Government set to concede defeat over prison voting

Andrew Woodcock,Pa
Tuesday 02 November 2010 10:30

Prisoners are to get the right to vote as the Government is poised to throw in the towel in a long-running legal tussle with the European Court of Human Rights, it emerged today.

It is understood that the Coalition is to confirm that it is ready to change the law to remove the voting ban on more than 70,000 inmates of British jails.

The move comes after government lawyers advised that failure to comply with a 2004 ECHR ruling could cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds in litigation costs and compensation.

Prime Minister David Cameron was said to be "exasperated and furious" at having to accept that there was no way of keeping the UK's 140-year-old blanket ban on sentenced prisoners voting.

There was no official confirmation of the decision to drop the ban, but a representative of the Government is expected to signal the move in a statement to the Court of Appeal tomorrow.

No decision is thought to have been taken on exactly how the change will be implemented and which inmates are to be given the right to vote.

The Daily Telegraph reported that the ban could be retained for murderers and others serving life sentences and that judges may be given responsibility for deciding which criminals should be allowed to vote when they are sentenced.

The paper quoted an unnamed senior Government source as saying: "This is the last thing we wanted to do but we have looked at this from every conceivable angle and had lawyers poring over the issue.

"But there is no way out and if we continued to delay then it could start costing the taxpayers hundreds of millions in litigation."

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

Following a legal challenge from prisoner John Hirst, the ECHR ruled in 2004 that the blanket ban was discriminatory and breached the European Convention on Human Rights. However the Strasbourg-based court said that each country can 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.

It urged Britain to lift its ban before the May general election to avoid the danger that the poll might not comply with the Human Rights Convention.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, welcomed the move.

"A historic decision to enfranchise serving prisoners would mark the end of the archaic punishment of civic death dating back to the Forfeiture Act of 1870," she said.

"In a modern prison system you would expect prisoners to have rights and responsibilities and politicians to take an active interest in their constituency prisons.

"People are sent to prison to lose their liberty not their identity."

But David Green, director of the think-tank Civitas, said the Government's hand was being "forced by the European Court of Human Rights".

"It is another example of judges acting as if they were politicians," he said.

"It is judicial empire-building.

"The Government should make only the smallest possible concession - perhaps by giving the vote to prisoners sentenced to six months or less. The ban should remain for all the others.

"If it leads to further legal action, so be it. In the longer term, Parliament should pass a law making the decisions of the British Parliament superior to any rulings of the European Court.

"By implication, interpretations of the Convention by British courts should also have precedence over any external court."

Losing the right to vote was part of the punishment of a prison sentence and making politicians more responsive to the concerns of criminals was "the last thing a law abiding society needs", he said.

Former justice secretary Lord Falconer said he disagreed with the European Court of Human Rights ruling but accepted that the Government had to comply with it.

He said countries should be able to say that convicted prisoners cannot vote.

"But in relation to the blanket ban right across convicted prisoners, the European Court of Human Rights said that's not in compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights," he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

"I disagree with that conclusion but it's what their view is and we have ultimately got to comply with it."

Lord Falconer added that it would be "incredibly disproportionate and wrong" for the UK to simply pull out of the ECHR.

Jon Collins, campaign director for the Criminal Justice Alliance which represents almost 50 organisations, said the decision was "long overdue".

"It is more than six years since the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK's disenfranchisement of all sentenced prisoners is illegal, yet that ban remains in place," he said.

"The Government cannot pick and choose which court decisions it complies with, and the failure to end the ban on prisoners voting ahead of this year's General Election is likely to result in successful claims for compensation and significant legal costs.

"Delaying the decision any longer will simply lead to more legal wrangling at additional cost to the taxpayer.

"The UK's ban on prisoners voting serves no useful purpose, while damaging efforts to rehabilitate prisoners and reduce reoffending.

"Voting is a right, not a privilege, and the Government is doing the right thing by acting now to overturn this outdated and illegal ban."

Convicted killer John Hirst, who took the case to the European Court of Human Rights, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The whole thing about this is that in this system where you've got a democracy, that people can put pressure and lobby in Parliament for changes in the law and improved conditions, but you can't do that if you haven't got the vote.

"All prisoners can do is riot, if they've got a complaint, so you've got to give them this legitimate channel to bring their issue in."

Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, also welcomed the move, saying the right to vote was "one of the hallmarks of citizenship".

"If we want prisoners to return safely to the community, feeling they have a stake in society, then the right to vote is a good means of engaging individuals with the responsibilities of citizenship," she said.

"We understand the Government is still looking at excluding some prisoners from voting, in particular prisoners serving sentences of four years or more.

"One way the Government could enfranchise this group would be to link their plans to make long-sentenced prisoners work and pay tax to voting rights, as taxation and representation should ideally go hand in hand."

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