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07 December 2010

Government says it will look “afresh” at giving prisoners the vote

The government has said it will look “afresh” at how to comply with a European judgment on giving prisoners the vote.

On 10 June, justice minister Lord McNally told peers at question time: “The government is considering afresh the best way forward on the issue of prisoner voting rights.”

The decision to review the ban follows the meeting of the Committee of Ministers in June at which it, “expressed confidence that the new United Kingdom government will adopt general measures to implement the judgment ahead of elections scheduled for 2011 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and thereby also prevent further, repetitive applications to the European Court.” It determined to resume consideration of the case at its next meeting in September 2010, “in light of a draft interim resolution to be prepared by the Secretariat if necessary”.

Lord McNally said the government would “fully update” the European Council of its views in September.  He said a further ECHR ruling in April in relation to Austria had “narrowed even further the terms by which votes could be denied to prisoners”. As a result it was “perfectly reasonable” for the government to take its time to consider the matter.

Responding to a question from Lord Tebbit on the popularity of giving prisoners the vote, Lord McNally replied: “I’m not sure it has any support in the editorial columns of the Daily Express or the Daily Mail, but I do think that in the broader general public there is a willingness to consider the experience of other countries both in the rehabilitation of prisoners and the kind of punishment meted to them.”

The coalition government has already committed to a detailed programme of constitutional reform, presenting it with an opportunity to comply with the judgement of the European Court. A cross-party committee of MPs and peers has been charged with producing a draft bill on an elected second chamber, and a political reform bill has also been proposed, along with a promised referendum on the Alternative Vote for electing MPs.

In the decision adopted after its meeting the Committee expressed “profound regret” that despite the repeated calls of the Committee, the United Kingdom general election was held on 6 May 2010 with the blanket ban on the right of convicted prisoners in custody to vote still in place. In December 2009, the Committee adopted Interim Resolution CM/ResDH(2009)160, in which it expressed “serious concern that the substantial delay in implementing the judgment had given rise to a significant risk that the United Kingdom general election in 2010 would be performed in a way that fails to comply with the Convention”, and urged the government to “rapidly adopt measures” to implement the judgment.

At its meeting in March 2010, the Committee reiterated its serious concern that “a failure to implement the Court’s judgment before the general election and the increasing number of persons potentially affected by the restriction could result in similar violations affecting a significant category of persons, giving rise to a substantial risk of repetitive applications to the European Court”.

The Prison Reform Trust understands that the news has been welcomed by the Association of Prisoners, who regret that the change has not come in time to benefit people in prison in England, many of whom plan to seek compensation, but will enable people in custody in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to exercise their right to vote.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “We welcome the government’s decision to review the outdated and unlawful ban on sentenced prisoners voting.

“We hope that the government will now move swiftly so that prisoners will be able to exercise their right and civic duty to vote in next year’s national and local elections.”