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Debating the issues

Betsan Powys | 12:30 UK time, Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Breaking news: the UK Government has been told it has to give prisoners in Scotland and Wales the right to vote in May's Assembly elections - though not the March referendum - or risk compensation claims for allegedly breaking human rights laws. The recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, they've been warned, doesn't just affect the vote in Westminster parliamentary elections, as they'd thought, because the Assembly elections use the same electoral roll. Local elections have a slightly different roll.

More on that during the day.

My own polling card still hasn't arrived for the March vote but yours may well have - and come tomorrow, there'll be a month to go until you get a chance to use it in the referendum.

Granted, I haven't been around very much to check the post. I've been to Scotland to speak to the First Minister, to London, to Morriston, listening to the views of people in Conwy and sifting through the hundreds - yes, no 'stirring up apathy' going on here - who applied to be one of the sixy who'll make up our People's Assembly.

You'll first hear from them tomorrow and you'll be hearing quite a lot more from us on the sorts of questions both Yes and No campaigns will face between now and March 3rd.

In the meantime I thought you might be interested in hearing - at some length - from Rachel Banner of True Wales and former First Minister Rhodri Morgan. They met to debate the issues that will lead them to vote No and Yes on March 3rd on The World this Weekend. The cut-down version was broadcast on Sunday but here's a chance to listen to pretty much the whole conversation.

I've cut out some mis-speaking and phones ringing mid-interview but otherwise, here's the conversation as recorded with Shaun Ley.

UPDATE 08.02.11

We've tried everything. Our colleagues in London have tried everything - but for some reason way behind my technical know-how, we can't get the link to the interview to work. Apologies but we're finally admitting defeat.


  • Comment number 1.

    ''s a chance to listen to pretty much the whole conversation.'

    Is it me, or is it an 'invisible' link? Yes or No? Hope the BBC gets its referendum coverage act together.

  • Comment number 2.

    Where is the link please

  • Comment number 3.

    So denying prisoners the chance to vote is breaking human rights laws. Forgive me if I am wrong but isnt that part of the point of prison. What bigger abuse of human rights is there then denying someone their freedom, I am sure in the not too distant future prisons will be outlawed and all prisoners released as we can no longer keep them incarcerated as its denial of their basic human rights.

  • Comment number 4.

    Breaking news: the UK Government has been told it has to give prisoners in Scotland and Wales the right to vote in May's Assembly elections - though not the March referendum - or risk compensation claims for allegedly breaking human rights laws.

    What is the point of having the vote if the people you then elect don't make the law? The Government is the Executive and must carry out the wishes of Parliament (Legislature); the role of Courts (Judiciary)should be to interpret the will of Parliament. If Parliament decides that prisoners should not vote (as they did the last time they considered the matter) then they don't vote-end of story.

  • Comment number 5.

    I listened to the short clip on 'The World this Weekend'. It left me wondering if any prominent (elected) members of the Labour Party in Wales will put their heads above the parapet in support of Rachel. It will be interesting to see if what happens.

    It seemed a little hypocritical of her to speak of a low turnout in the referendum, when she herself supported the decision of the campaign group TW not to apply to the EC for lead status, and thus not to put the group to the EC's test.

    The purpose of the electoral law is to ensure that the population is made aware of the referendum and to have the issues of those for and against the proposal presented in their terms.

    It seems that she and her followers may be preparing to question the validity of a Yes vote on the basis of a low turnout, if such is the outcome. If that is so they must bear in mind that the legitimacy of a No vote can also be questioned on the same grounds.

    The situation which has arisen in Wales because of the nature of the electoral legislation may not have been foreseen by those drafting it. That is of a campaigning group which reflects a wide political spectrum including the leaders of all the major parties, meeting the qualification for lead status, being denied the right to put their case to the electorate, by the decision of group whose range, level of support, and capacity to present their case, has not been gauged.

    Its worrying that we are now left largely to depend on the BBC to allow the presentation of the views of the 'permitted participants'. The World this Weekend programme illustrated the problem, in that its editors decided what the listeners would hear, and when they would hear it, in what were short sound bytes.

    Whatever it is, it isn't democratic - not the issue of legislative devolution - but the way the campaign(s) have now to be conducted. The law and TW, in my opinion, must bear some responsibility for this shambles.

  • Comment number 6.

    #3 & #4

    Apologies for the potted version below. Hope it’s of some help in understanding the issues.

    In 1951 the UK was the first to ratify the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which most European countries subsequently ratified. The ECHR was until relatively recently completely unconnected with the European Union.

    The UK was the last country to incorporate the Convention into domestic law – it took nearly half a century. Parts were incorporated into UK domestic law by the Human Rights Act (HRA), 1998, although by no means all. Article 13, ‘the right to an effective remedy’ was a notable omission from the HRA. The UK has derogated (opted out completely) from parts of the Convention.

    The European Court of Human Rights is the final arbiter of the Convention. It is based in Strasbourg. (Not to be confused with the European Court of Justice (ECJ), the Court which upholds EU law, based in Luxembourg).

    As a state signatory to the Convention the UK is legally bound to accept the rulings of the Strasbourg Court. The UK Government and Parliament assented to the Convention in 1951 and Parliament passed the HRA in 1998. Its validity and decisions cannot therefore be questioned on those grounds.

    The 1998 Act allows human rights issues to be raised in any UK court. Previously such issues had to be taken to Strasbourg, a long and expensive process taking up to five years and costing tens of thousands.

    It can be argued that the HRA was the first (and only) piece of legislation which grants UK citizens – you and me - rights, as opposed to liberties. Liberties are weaker than rights, as the individual has to strive to uphold his own liberties, whereas the state (through the courts) has the duty to uphold an individual’s rights. Therefore the ECHR and the HRA are vitally important to us. It redresses the imbalance between the power and resources of the state, and those of the individual.

    Unlike almost all other nation states the UK has no formal written constitution embodying the rights of its citizens. That is a significant constitutional weakness. Constitutions require special procedures, such as a two-thirds vote in the legislature to bring about an amendment. The HRA can be amended or repealed by a simple majority – a single vote - in Parliament at any time, thus at a stroke Parliament can remove our rights.

    For better or worse the Strasbourg Court has decided that prisoners (in certain circumstances) should have the right to vote in some elections.

    Historically, a term of imprisonment in the UK has included the removal of the prisoner’s ‘civic rights’ – including the right to vote, as well as his liberty. I suspect that the grounds on which the decision was made (I haven’t studied it) was based on the contention that the deprivation of liberty itself is the proper punishment for the crime.

    I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with the Court’s stance on the issue – do remember that the UK judiciary is represented on it.

    The UK Government has no realistic option but to follow the ECHR's ruling, else the costs of subsequent appeals would fall on us the tax payers.

    If the UK rescinded its ratification of the Convention, the UK would be seen throughout the world as repressive and backward-looking with scant regard for the rights of its citizens – all 60 million of us, not just the 80,000 or so in our prisons.

    So there you have it. It has nothing to do with the UK’s membership of the EU – although the EU has relatively recently ‘signed up’ to the ECHR.

    Human rights are an interesting topic and well worth a bit of reading.

  • Comment number 7.

    5. At 6:21pm on 01 Feb 2011, Bryn_Teilo wrote:

    I think TW should come clean. They should tell us whether they would have met the criteria required to represent the NO campaign. Have they got substantial Wales wide support? Were they advised that they wouldn’t qualify, before they took their decision not to apply?

    As things stand they are being treated by the media (Ms Banner debating with Rhodri Morgan?) as if they are the official campaign, but with the built in cop out that they weren’t, if their campaign fails.

  • Comment number 8.

    Bryn, a comment as good as your #6 does shine rather more brightly than most others on this blog, and deserves a response.

    I would only take exception to one part of what you say. The ECHR did not decide that:

    "... prisoners (in certain circumstances) should have the right to vote in some elections."

    It would be more accurate to say that they rejected a blanket ban on all convicted prisoners being denied the right to vote. Splitting hairs, the UK doesn't quite have a blanket ban, because those jailed for contempt of court and for not paying fines can still vote. But apart from in those circumstances, it is a blanket ban.

    However, if withholding the right to vote were to be made part of the sentence (i.e. determined on a case by case basis, though probably following sentencing guidelines for the type of offence) then the UK would not be in breach of the ECHR ruling ... at least as I read the situation.

    The problem is that this ruling was made in 2004, and the UK government has sat on its hands and done nothing since then, hoping that the problem would go away or that a changed administration would be left to deal with it. If the UK had taken the judgement seriously at the time and made the issue of whether a prisoner was prohibited from voting a specific part of an individual's sentence from then on, the proposed "four year rule" would have already played itself out.

  • Comment number 9.

    Thinking of crooks, murderers, assaulter's, drug runners, MPs who cheat and commit perjury, and a myriad of other crimes against society [the people], and thinking in particular of their relationship with society, the society that guarantees human rights, by their actions these people are outwith society, they have rejected society.

    Might it not be appropriate to use the out of favour expression "outlaw", and describe the relationship of outlaw with regard to society.

    Personally, when these people steal, cheat, murder, assault, supply illegal substances, perjure themselves, I think they step outside society and as such might be described in law so that until they serve their sentence they remain outside society without the rights and responsibilities those others choose to share and enjoy.

  • Comment number 10.


    Thanks for clarifying that point. I did say it was a ‘potted version’.

    Prisoners were first denied the right to vote during a term of imprisonment under the Forfeiture Act of 1870. Section 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 retained it.

    John Hirst brought the case to the High Court in 2001 after a conviction for manslaughter, but it was dismissed. He then proceeded to Strasbourg, and the ECHR in 2004 ruled unanimously that there had been a violation of his human rights under Article 3 of the First Protocol. The UK lost a subsequent appeal in 2005.

    My understanding is that under the ECHR ruling each country can decide which offences should carry restrictions on voting rights. Quite how the UK is going to implement it is unclear.

  • Comment number 11.

    I can't see the link to the interview in the original post.

  • Comment number 12.

    if you wish to have the murderer John Hirst explain in full his delusions read mark d'arcy's parlimentary blog - fuel for the fire

  • Comment number 13.

    I've asked this before on other posts with no response so I'll ask agaiin. What constituencies are these prisoners to vote in? Their home town, if they have one? The district where the prison is situated? If no answer then I can only assume the latter. If the eventual electoral winner has only a small majority then is it safe to think it is because of the 'prison' vote? Interesting, in Europe but not run by Europe? It seems to be an oxymoron now.
    Regards, etc.

  • Comment number 14.

    I didn't mean to be critical, Bryn. I only wanted to make the point that the ECHR hadn't themselves made a decision about which prisoners should vote in what circumstances. Those are decisions for each individual country to make.

    The UK has had plenty of time to make those decisions. Labour deserve blame because they were in power for most of that period and did nothing. But the Tories and LibDems have now had nearly nine months themselves, because the UK was granted a six month extension to the original five year period.

    Yet they still did nothing, because they were foolish enough to think that the Welsh and Scottish elections in May didn't count. That's typical of their contempt agenda, and I can't help thinking that the crisis in which they now find themselves is nothing more than such contempt deserves.

  • Comment number 15.

    #at 13
    Very interesting point. Why not have one candidate to represent the 'prison constituency' with tacit agreement between the parties not to put up an opposing candidate, rather like the old system of not opposing the Speaker of the House?
    The prisoners would be able to vote but their votes would not upset any apple carts.

  • Comment number 16.

    #14 MH

    Facts a bit skewed, the government only got the legal advice in November from when it was referred by Straw as Justice Sec, that it applied to EU and parliamentary voting, the warning about other legislature votes has come from non-government legal advisers who are giving evidence to a parliamentary committe not Govt Lawyers. Ministers, ex-Labour and current Coalition did not know and still dispute this assertion, so where is the contempt there?

  • Comment number 17.

    As i understand it it is only people who are serving less than four years who are to get the vote so it is not murderers or the like. Therefore as it is going to have to happen anyway why all the heart searching, does stealing a car invalidate someones opinion on say further Welsh Devolution if it does why not extend the ban to other groups such as the unemployed, people who dont own their own house, or even Women!!!!
    Oh no, on second thoughts that sounds a bit backward looking therefore i can only assume those supporting continuing the ban are looking for revenge cant see it helping reform so is it not just as ridiculous to prevent prisoners voting as it was to not give women the vote

  • Comment number 18.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 19.

    #16. I never said anything about the legal advice this government may or may not have got, and it couldn't affect the judgement of the court anyway. This issue has been outstanding for more than five years, not just since November. So neither Labour before May, nor the Tories and LibDems after, can have any excuses for failing to make a decision before now.

  • Comment number 20.

    The Question that #13 RWWCardiff asks is one that I would like to ask too.

    In which constituency will a prisoner vote?

    There seems to be an assumption by many that they will be given a postal vote to their "home" constituencies, but I can't find anything from government that gives an absolute assurance that this will be the case. The only precedent for institutional voting in UK elections is the University vote, where students can vote in the constituencies where the "institution" is.

    The Welsh and Scottish elections are imminent, if prisoners are to vote in them we need an absolute answer to the "where will they vote?" question as a matter of urgency.

  • Comment number 21.

    HM Forces are able to register at any constituency where there is a link of sort between the person and place, in the UK where a serviceman/woman is stationed for example at Colchester but whose familial home is Manchester there is a choice for registration.

    The government might like to slip a note under each cell door and let the individuals get on with applying for a postal vote, they are able to use letters and telephones, if it is indeed essential in law.

    On the other hand, if only government could be tough enough it create an "outlaw" definition, and assign it to all criminals to prevent civic participation until they have served their sentence, when the individuals stepped across the line into criminality they turned their backs on society.

  • Comment number 22.

    #13 and #20 - there are currently 84,000 prisoners in England and Wales. Some of those will probably be ineligible to vote through nationality, or membership of the house of lords, or something like that. So I think that the actual size of a 'prisoner' constituency would probably come within the guidelines of the new law being passed, so why not have a Member for Prisons? By the next General Election there will be plenty of ex-mps with 'insider' knowledge of the system who would, I am sure, love to re-instate their careers by representing the fraudsters, robbers and so on that they will have come to know so well.

  • Comment number 23.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 24.

    How many second homes would the member for prisons be able to claim for, given the need to meet with constituents from a very wide geographical area?
    No answer needed, but it would seem from the numbers seeking to acquire representation that this idea should receive serious consideration.

  • Comment number 25.

    23 ... I read the last sentence and fell about laughing, then I realised ... did the moderators miss the last word of your comment ?

    Was the miss-spelling of "country" deliberate ?


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