who are against giving prisoners the right to vote have been allowed by those who spoke earlier and who are in favour of giving prisoners that right, I ask the Minister this: when the time comes, if the Government feel that they cannot draw the line in the sand, which I would love them to do, will they at least do the absolute bare minimum to comply with the judgment, because that is certainly not what they are proposing to do at the moment?
10.41 am

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I, too, wish you, Mr Benton, and all Members present a happy new year. I also wish myself a happy birthday, although I note that no one offered that unto me. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing the debate. It is right that we should have the debate here and, as several Members have said, that there should be a proper debate in the Chamber so that many of the issues can be elaborated at greater length, so I hope that that will happen.

I do not wish to disturb the equilibrium between myself and the Minister, but I must excoriate him slightly, because thus far there have been only written ministerial statements on the matter. The policy should have been announced in the Chamber, not by written ministerial statement, and I say that because the Minister said on 2 November 2010:

"when decisions have been taken they will be announced to the House at the Dispatch Box in the usual way."-[Official Report, 2 November 2010; Vol. 517, c. 722.]

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That is not what happened. A written ministerial statement was snuck out-I never know what the past tense of sneak is-or sneaked out.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper): Put out?

Chris Bryant: Put out is less pejorative, and I want to be pejorative on this point. The statement was snuck out the day before Parliament adjourned for the Christmas recess. That is an inappropriate way to deal with Parliament, let alone with the politics of making a significant constitutional change in this country.

I am afraid that on this occasion I agree with neither my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), nor our new knight, the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), whom I congratulate on his knighthood. I believe that the tradition that prisoners should be unable to vote is older than the Forfeiture Act 1870, because prior to that, the property qualification was so significant that, in practice, prisoners would have been unable to vote anyway. Merely referring to the 1870 Act, although that was the point at which the idea was qualified in statute, is irrelevant. It is an old tradition and a fine one. I think that when one forfeits the right to liberty, one should forfeit the right to vote.

However, I disagree with those who have said that we should leave the European Court of Human Rights. I think that David Maxwell Fyfe was a pretty odious Home Secretary, but I agree with those who argue that he did a good job at Nuremberg in trying to ensure that human rights were protected across Europe. It is difficult for us to argue with Russia that it should comply with the European Court of Human Rights in cases such as that of Sergei Magnitsky if we do not comply ourselves.

I also believe that the Government have been entirely wrong to gold-plate the provisions that are being brought forward. If the cut-off comes at four years, that will mean that people who have committed many very serious crimes, including violent crimes and crimes of a sexual nature, and electoral crimes for that matter, will be able to vote, which I think is inappropriate. That will mean that close to 30,000 people in prison will be able to vote. Notwithstanding the comments that other Members have already made, I think that there will be logistical problems in various areas in the country, which I will move on to in a moment.

The proposals are far more generous that the arrangements in other countries. The hon. Member for Kettering referred to several countries but not to Belgium, where the line is drawn at four months. I wonder whether the Government simply got the words "months" and "years" wrong, because opting for four months would allow them to comply with the Court. In Austria the requirement is one year. In France there is an element of judicial decision-making on who gets the franchise-I think that the Government intend to introduce that here-as the court decides whether someone should be deprived of the right to vote as part of the sentencing. The hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) commented earlier on how the French approached the creation of the Court in the first place and that their system arose because the Napoleonic code had always stipulated that. Of course, 13 countries still have complete bans, although it must be said that they are not countries that we would hold up as exemplars of liberal and civilised societies that comply with human rights.

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I have 10 questions for the Minister, although I realise that he may be unable to answer all of them. I hope that he will write to me on any that he is unable to answer today, as the deputy Prime Minister has not responded to any of the letters that we have written to him on the subject-it has been quite some time now and I am looking forward to those replies. First, the current prohibition on votes for prisoners was introduced through primary legislation in the Representation of the People Act 1983, and amended by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Can the Minister confirm that the amendments to statutes to enable prisoner voting will be done though primary legislation, rather than secondary legislation, so that it can be amended on the Floor of the House? Secondly, were we to proceed with a one-year ban, rather than a four-year ban, can he confirm that that would meet the requirements of the Court and that, therefore, the four-year ban is entirely of the Government's choosing?

Thirdly, can the Minister confirm that more than 28,000 prisoners will be given the vote under the proposals, including around 6,000 who have committed violent crimes and 1,800 who have committed crimes of a sexual nature? Fourthly, the written ministerial statement states that prisoners will be able to vote in an area where they have a local connection. That seems, contrary to the remarks made earlier by several Members, to be a rather loose way of determining where they vote. What will happen if a prisoner wants to be registered in their prison, rather than in their home, or if they are registered in the place where they last lived but someone else is now living there? Frankly, they might not want someone who is serving time in prison to be registered to their home address. What provision have the Government made to ensure that that will not affect householders in their credit rating and in other ways? Will prisoners be entitled to anonymous registration, or will they be included in the electoral register, including details of their last known address, and what provisions will be made for candidates to be able to canvass prisoners?

As I understand it, the Government intend to allow judges to make specific recommendations on depriving people of the vote. On what grounds will a judge be entitled to remove the vote? Following the comments made by other Members, are there particular crimes that, while they might be subject to relatively short sentences of less than four years, should in all cases still see the perpetrator banned from voting? In particular, will the Government ensure that judges receive guidelines on when it will be expected that the vote be removed, and will those guidelines be made available when a Bill comes before the House? Will mentally disordered offenders or prisoners detained in mental health hospitals awaiting sentencing be entitled to vote under the Government's proposals? I hope that the Minister can answer many of those questions. Many Members are understandably angry about out inaction in the past, but I must say that I prefer our inaction on the matter to the Government's action thus far.
10.49 am

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing the debate, particularly on getting it as a kind of reserve option,
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and thank him for his generous remarks at the beginning of his contribution. As ever, of course, he and I will not fall out, even if we end up disagreeing. I would like to take the opportunity, as everyone else has, to wish all hon. Members a happy new year, although that does seem rather a long time ago.

I shall set out what the Government have announced and then try to deal with as many of the questions as I can. I will respond to questions which I believe are of interest to as many people as possible, and write to hon. Members about those that remain which I can answer at this point. I will place a copy of the letter in the Library so that Members can see the Government's responses.

It is worth starting with a bit of background because hon. Members have mentioned it-I will get through this quickly. We have already mentioned that some prisoners-those on remand, for example-have been able to vote for some time. The bar on prisoners who are serving a sentence dates back to 1870, and successive Governments have maintained the position that those who have broken their contract with society by committing an offence and are imprisoned should lose their right to vote.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering opened the debate in a perfectly helpful way by quoting my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who made it clear that he does not want to make this change. To be frank, it is not something that I want to do, and I believe that many Government Members would rather not do it, but we do not have a choice. We have a legal obligation. To answer my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), the proposals are not a sop to anyone. The European Court of Human Rights made a ruling in the Hirst case, and we are legally obliged to comply with it.

It is worth reminding ourselves what the Court actually said in the Hirst case. It said that the existing bar on convicted prisoners-the blanket ban-was contrary to article 3 of Protocol No. 1 of the European convention on human rights. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr Offord) referred to Mr Hirst. Although the ruling was given in his case, under the proposals that we will put before the House, he would not have been entitled to vote when he was in prison because he committed a serious crime and was sentenced to a lengthy term of imprisonment.

We in this country seem blessed-that is not really the right word. The most odious criminals appear to be the ones who run off to the European Court of Human Rights. Another odious criminal who took the Government to court-the judgment was announced before Christmas-also had been convicted of serious crimes.

The Government are following three principles in their approach. The first goes to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis). We have to meet our legal obligations, but we want to go no further than that. Secondly, we want to ensure that the most serious offenders are not given the right to vote. That is why we did not say that there would be no line, that the limit would be entirely up to judges. We want to ensure that there is a line, so that anyone above that length of sentence would not be able to vote. We recognise that the most serious offenders should not be able to vote.

Mr Stewart Jackson: Will the Minister give way?

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Mr Harper: Let me make a little more progress. I am conscious that Members have raised many questions, and I want to try to deal with some of them rather than stack up new ones.

The third principle is to prevent the taxpayer from having to pay successful claims for compensation. One of the problems we have is that even if the compensation in an individual case is not significant, we in this country are blessed-again, that is probably not the right word-with lawyers who are assiduous, if there is money on the table, in running around and getting lots of people to sign up for cases under no win, no fee rules. Various Members have mentioned that there are already 2,500 cases pending. One can be certain that if there were a successful case for compensation, lawyers would quickly go around prisons to sign up prisoners for legal actions on the basis that there might be £1,000 compensation on the table. The Government would be faced with thousands and thousands of cases. We estimate that compensation in an individual case might be around £750 to £1,000, but multiply that by the thousands and thousands of prisoners who would bring cases if there were money on the table, and we would be looking at significant sums for the taxpayer. The one thing that would be worse than making these changes in the law would be giving hard-earned taxpayers' money to some of those criminals. I shall take my hon. Friend's question.

Mr Jackson: I thank the Minister for that explanation, but his argument would carry much more weight if Frodl v. Austria had been the last substantive case in the European Court of Human Rights on this issue. The ruling was very prescriptive and said, in effect, that the majority of prisoners had to have the vote. However, it was not the last case. As I made clear earlier, the last case was Greens and M.T. v. the United Kingdom, and paragraphs 112 to 114 of its ruling specifically made it clear that the Government had a range of options on which they could consult. It is not a question of the Government having to comply with the arbitrary limit of four years; that simply is not true.

Mr Harper: My hon. Friend makes a helpful point by referring to the Greens and M.T. judgment. This comes down to what several Members have said about whether we have the option of doing what the previous Government did, which was nothing. I am afraid that we do not. In that judgment, the Court gave the UK Government six months from the date that the judgment becomes final to introduce proposals. I can say to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) that there are various ways of dealing with it, but the Government will introduce primary legislation in the House. That should deal with questions raised by several Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), who is a member of the Backbench Business Committee. Proposals for primary legislation will be put before the House, and Members will have an opportunity to debate them fully. We will not try to think of a different way to implement the judgment, but we want to ensure that we have a debate in the House.

Mr Bone: When?

Mr Harper: In terms of the timetable, we have to introduce proposals, not pass them. The Government's responsibility is to introduce the proposals before
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23 August this year; in other words, before the House rises for the summer recess. The Court has suspended the 2,500 or so cases of people claiming damages on the basis that we will introduce proposals within the time limit. If we fail to do so, the cases will be revived and there will then be a serious risk that the Government will be faced with paying damages.

Let me deal with some other questions. To respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering-this is his debate-the problem would not be fixed by somehow getting rid of the Human Rights Act 1998. Even if we were to sweep it away tomorrow, we would still be a party to the European convention on human rights and the ruling would stand. The debate on the Act is important, but it is not relevant to this matter.

My hon. Friend asked whether the UK was being singled out. We have to act because British prisoners took cases to the Court, on which it has ruled. Some of the other countries that still have a blanket ban have not been put in that position. If no prisoners had brought a case against the UK Government, we would not be acting. We are acting only because of the legal judgment. The hon. Member for Rhondda said that it had been his Government's preference to do nothing. It is our preference to do nothing, but we face a legal obligation.

Sir Peter Bottomley: That does not make it right.

Mr Harper: I, too, congratulate my newly knighted hon. Friend. He put his case in a measured and thoughtful way, as did the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). Apart from what she said at the beginning of her remarks-that this is, indeed, a legal judgment and that we are obliged to implement it-I did not agree with her arguments, and I am afraid that the Government and I do not agree with what my hon. Friend said either.

Let me try to answer some of the questions that were raised by several Members, including the hon. Member for Rhondda. He accused the Government of gold-plating the provisions. We absolutely have not done that. We set a limit which we believe is the minimum required to comply with our obligations. Moreover, in contrast with the previous Government, who were proposing to enfranchise prisoners for all elections, we have said that we will make a change only for those elections where we are legally obliged to do so: the Westminster and European elections. We will not do it for local elections or referendums. Importantly, we will not do it for elections for police and crime commissioners, or for mayors. We will do what is legally necessary and no more. That was not what the previous Government were going to do. They proposed enfranchising prisoners for all elections. That would have perhaps had some of the consequences for local elections that Members have mentioned.

Also, we will ensure that prisoners cannot register to vote at the prison. It would clearly be inappropriate to have significant number of voters at prisons able to influence the results of elections. It is also worth saying, as my final point-

Mr Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order. That concludes the debate. We must move on to the next one.

1 comment:

Tim said...

I find it shocking how many people are taken in by the ‘two wrongs make a right’ fallacy. Am I just stupid and missing some obvious point?