UK Politics

Prisoner vote bill to be outlined

  • 18 November 2012
  • From the section UK Politics
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The government's draft bill on prisoner voting is to be outlined by the justice secretary on Thursday, the BBC understands.

Its options could include votes for those serving less than six months, or those serving less than four years.

Friday is the deadline for the UK to comply with a European ruling that a current blanket ban is unlawful.

Sources had told the BBC there would be a vote on Thursday, but a source close to the justice secretary denied this.

The source would not elaborate further on whether MPs will be given a free vote at a later date.

BBC political correspondent Chris Mason said there would be a discussion looking at various options, with the aim of convincing judges in Strasbourg that the government was at least looking at the issues. The court has the power to fine the UK if it feels it is in breach of its rulings.

Our correspondent said it was likely MPs would uphold the ban on prisoner voting, where there is strong cross-party agreement on the issue.

'Clear' right

In February 2011, the Commons voted overwhelmingly against giving votes to prisoners. At present, the only prisoners allowed to vote in the UK are those on remand.

Last month Prime Minister David Cameron told the Commons: "No-one should be under any doubt - prisoners are not getting the vote under this government."

Mr Grayling has said Parliament has the right in law to tell the ECHR that it does not accept its ruling, but said there would be "consequences" for the UK's position in Europe if MPs chose to defy the judgement.

Conservative MP, Sir Edward Garnier, a former solicitor general, said the justice secretary was stuck between its obligations to respect the European judgement and the opposition in parliament.

"Parliament and the wider general public simply don't want to be told what to do by the European Court of Human Rights, not least in this particular regard," he said.

Flouting law

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said a vote on legislation would strengthen the UK's argument that it should retain its ban.

"You have to keep going back to the European Court on this because I think the job of the European Court is to look at what is proportionate, what is responsible," she told the BBC's Sunday Politics.

"We haven't passed laws on this before, even though we have passed motions, and I think when we do so, the European Court should look at it again."

Labour MP Steve McCabe said the discussion marked the beginning of a climbdown by the government.

"The prime minister and the justice secretary gave us an assurance that this wouldn't happen and that they would deal with the court. What they're now doing is preparing the way to give votes to prisoners. It's just another broken promise," he said.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "Is it wise for the government to flout international law, face a substantial fine and millions in mounting compensation claims, ignore the advice of its attorney general, prison governors, bishops to, and inspectors of, prison, and take up Parliamentary time and taxpayers' money in order to stop sentenced prisoners from acting responsibly by voting in democratic elections?"

The ECHR ruled in 2005 it was a breach of human rights to deny prisoners a vote.

The court said it was up to individual countries to decide which inmates should be denied the right to vote from jail, but that a total ban was illegal.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: "The government is considering how best to proceed following the judgment of the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in Scoppola. An announcement will be made to Parliament shortly."

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