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Monday, February 07, 2011

Westminster Hour on prisoners votes

Westminster Hour on prisoners votes

Should prisoners have the vote?

The Prime Minister says the mere idea of it makes him feel physically sick. But he and other government ministers won't vote against the notion of giving prisoners' the vote in the commons this week.

The European Court of Human Rights has set a deadline for Britain to change the law to allow those in jail their say at the ballot box by this summer. But is David Cameron heading for a political row that could give him more than spot of indigestion?

Conservative MP Dominic Raab was an international lawyer before becoming an MP and he's one of the many who will be voting to block the plan. I spoke to him earlier and started by asking about the strength of opposition among his backbench colleagues.

Interview with Dominic Raab. Listen here.

News Presenter Harriet Cass introduction: “Cameron’s in a bind over allowing prisoners the vote”.

Laura Kuensberg: The Prime Minister says the mere idea of it makes him feel physically sick. But he and other government ministers won’t vote against giving prisoners the vote in the Commons this week. The ECtHR has set a deadline for Britain to change the law to allow those in jails their say at the ballot box by this Summer. Is David Cameron heading for a political row giving him more than indigestion? Backbenchers have used their new powers over business in the Commons to have a debate this Thursday in a move to reject the ECtHR’s demand. Knowing that he’s probably on a hiding to nothing Mr Cameron has conceded to his backbenchers a free vote on the motion. It’s just one example of the Tory ranks being increasingly willing to rebel. Conservative MP Dominic Raab was an international lawyer before becoming an MP, he’s one of three who have put forward next Thursday’s motion. I asked him why he was so opposed to allowing prisoners the vote.

Dominic Raab: Well, I think there will be many people deeply uncomfortable with the idea of 28,000 prisoners including homicides and violent offenders and sexual offenders and paedophiles and rapists getting the vote. And I think there is a strong school of thought with freedom comes responsibilities of you commit an offence serious enough to end up in prison forfeit your liberty and right to vote for that period. So on the merits I think there is an issue here.

Laura Kuensberg: So, where is the solution to this? We know that the government is looking at various options. Possibility limiting the vote to prisoners jailed for 6 months or a year. But, would you accept any prisoner being given the vote?

Dominic Raab: Personally, I wouldn’t favour it for any prisoners being given the vote. The goalposts keep shifting. Strasbourg originally said a blanket ban was arbitrary and that Parliament needed to debate it. It’s interesting to note that. But the goalposts have shifted again since then back in 2004 and then in 2010 in the Frodl case Strasbourg said no ban on prisoners voting would pass muster unless it related to offences which had something to do with the sanction of forfeiting the right to vote. In practical terms this means we can only withhold the vote from someone convicted of electoral fraud or something like that. It’s a very good example of the goalposts shifting and more judicial legislation coming through and its something where you’ve actually got to draw a line in the sand at some point.

Laura Kuensberg: This is getting quite urgent though the debate is heating up here in Westminster the clock is ticking because of the elections in May in Scotland, Northern Irish and Welsh Assemblies. Now the Justice Secretary has told MPs like you that if the government doesn’t move on this there going to have to pay out compensation possibly running into hundreds of millions of pounds. How would you explain to your constituents that they’d be paying out taxpayers’ money in compensation to prisoners?

Dominic Raab: We shouldn’t pay a penny in compensation. And the important safeguard in the Strasbourg mechanism is and let’s distinguish between a couple of things. I support the Convention as a list of our freedoms it’s important that it’s a sensible list of freedoms. A complaint against Strasbourg is how the Court has been operating and I think the key thing here is there’s a safeguard built into this which was done on purpose is that none of the rulings and none of the awards whether they are compensation or otherwise can be directly enforced. So, we have the right to say no. And, but the important thing here is that actually it’s a conversation that our Parliament needs to have with Strasbourg because this relates to the legislative functions. And the actuality is unless the government decides and Parliament decides we won’t pay a penny in compensation. And let me put the question to you this way, if we don’t draw the line here, hold the line here, at what point and how perverse and arbitrary would a ruling from Strasbourg have to be before we stood up and said hold on Parliament makes the law of the land and Parliament is democratically accountable we’re the one’s that should have the last say. If not on this issue, then when should it be done? I can’t see a better case for holding our line and standing our ground and sticking up for the democratic prerogatives and people.

Laura Kuensberg: But can you do that and actually stay in the European Convention?

Dominic Raab: A good question and which we need a sober debate about. Reality is when Greece was taken over by military dictatorship, when Russia committed some pretty awful atrocities in Chechnya there was no country kicked out of the Council of Europe.

Laura Kuensberg: But would you leave voluntarily? It’s one thing saying other countries…

Dominic Raab: No need to do that. Don’t need to do that. That’s just irresponsible scaremongering on behalf of the critics on the idea of this debate. We don’t need to leave the Court, we don’t need to leave the Convention, and we can hold the line here. There has been no country that’s been kicked out of the Council of Europe. There’s been no country that’s been fined. That mechanism doesn’t exist. And, ultimately the worst thing that can happen with this case along with the hundreds of others on the list to be reviewed by what’s called the Committee of Ministers. And frankly that’s the worst case scenario, I think it’s better than either paying out the money or ceding our democratic prerogatives.

Laura Kuensberg: Now lastly this issue of giving prisoners the vote is one of a number of issues which is enraging you and some of your colleagues on the backbenches. Why is there so much unhappiness about some issues?

Dominic Raab: I don’t think I really see it in those terms I see it on the merits. Look I’ve been talking about this for some time and I read a book where it talked about judicial legislation by Strasbourg. I think Parliament needs to be strengthened, that’s what the Coalition agreement is achieving and I think that’s what this debate will achieve.

Laura Kuensberg: Do you think the government has mishandled all this?

Dominic Raab: It’s not really for me to say. I don’t think so.

Laura Kuensberg: I’m asking you.

Dominic Raab: I’m, I’m, I’m not really sure. Their strongest position will be if Parliament actually says we don’t want to give prisoners the vote. The government will be able to go back to Strasbourg and say look we tried there were some proposals but they were struck down by those people the elected representatives in Parliament and we’ve got no choice we cannot implement this.

Laura Kuensberg: Dominic Raab. Just one of the problems vexing Europe.

Comment: Is Dominic Raab King Cunt trying to hold back the tide?

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