Prisoners serving less than four years to get vote

Criminals sentenced to four years or more will be automatically excluded from the right to vote when it is extended to prisoners, it was announced today.

And sentencing judges will be given the discretion to stop those handed down a jail term of less than four years from casting a ballot while they are behind bars.

New legislation - due to be tabled in Parliament next year - will grant prisoners the right to vote only in elections to Westminster and the European Parliament, meaning that they will not have a voice in ballots for directly-elected police chiefs.

The Government announced last month that it was throwing in the towel in a long-running legal battle in the European courts to prevent inmates voting.

But Prime Minister David Cameron made clear that he was doing so reluctantly, and would prefer to retain the ban which has been in place since 1870.

Today, his spokesman said: "We are responding to court judgments. We have to comply with those judgments and we don't want to get into a situation where we are compensating prisoners because we have not complied.

"It is not something the Prime Minister would do if he were given a free choice on this."

Announcing the proposed restrictions on prisoners' voting rights ahead of a parliamentary statement on December 20, constitutional reform minister Mark Harper said: "The Government has brought these proposals forward as a result of a court ruling which it is obliged to implement. This is not a choice, it is a legal obligation.

"We are ensuring the most serious offenders will continue to be barred from voting.

"If the Government failed to implement this judgment, we would not only be in breach of our international obligations but could be risking taxpayers' money in paying out compensation claims."

Sentenced prisoners were originally denied the right to take part in ballots under the Forfeiture Act 1870, and the ban was retained in the Representation of the People Act 1983. Prisoners on remand awaiting trial, fine defaulters and people jailed for contempt of court are allowed to vote.

Following a legal challenge from John Hirst, a convicted killer, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2005 that the blanket ban was discriminatory. However the Strasbourg-based court said that each country could decide which offences should carry restrictions to voting rights.

The former Labour administration kicked the issue into the long grass with a series of consultations. But the Council of Europe warned earlier this year that the UK Government's failure to comply with the ECHR ruling risked sparking many more compensation claims.

Government lawyers advised earlier this year that failure to comply could cost hundreds of millions of pounds in compensation and litigation costs.

Under the proposals announced today, all offenders sentenced to four years or more will automatically be barred from registering to vote. Prisoners sentenced to less than four years will retain the right to vote, unless the sentencing judge removes it.

Inmates will be registered to vote not at the prison, but at their former address or an area where they have a local connection, preventing the danger of large jails becoming crucial battlegrounds for votes in marginal constituencies. Prisoners will vote by post or proxy.

The director of the Prison Reform Trust, Juliet Lyon, said: "Enfranchising prisoners serving sentences of under four years is an important step in the right direction.

"However, it does not appear to meet the requirements of European Court judgments which state that the vast majority of prisoners should be able to vote."

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