Site Meter

Thursday, February 10, 2011

MPs 'to back ban on prisoner votes'

MPs 'to back ban on prisoner votes'

By Daniel Bentley, PA

Thursday, 10 February 2011

MPs will today exhort the Government to defy the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and refuse to give the vote to prisoners.

The Strasbourg court's highly contentious demand for an end to the blanket ban on inmates taking part in national and European elections is to be debated by the Commons.

The House is expected to overwhelmingly support a cross-party motion stating that the matter should be left to "democratically-elected lawmakers" and supporting the status quo.

It has been tabled by senior Tory MP David Davis and backed by former Labour home secretary Jack Straw as ministers wrestle with how best to deal with the ECHR ruling.

Prime Minister David Cameron said yesterday he saw "no reason" why prisoners should be given the vote. He has said in the past that the idea makes him feel "physically ill".

However, hundreds of prisoners have instigated claims for being denied the right to vote and the Government is facing potential compensation bills of more than £100 million.

It has proposed to allow the vote to inmates serving less than four years, although there have been signs that that might be reduced still further.

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has spoken repeatedly of doing "the minimum necessary" to comply with the law.

MPs opposed to giving prisoners the vote hope that by debating the matter and passing a motion rejecting the move will steel the Government's resolve and strengthen its hand with the ECHR.

The Strasbourg court's judgment in October 2005 cited the fact that there had been no substantive debate of the ban, which was introduced in 1870.

Mr Cameron made a point in the Commons yesterday of saying he had "every sympathy" with Tory MP Priti Patel's "disdain" for the "unelected bureaucrats in Strasbourg".

"I see no reason why prisoners should have the vote. This is not a situation that I want this country to be in," he said.

"I am sure that you will all have a very lively debate on Thursday, when the House makes its views known."

One backbench MP who supports the ECHR ruling said privately of the highly-anticipated backbench debate that "the raw emotion is something else".

"It will not be a pretty sight and the motion will be passed very strongly," the MP said.

Government ministers and Labour frontbenchers will abstain from divisions on the motion and any amendments, while backbenchers have been given a free vote.

Attorney General Dominic Grieve is to lead the debate for the Government but he will not argue for votes for prisoners but instead simply set out the legal and constitutional position.

Downing Street stressed that the votes would be an expression of parliament's view and not binding on the Government.

The motion tabled by Mr Davis states that "legislative decisions of this nature should be a matter for democratically-elected lawmakers; and supports the current situation in which no prisoner is able to vote except those imprisoned for contempt, default or remand."

Mr Davis this morning brushed off the threat that failure to grant prisoners the right to vote will lead to compensation rulings running into tens of millions of pounds from the European court.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "There is no guarantee that the court would actually award compensation. It didn't award compensation to John Hirst, the killer who first brought this, or the rapist who followed on from that. It doesn't always award compensation.

"It can't enforce compensation and I don't believe the British courts would uphold it. If there was a suggestion they might, then I think Parliament should rule 'no compensation'."

Conservative Mark Pritchard said that MPs should today provide the ammunition for ministers to go back to Strasbourg and ask the court to think again.

Mr Pritchard told Today: "The Prime Minister and Government need to listen to the will of Parliament, which I hope will reject any form of prisoner voting rights. That will involve the Prime Minister and foreign minister having to go back to Strasbourg and say, 'The people of Britain have spoken loudly and clearly through Parliament', and ask them to think again."

But Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake warned against a confrontation with the court: "I think there are sufficient realists in Government to accept that rejecting a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights is not something the UK Government wants to do.

"Therefore, I think we will find a solution, but it is going to be a really tough challenge."

Conservative MP Anne Main has tabled an amendment to the Davis/Straw motion to say that no compensation should be paid to prisoners denied the vote.

Ms Main told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I agree with (retired Law Lord) Lord Hoffmann on this matter, when he argues that it can't be right that a European supra-national court should intervene in matters in which members of the Council of Europe have not surrendered their sovereign powers.

"If our Parliament is not sovereign then there really is no point us having it.

"We should be able to decide in this country, regardless of the wishes of a foreign court, what our Parliament wants to do and how we wish to govern ourselves.

"Are we going down the route where the mark has surely been overstepped from what people believed they were signing up to?"

Former deputy prime minister Lord Prescott, who reportedly clashed with Mr Straw on the issue at a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party earlier this week, said that the former justice secretary was the only Labour MP to sign what was essentially a "Tory motion".

Lord Prescott, who sits on the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly which elects ECHR judges, told Today: "As a sovereign Parliament, we signed up for this human rights change - nobody disagreed with it at all - that says we observe the obligations of the convention.

"If we in fact feel there is a disagreement, it lays out that the dispute will be decided by the judge at the European court."

No comments: