Votes for prisoners - opening the door?

Prison cell

Parliament is overwhelmingly opposed.

Polls suggest the public are incredulous at the idea. And, famously, we all know that it makes David Cameron physically sick.

So it is not that surprising that this Thursday the government will stick two legislative fingers at the European Court of Human Rights and say no to giving convicted prisoners the vote.

Only that is not what the government is going to do. What the government will do for the first time is formally open the door to the possibility of some convicted prisoners getting the vote.

The draft bill that the Lord Chancellor - that's Chris Grayling, in case you had forgotten - will announce in a statement to Parliament contains three options: keep the existing blanket ban; give the vote to convicted prisoners serving up to six months; or give it to those serving up to four years.

The overwhelming assumption is that if this ever came to a vote, MPs would repeat what they did in February last year when they voted by 234 to 22 to keep the blanket ban on prisoner voting.

Looming deadline

But the government has to allow for the possibility that MPs might go another way.

That is because the deadline the government has to meet by 1600 GMT on Friday is not simply to say something about its plans for prisoner voting.

The deadline is for the government to say something meaningful about prisoner voting, something that would ensure that the government meets the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

To quote the ECHR, the government is obliged "to introduce legislative proposals with a view to the enactment of an electoral law to achieve compliance with the Court's judgments".

The Council of Europe - the body that oversees the ECHR - is more specific. The government, it says, has "to introduce legislative proposals to amend the electoral law imposing a blanket restriction on voting rights of convicted prisoners in prison, and achieve compliance with the Court's judgment".

So Thursday's draft bill does three things:

1. It technically meets - or so ministers hope - the ECHR's deadline by publishing legislation that potentially could end up watering down the blanket ban. It would be quite tricky for the Court to reject this approach out of hand, however obvious and likely it is that MPs will vote against prisoner voting again.

2. It parks the issue firmly in the long grass. A joint committee will have to be set up to consider the draft bill. That committee will probably not rush its fences. It certainly would be unlikely to work fast enough to allow the government to bring forward a proper bill in next May's Queen's Speech. So that means a Bill in the session beginning May 2014. And that is getting close to a general election campaign and anything can happen then.

3. It throws the ball firmly back in the Court's court, so to speak. The government's decision to introduce a draft bill would probably be challenged by a disenfranchised prisoner and the ECHR would have to decide whether to rule on that. The court could decide to wait until the vote takes place, and then rule on that. The key question is whether or not the ECHR thinks that a parliamentary decision is enough to get the UK off the hook, or whether it is irrelevant. But that is a decision for another day.

There is, however, a sting in the tale.

Test case?

I am told that it is not actually the ECHR that is forcing the pace on this. The real issue that is concerning the government is a case sitting before the Supreme Court here in the UK and it is a case that could change the whole debate.

George McGeoch is serving a life sentence in Dumfries prison for murdering a man in Inverness.

He is not arguing that the blanket ban on prisoner voting breaches his rights under the European Convention. He is arguing that his rights as an EU citizen are being infringed because he will not be able to vote for in the European Parliamentary elections in 2014.

The draft bill that Chris Grayling will publish this week will refer not just to prisoners' voting rights relating to domestic general and local elections. It will also refer to elections to the European Parliament.

So the hope in the Ministry of Justice is that the draft bill will delay - and ultimately sway - any decision by the Supreme Court on this matter so that Mr McGeoch does not end up with the vote.

Compensation concern

And that is an important hope. For if the Supreme Court did allow Mr McGeoch to get his name on the register of electors that would automatically allow thousands of other convicted prisoners around the UK to vote in European and municipal elections.

And many of them would demand compensation for past electoral moments they had missed. And that would be hugely expensive to the government.

Ministers can in theory ignore unenforceable compensation orders from the ECHR. But they cannot do the same when the Supreme Court issues what are called Francovich damage orders, in other words, fines for breaking EU law.

So there would be a mess. The government would be forced to rush emergency legislation through Parliament. Compensation claims would come rushing in.

So the key test for this Thursday's draft bill is not just what the judges in Strasbourg say. It is also how those judges sitting on the other side of Parliament Square respond.

James Landale Article written by James Landale James Landale Deputy political editor

Autumn Statement: Osborne's political balancing act

George Osborne's challenge is simple to explain but hard to achieve. He will want to use the poor borrowing figures to try to convince voters that the recovery is still too fragile to risk any change of government. But he will want to avoid voters concluding that his failure to fix the deficit at the pace he intended means that it might be time to give Labour a go.

Read full article

More on This Story

More from James


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    ECHR has deviated far from its original purpose. About time for the UK to stand up and be counted rather than taking it lying down. Delaying tactics planned by the govt are simply to appear to the public to be acting decisively to stop George the murderer from voting for his MEP, (which most will welcome) but not addressing the underlying problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.


    2 Hours ago


    Sorry you’re wrong, it was the Westminster Government post World War 2, in 1948 that in effect wrote the “EHRC” and ratified it. “Again nothing to do with the EU even Russia then USSR signed it”. Therefore Scotland after independence would be classed as a new state under the "EHRC" and would have to sign it for its self as a new independent state

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    Because its better than talking about the economy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    I think that the actions of the Lord Chancellor are avoidance of a proper discussion on the principles involved. By providing three options he is presenting a false choice. There needs to be an open and informed debate on whether prisoners ought to be allowed to vote. Then, if it is decided that they ought, exceptions can be included in the legislation. Most prisoners should not BE in prison.

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.

    What a country! You send a SAS soldier to prison for having a gun, Spend a million defending a terrorist from deportation, and now you are thinking of giving prisoners the vote? I think its about time you reviewed your priorities. Get rid of these people who worship the law - it's a man-made ass full of man-made fallacies. Start in your universities and topple some of these sacred cows (And bulls)

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    David Cameron says giving prisoners a vote makes him feel "physically sick".

    Not the fact that in some parts of the world, children die from drinking firty water. Not that thousands of innocent people are killed each year by land mines. Not that children are still dying from preventable diseases.

    DC's got his priorities wrong!

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    As far as I know the ECHR only wants the prisoners to have the right to vote. I don't think they have stated those voted have to be counted.

    Let them vote and bin the papers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    International law is not saying that all prisoners MUST have a vote. It's saying that a blanket ban on all prisoners voting, no matter who they are or what they've done is illegal

    So how about this - only allow prisoners to vote if they've been convicted of a non-violent crime, it's their 1st offence + they've been sentenced to less than 30 days? Keeps to the law but only covers a timy few!

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.


    "...British expatriates (not emigrants!) living in the European Union who are deprived by their government of the same basic human right..."


    Rubbish. They can vote for the candidates in their country of domicile. HMG can do nothing about that. If they still have an address in the UK they can have postal vote.

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    Commit a crime against society and get imprisoned for it? Why the hell should you have the right to vote on the very societies law that you chose to break? Absolutely ludicrous. Prison is prison, they already have more in prison than some law abiding people have outside. The judgements of the European court always favour the criminal or those who challenge the rule of law over the rest of us

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    There are thousands of British expatriates (not emigrants!) living in the European Union who are deprived by their government of the same basic human right, namely the right to vote in elections to select MP's for Westminster and British MEP's for the European parliament. Despite this anomaly, our parliamentary representatives are debating whether to grant this same right to criminals!

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    To Cheddy,comment 56.
    The only comment I vaguely understood was the last sentence as it appeared to be in English.
    The rest I gave up on trying to understand as could not fathom out what on earth you were trying to say.

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    Votes for prisoners what a joke; when you think What has happened to Sargent Danny Nightingale at worse he should have been told he could not keep the gun; I would have told him he needed to get a licence Q. Which is it best to be a friend of Britain or an enemy; answer enemy because Britain will always buy you a friend Britain will always sell

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    Of course, this will lead to political parties developing policies to appeal to prisoners at our expense. Real vote winner!

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    No. 36 Hastings has it spot on. You should all read that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    A murderer contesting the status quo? And whose money is he using to do this? This smacks of mutiny to me, and as all convited felons should know, prison mutiny is a criminal offence. This sort of thing needs to be nipped in the bud pronto. A few convictions for prison mutiny incurring lengthy, consecutive sentences should do the trick.

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    Easy way around it is to give the vote to anyone sentenced to less than 30 days, and if they can get to the nearest polling station, providing they have been released, then they can vote.

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    The UK is a very tolerant country. Except that we want to:

    Judge those who judge on colour of skin, gender, sexual orientation etc.
    Ensure prisoners are not rehabilitated but rather regularly beaten and never released
    Smack those who smack their kids
    Allow teachers to smack pupils with a tawse for discipline
    Imprison those who hurt animals, including meat eaters etc

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    Why on earth do this Government not govern the country on behalf of the British people and NOT be controlled by outside forces? They have no confidence in themselve to govern, they have no consideration for the working class at all they only think of themselves and how to take money off the poor. Theresa May should put all these terrorists on a plane home.

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    ..EHRC independent Scotland would need to agree to sign it, just a though!!!

    The Human Rights convention is already incorporated into Scots law, an independant Scotland would have to join the Council of Europe but even before it did it, Scots law obliges following the convention & due to consideration to be given to it in the creation of any new laws


Page 1 of 9



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.