Government lawyers say prisoner votes ruling 'fairly helpful'

I understand that government lawyers regard the latest ruling on whether prisoners should have the right to vote as "fairly helpful".

However, ministers have yet to study the full judgement or to agree how to respond to the latest ruling from Strasbourg.

What amounts to the final ruling of the European Court of Human Rights re-states that it is unlawful to remove voting rights from all prisoners regardless of their sentence but says the government has "a wide discretion" as to how any ban works.

In particular, it suggests that Parliament can determine which types of offence should result in the loss of the vote and whether judges should be given the power to decide in individual cases or whether the ban should apply to all prisoners in a particular category.

In the past, ministers have said that it is a "legal obligation" to end the ban, that they wanted to prevent the taxpayer from having to face future claims for compensation and that it planned to continue to ban "the most serious offenders" from voting. Specifically, they said that legislation would be introduced that would allow offenders sentenced to a custodial sentence of less than four years to retain the right to vote except when the sentencing judge considered it appropriate to remove it.

The prime minister has said that the idea of prisoner voting made him "sick to the stomach". Parliament voted against changing the law, backing a cross-party backbench motion proposed by Labour's Jack Straw and the Conservatives' David Davis.

The government now has six months to respond. It may try to argue that the existing law does not involve a blanket ban since, for example, remand prisoners retain the right to vote.

Its options appear to be to mount a legal defence when a prisoner brings another case or to try to bring legislation before Parliament. If that were defeated it would create an impasse between Strasbourg and Westminster.