Council of Europe ministers has warned the UK that defying a Strasbourg judgement to give some prisoners voting rights would breach its human rights commitments and its international legal obligation.
Nevertheless, the Council, of which the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is a part, gave the UK another nine months to sort out the controversial issue, with its Secretary General Jagland Thorbjørn insisting diplomatically that it was “convinced that a solution will be found that satisfies both sides”.
While it was a guarded approach from the ministers, couched in conciliatory language, one insider said it was intended to send a message, urging Britain to find a compromise before it “digs its way too deep to get out”.
Mr Thorbjørn urged the UK not to let issues concerning the European Union – a completely separate body - colour the discussion: “I am concerned that the domestic debate against more EU political integration is confused with the broader aim of human rights. The UK has always been a leader in human rights and I urge it to continue in this tradition.”
The issue has caused a massive rift between the ECHR and the UK since its judges ruled that a complete ban on prisoner voting was in breach of the convention on human rights. Prime Minister David Cameron declared that merely contemplating giving prisoners the vote made him “physically ill” and it has led certain Tories to call for Britain to withdraw from the convention altogether.
The decision published by the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers said it “noted with interest” the fact the government has published draft legislation, which includes amongst its options giving voting rights to prisoners serving less than six months or four years. However it also offers an option to defy the ECHR and maintain a complete ban.
The council report stated that “the third option aimed at retaining the blanket restriction criticised by the European Court cannot be considered compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights”.
It went on to say that it welcomed comments made by Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling that “the Government is under an international legal obligation to implement the [European] Court’s judgment” and said it would reassess the situation in September.
A Ministry of Justice Spokesperson responded: “The strength of feeling in the UK on the prisoner voting matter is clear. And we have been clear in our view that it should be for national Parliaments to decide.”