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The third aspect of prison is to rehabilitate offenders so that they can effectively rejoin society at the end of their prison sentence and make a positive contribution. There is an argument that by re-engaging prisoners in civic responsibility in the latter parts of their sentences in particular, it is possible to establish more positive behaviours, which may then follow them into wider society on their release. Voting in certain circumstances may play a role in that. We have international treaty obligations, which have been outlined in some detail.
I would prefer any changes to UK law that introduce limited voting rights for prisoners to be based on length of sentence rather than left to the discretion of the individual judges and the courts. The Government proposal to allow voting for sentences of four years or less seems an overly generous response and not necessarily more proportionate and considered than a blanket ban. A preferable option, bearing in mind the rehabilitation argument, may be to limit the right of voting to prisoners serving sentences of one year or less, and to reintroduce the right to vote in the final year of a longer sentence as part of a wider programme of reintegration and rehabilitation. That may be seen as a more considered and more positive response.
Prisoner voting is a reserved matter. However, justice is devolved in Northern Ireland, so decisions taken in Westminster will have an impact on the devolved Administration, who will be responsible for implementing it directly. It is therefore critical that the Government consult fully with the devolved Administrations about their approach, and to listen to their concerns and their input as they take it forward.
Karen Bradley (Staffordshire Moorlands) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. Before the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) leaves the Chamber, may I add my sympathies to those already expressed to her and her constituents. I must also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) on obtaining the debate, and the Backbench Business Committee on giving time for it. I will try to keep my comments short given how many hon. Members want to contribute, but the fact that so many do is indicative of the interest in the House and throughout the country on this matter.
I was elected to be the voice of my constituents in this place, and many of them have contacted me to express their concern about the matter. They are firmly, to a man and a woman, against any move to give votes to prisoners, and I am wholeheartedly in agreement with them.
Prison should fulfil three functions: protect the public, rehabilitate the prisoner and punish them. This debate is most concerned with its punishment function. Depriving someone of their liberty is in itself the strongest of punishments. There is the obvious physical restriction-the inability to move freely-but there is rightly another aspect to the punishment of a prison sentence: through the actions that have deserved such punishment, prisoners
set themselves apart from civil society in an important way. The right to vote is an important part of a citizen's rights; it is not something to be taken lightly. In fact, it is an indication of full participation in society. Losing the right to choose a democratic representative is an important part of the punishment, but it is also recognition of the nature of the punishment, which is more than the inability to go where one pleases.
Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): I am following my hon. Friend's argument closely and totally support it. Does she agree that a legal anomaly that should perhaps be considered in this debate is the fact that prisoners serving a year or less in prison have the right to stand for election to this House, even though they do not have the right to vote?
Removal of the right to vote does not mean that prisoners are not represented. Indeed, I am sure that every Member of this House has had reason to act for a constituent in prison, by ensuring that appropriate rehabilitative courses are available or that inappropriate conditions are addressed, for example. Therefore, it would be wrong to say that prisoners are not represented. They must be treated fairly, and they are represented here. However, representation is a separate issue from the right to choose the representative. As well as a mark of full participation in society, the right to vote is a hard-fought privilege.
Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I agree with my hon. Friend. Does she agree that if it is the will of this House that prisoners should not gain the vote, there must be no question of any payments of compensation?
It is not only particularly difficult to accept that the will of Parliament should be challenged on this matter of all things in the way we find it challenged today, it is also a direct insult to those men and women who fought, both politically and physically, to extend the franchise; it is an insult to the principled men who fought for the right to vote in the 19th( )century to grant the right to vote to serious criminals; and it is a terrible insult to suffragettes, such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Wilding Davison, the latter, as Members will know, having hid in this House to make her case.
Lorely Burt: I am following closely the hon. Lady's remarks about our foresisters, the suffragettes. They were imprisoned, so by the logic of her argument she obviously would not like them to have the vote while in prison either.
Karen Bradley: I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Lady's argument. The fact is that the suffragettes were fighting for women's right to vote, something of which she and I are welcome recipients. It would be a great insult to their memory to allow prisoners who have abused women to enjoy the same rights that they suffered to earn.
As Members of this House, we are privileged to represent our constituents and should recognise the value that the electorate place on that right. Giving the
vote to prisoners who have committed serious offences equates them with the rest of society. Of all people, we should support the importance of the vote. It is no physical or psychological hardship, but a mature part of society's position. While a person is in prison, they should not have the right to vote.
Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): The debate is about whether prisoners should have the right to vote, but it seems to have been turned into an opportunity to bash the European Court of Human Rights, the convention and the Human Rights Act. That is completely unfair, because over the past 30 or 40 years the European Court has been making judgments in cases where it is now accepted that the correct decision was made.
We have heard constant references to Lord Hoffman's opinion. When I was training to be a barrister, I was told that citing dissenting and minority opinions of judges is the last refuge of a desperate advocate. Let me tell the House a little about Lord Hoffman's background, and let us see whether, by the end of that, people still believe that he is the man by whom one should judge whether the European Court is right or wrong.
I shall start with the case of Peter Sutcliffe. His last victim's mother sued the police over the negligence of the investigation that led to her daughter's death, but the House of Lords decided that the police and local authorities could not be sued for negligence in any actions that they took. That principle existed in our courts for 10 years until, eventually, it was challenged, and, believe it or not, it was the European Court in Strasbourg that said, "No, local authorities and public bodies can be responsible and can be sued where there has been a dereliction of duty."
Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. When I might have tried in the past to go through a history of a Member of the other place, I might have been called to order, so I wonder how much of this background we are going to get.
Sir Peter Bottomley has made a point of order and is absolutely correct. We should not mention another person in another place in that way, so I am sure that the hon. Lady does not need to continue down that line.
Yasmin Qureshi: If I may just finish, I should say that nobody now would think that suing a local authority or a public body over the negligence of their actions was wrong. So, using one person to criticise and castigate the whole European convention is plainly not right.
On prisoners' right to vote, I know that some people say that, because the prisoner has committed the offence, all their rights should be taken away, but does that mean that we should go back 100 or 200 years when hard labour was considered to be the right punishment? I am sure that, in those days, when people said that our penal policies should be much more humane and liberal, just as many people said, "Oh no, these people have committed crimes and therefore should be punished to the hilt." As we did not adhere to those policies then, why are we reacting so strongly to this issue now?
I agree with several Members who have said that, in reality, the number of prisoners who exercise the right will probably be quite small. In my years before becoming a Member, I represented and prosecuted many defendants, and I met many people who became prisoners, so I can say, anecdotally, that most of them are unlikely to vote, but the question is one of principle: what do we as a society and as a nation stand for?
Many years ago, we abolished the death penalty, bar for two offences: high treason and burning Her Majesty's shipyard. A few years ago, a Labour Government abolished the death penalty even for those offences. Why did they do that? We had not issued the death penalty to anyone since the '60s, but we abolished it for those two offences because we felt that as a society in the 21(st) century that was the right thing to do. A point of principle was involved, and for me the issue of prisoners' rights is a point of principle, too.
The disfranchisement of sentenced prisoners dates back to the Forfeiture Act 1870, and the origins of the ban are rooted in the notion of civic death: a punishment entailing the withdrawal of citizenship rights. But Dr Selby, the former bishop of Her Majesty's prisons, and now the president of the National Council for Independent Monitoring Boards, states:
"Denying convicted prisoners the right to vote serves no purpose"-
Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I am not a lawyer, which I think might be helpful in this debate. As we heard earlier, a lot of the lawyers in the Chamber and in Her Majesty's Government are over-complicating this issue, which I believe is quite straightforward. It is the settled view of the British people, through their elected representatives in the British Parliament, that prisoners should not have the right to vote, and it has been that way since 1870. Everyone understands and accepts that-it is one of those issues that, in modern parlance, has cut through. My role here, as an ordinary, humble Back Bencher, is to represent the views of my constituents. My constituents do not want sentenced prisoners to have the right to vote. If I walked down Kettering High street and asked shoppers whether that was a sensible policy, the overwhelming majority would say, "That is absolutely right, and Her Majesty's Government should not be trying to change the law."
We were told by Her Majesty's Government not so long ago that they had to agree to the judgment of the Court and that the minimum they could do was to limit this right to prisoners sentenced to four years or less. The consequences of that are absolutely appalling. There are 28,770 prisoners serving sentences of less than four years: 5,900 for violence against the person, 1,753 for sexual offences, 2,500 for robbery, more than 4,000 for burglary, and almost 4,500 for drug offences. My constituents in Kettering do not want those people to have the right to vote.
Mr Hollobone: The legal industry has reached a new low in touting for business among convicted felons whereby lawyers will try to get fees for themselves by prosecuting Her Majesty's Government. That is appalling, and it makes the whole issue even more sickening.
Jeremy Corbyn: What does the hon. Gentleman think are the implications of challenging a European Court of Human Rights decision for all the other human rights that we hold dear and wish to see enacted and enforced in all member countries of the Council of Europe?
Mr Hollobone: The hon. Gentleman takes a perfectly reasonable position. I totally disagree with him, but he is a principled man and he makes an important point. The bottom line for me is that there would be less shame in leaving the European convention on human rights than in giving prisoners the vote. He may disagree with that, but it is the line that I would take. What people do in other countries is up to them.
I would like to stay in the convention, but we are dealing with a court that has gone wrong. It is clearly not functioning properly. It has a backlog of tens of thousands of unresolved cases. Many of its so-called judges have no legal training at all; they are probably less qualified than me to make judgments on these things. How has it come about that we, in a sovereign Parliament, have let these decisions be taken by a kangaroo court in Strasbourg, the judgments of which do not enjoy the respect of our constituents?
Angie Bray (Ealing Central and Acton) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is extraordinary that we should allow judges in Strasbourg to tell us that voting is not a privilege but a right? Try telling the people who fought so long and hard to get the ability to vote in their Governments democratically that it is not a privilege. Privileges can be conferred on those of us who contribute to our communities as law-abiding citizens, but they can also be taken away.
I am most grateful for that very helpful intervention. Those judges in the European Court should reflect on the fact that there would be no human rights in Europe today were it not for the fact that this country stood alone against a tyrannical regime in the second
world war. It is only because this country was prepared to take on the might of Nazi Germany that there is a European Court.
We have to decide in the Chamber today whether we are going to draw this line across which the Court shall not pass, and we need from Government Front Benchers some guts and backbone to take it on. I have been very disappointed indeed by the stance of Her Majesty's Government since the general election. I know that they want European issues to go away and do not want to trouble the electorate with them, but frankly, the advice we have been given by Her Majesty's Government has not been good enough. There is no way in which they will get the four-year rule through this Chamber in legislation. In opposition, we were told by the Attorney-General:
"The Government must allow a parliamentary debate which gives MPs the opportunity to insist on retaining our existing practise that convicted prisoners can't vote."
In government, he has not delivered that. The only reason we are having this debate is that it was raised by the Backbench Business Committee. We want our Government to show leadership on this issue, to tell the European Court that it has lost its way, and to defend the settled will of the British people that we will not cave in to this kangaroo court and we will not give sentenced prisoners the vote in this country.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): It is a bit strong to describe the European Court of Human Rights as a kangaroo court. That does not do any credit to the debate in this House or to the argument put by the Member who so described it. As a country, we signed up to the European convention on human rights because we wanted to ensure that basic standards of human rights were available to everyone across Europe. We did so because of the horrors of the second world war and the post-war period. It does no credit to anyone in this House to describe the Court in that way, as it is a derivative of a period in the world's history when we tried to develop a commonality of human rights conditions around the world.
Those who say that our House of Commons is a completely sovereign body and can do whatever it wishes are frankly wrong. Every time a country signs up to a treaty in any sphere of influence or activity, it removes some of its own sovereignty. That is the nature of international law and of signing up to treaties. Let us get real. We are part of the Council of Europe and the European convention on human rights, and that has made a big difference to the lives of an awful lot of people across Europe and in this country. We should approach this issue with a degree of rationality and sense about what is meant by human rights.
I remind the House that, in South Africa, prisoners have had the right to vote since the end of apartheid. It is worth thinking about the words of its constitutional court, because it is a country that has been through the most unbelievable turmoil and some of the worst abuses of human rights experienced in the world:
"The universality of the franchise is important not only for nationhood and democracy. The vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and personhood. Quite literally, it says that everybody counts."
That is an important element. I have no more truck with people who commit violent crime or other crime than any Member. However, is prisoners having the right to vote not part of a rehabilitative process? Does it not encourage them to reflect on what they have done? Is it not a fundamental right that is enshrined in the European convention on human rights? Perhaps we should consider it as a useful step forward for this country.
I have received various lobbying letters on this issue, as I am sure have other Members. I will quote from two sources that I think are valuable. The first is an article by Frances Crook, who has spent her whole life at the Howard League for Penal Reform. She has done a great deal of very good work, as has that organisation, in encouraging a better prison system and better rehabilitation of prisoners. Her article from The Guardian online states:
"Voting is one way that people exercise their citizenship and prisoners too are citizens. We infantilise prisoners, treating grown up men inside as if they were small children who are not allowed to decide what they wear, what they do or make any contribution to the running of their lives."
The other quotation is from Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe human rights commissioner. When he came to speak in this building, many MPs came to listen to him and applauded what he said, the attitude he took to human rights and his determination to ensure that the European convention applied throughout Europe. He has said:
"Our forefathers accepted the principle that not only male persons, nobles, and those who owned property or paid taxes should have the right to vote, but everyone-irrespective of their status in society. We may now feel that some of these right-holders do not deserve this possibility, but to exclude them is to undermine a crucial dimension of the very concept of democracy-and human rights."
Mr David Ruffley (Bury St Edmunds) (Con): The right to life; the right to freedom of expression; the right to assembly; the right not to be tortured; the right not to be treated inhumanely-all English rights for which generations have fought against both tyrants at home and foes abroad. No one in this country, past, present or, I trust, future, has ever voted for prisoners' right to vote. No one has ever voted for article 3 of protocol 1 of the European convention on human rights or the judgment in the Hirst case on giving prisoners that right.
If that so-called right is passed into English law, I believe it will have a profoundly damaging effect on public confidence in the English judicial system, which is meant to be in tune and in sympathy with the instincts of the British people, not an affront to those instincts. If the law is passed, the public will say that giving prisoners the right to vote is nonsense. They will say that the law is an ass, and an ass it is when it so flagrantly and brazenly violates the principles of rationality, decency, fairness and common sense.
It is completely unacceptable to my constituents, and I am sure to the constituents of all Members here today, that a criminal who has violated law to such an extent that he or she is incarcerated and has their freedom withdrawn for a period of time should be given the right to vote in a democratic election. It would give the British public the impression that the system has more respect for the criminal than for the sensitivities and interests of the victim, which are far too often overlooked. That is what the public think, and it is what I think. It would also give the impression of a Parliament out of touch at best, and at worst the poodle of a European court. I do not consider that defensible.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr Walter), who is no longer in his place, said that no one elects judges. That is true, but at least in the case of English judges, British public opinion can be, and often is, brought to bear on them when they take decisions that are completely out of tune with it. Take the case of Lord Denning, who in effect was told to resign and retire early when he made what were judged inappropriate comments. Pressure is brought to bear on British judges. [Interruption.] If the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) wants to intervene, he can do so. Is he saying that British public opinion does not weigh on British judges?
Simon Hughes: I cannot remember the exact details, but to my recollection, Lord Denning served as a judge in the highest courts of the land until he was over 80. He was one of the best-regarded judges of the last century, particularly because he was a judge in tune with the common person, not distant from him.
Mr Ruffley: The right hon. Gentleman really does not know his history. If he reads the Denning autobiography, he will discover that Lord Denning was forced out early because he said that the composition of jury trials in south London led to perverse judgments.
The fact is that European judges have no accountability to the British public in the way that English judges do, and nor do Strasbourg judges have any accountability to the House. I suggest that the Strasbourg Court is the difficulty. Lord Hoffman-a liberal by any definition-said something very important on that. He said:
"In practice, the Court has not taken the doctrine of the margin of appreciation nearly far enough. It has been unable to resist the temptation to aggrandise its jurisdiction and to impose uniform rules on Member States. It considers itself the equivalent of the Supreme Court of the United States, laying down a federal law of Europe."
"The problem is the Court; and the right of individual petition, which enables the Court to intervene in the details and nuances of the domestic laws of Member States."
In November, I asked the Justice Secretary about the possibility of withdrawing from the European convention on human rights, so that we do repeat these ridiculous exercises in which we are asked, for example, to consider
whether prisoners should have the right to vote. He responded by saying that a proposal to withdraw was not in the coalition agreement-it was settled Conservative party policy for most of the previous Parliament to withdraw from the convention-but he also promised me that a commission would consider drawing up a Bill of Rights and the thorny question of the convention.
I should therefore like to ask the Attorney-General a specific question. Will he give an undertaking that the commission referred to in the coalition agreement will be set up by the end of this year? Will he consider reforms-if not full withdrawal from the convention-to the Court to improve its personnel and the competence of its judges, which is seriously in question? Will such reforms ensure that those judges are told to give wider discretion to English courts when decisions are made on matters affecting English people?
I am not a lawyer. I am just a humble Back Bencher doing his best to represent his constituents in the place where, as I understood it, our laws are determined. I should say at the outset that I am not opposed the human rights agenda or against the Human Rights Act 1998, and I have no desire for us to withdraw from the European convention on human rights. However, I am not at all convinced that the Court in Strasbourg has the authority to intervene in the way that it is seeking to intervene in this matter. I doubt very much that that is what people intended, or thought we were signing up to, when we originally associated ourselves with the convention.
The convention was born as a result of terrible events in Europe in which real human rights issues came to the fore, and we were trying to create fundamental safeguards, such as the right to life, freedom from torture and the right to express one's opinions. Those are different rights than prisoners' right to vote, and it does the former a disservice to associate the two things and to talk about them as if they are the same.
Like one or two other hon. Members, I received a communication from the director of the Prison Reform Trust, who is quite rightly seeking to advance her view. She said in that communication that quite a lot of people who are in favour of rights for prisoners had contacted her, including a number of prison governors. Not a lot of people contacted me to argue for rights for prisoners, but I undertook a consultation in my constituency. Most of those who responded opposed the proposal to give prisoners such rights.
Heather Wheeler: I am sure that in his many years in the House, the hon. Gentleman has visited prisons, so is he surprised to hear that when I visited a prison in South Derbyshire, I was asked by not one inmate whether I could please give them the vote?
Steve McCabe: No, I am not surprised to hear that. I do not think that a prisoner has ever contacted me to ask for the right to vote. Like others have said, I think that prison should be there to safeguard the public, that those who go to prison should lose freedoms as a punishment, and that there should be an opportunity for reform.
I want to talk about the people who work in prisons. I do not know whether it is true that prison governors have been contacting the director of the Prison Reform Trust and urging this on her. However, we all need to recognise that there is a problem in our prisons. For me, the people who work in prisons would be better off concentrating on some of the basics. When they have the chance, they should do something about the number of prisoners who cannot read and write, and they should work with people who need help with personal and social skills, and those who could develop some training or work skills. Furthermore, it is utterly absurd that someone can enter prison and have easier access to drugs than on the outside. My advice to people who work in prisons is to associate themselves with those issues and get them right, and if, while doing that, they want to put in place citizenship courses that might include helping people to understand how to vote and participate, I would be in favour of that as well.
As the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Mr Ruffley) indicated, the problem is that the public believe that people such as Mr Hirst are having a laugh at us, which is why they are opposed to this. I do not know where the evidence is-I have not seen any, although I am not saying that it exists-that these prisoners, when they were on the outside and had the opportunity to vote actually exercised that right. I am not clear, therefore, that in the majority of cases it is a right of which they are being deprived. I am one of those who struggle with the idea of police and crime commissioners being elected. I find that slightly absurd.
Someone said earlier that prisoners would be registered at their home addresses. That may be the case, and I hope that it is true, because I think that there is research showing that at least six seats in this Parliament could have changed hands if prisoners had been registered at a prison address. What would happen if they were not on the electoral register at their home address before they went into prison? Again, I have doubts about whether that is the right way forward.
Mr Tom Harris (Glasgow South) (Lab): My hon. Friend might like to know about the revelation in this morning's papers that the odious individual referred to in the debate-Mr Hirst-has seen the light and become a member of the Liberal Democrats.
We have to make it clear that we are not prepared to allow compensation. However, if these people do manage, with the help of all these wonderful lawyers, to claim compensation, would it be beyond the wit of the House to help their victims and families to claim part of that new-found wealth as part of the compensation
for the distress that they have suffered? That would be a much better use of our time, the courts' time and taxpayers' money.
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): This afternoon, I feared cutting a rather lonely figure when standing up to argue that we should allow more prisoners to vote. I welcome, therefore, the support of the hon. Members for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for Belfast East (Naomi Long), theright hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane), who opened the batting for those supporting voting rights for prisoners, and the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi).
I am arguing in favour of allowing more prisoners to vote, and the purpose of the intervention that I made on the spokesman for the official Opposition, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), was to highlight the fact that a number of prisoners already do have the right to vote. People who are presenting this as a black-and-white issue, or a new departure, where, for the first time, prisoners are to be given the right to vote, are misleading the public, because we know that a group of prisoners already have the right to vote.
The case that I am making is based on two simple principles. The first is that when the European Court of Human Rights finds that UK law contravenes the European convention on human rights-in other words, that UK law is unlawful-the UK Government should address that illegality. Once we start picking and choosing the laws that we believe should apply and those that we can disregard-the pick-and-mix approach, as the Attorney-General put it-where does it end? The Americans know where it ends: in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.
Even if the ruling makes some feel uncomfortable, what about the other rulings that the Court has made? A couple of Members have referred to those, including in the case of S and Marper, in relation to DNA, and the case of Z and others, in relation to child neglect. I would also mention the case of Al-Saadoon and Mufdhi v. the UK Government in March 2010, when our Government were criticised for failing to obtain assurances from the Iraqi authorities that those men would not face the death penalty there.
Jeremy Corbyn: The hon. Gentleman is right about where we would end up with a pick-and-mix solution. I am sure that he is also aware that the case of the Chagos islanders is coming before the ECHR this summer. A decision will come out, and whatever it is, we hope that the Government accept it. If we go down the other road, everything would be open for debate every time there is a Court decision.
Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He has put on record what I know to be his long-standing interest in the Chagos islands, and I hope that a positive outcome will be secured there.
The second reason why I am speaking in favour of more prisoners being given the right to vote is that it is the appropriate course of action. Prisoners have committed a crime. Their punishment is to lose their liberty. That is fair and just. What is then gained by seeking to inflict civil death on them? In what way does that benefit the
victim? Does it increase the chances of rehabilitation? What is the logic behind the ban? We do not remove prisoners' access to health care, nor do we stop them practising their religion, so why should we impose a blanket ban on prisoners' right to vote? Surely we have moved on from the Victorian notion of civil death.
Simon Hughes: Nor do we prevent prisoners from continuing to have obligations outside-for example, in relation to any assets they own or income they receive, on which they have to pay taxes. All the countries where prisoners are allowed the vote have the additional advantage that people seeking election have to go into prisons and understand life from the inside, rather than commenting only from the outside.
Tom Brake: I am sure that my right hon. Friend and many others here have engaged with prisoners, and that he will have found, as I have, that there is a great degree of interest in what is happening outside the prison walls. It is therefore entirely appropriate that we should seek that engagement.
Prison serves to protect and punish, but also to rehabilitate. Release from prison is not the point at which prisoners should re-engage with society. We should be encouraging prisoners to re-engage with society while they are still in prison. The way we treat victims says a lot about the society that we strive to be, but the way we treat prisoners also says a lot about the society that we strive to be. I do not want to shut the door on those prisoners who are ready and willing to re-engage with society and sign up to the tenets that underpin it. Anyone who has visited a prison will know that some prisoners are indeed seeking that engagement.
We have heard a lot said about public opinion and the views of constituents in this debate. The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) said in his article today that the "vast majority" of his constituents
"feel strongly about prisoners' votes,"
and that in 32 years as an MP he had never had a letter from a prisoner seeking the right to vote. Can he recall whether he has ever had a letter from a constituent asking for the right to vote to be taken away from prisoners who already have it? I suspect that the answer would be that he has not.
I visited a group of year 11 pupils in a school yesterday. I started the question and answer session with the topic of the right of prisoners to vote. I expected the Q and A to turn quickly to the subject of tuition fees, but it did not. At the end of a full and frank debate, about 50% of the pupils supported the Government's proposals, and only about a third thought that no prisoners should have the right to vote.
The difference between the people in prison who can vote and those who cannot is very clear and, self-evidently, justified. Prisoners who have not been
convicted or sentenced to a term of imprisonment are able to continue to vote. No one would argue with that, because those people have not gone beyond the bar at which they would be unable to vote, so I do not understand the hon. Gentleman's point.
Other organisations support the change. As we have heard, the Prison Governors Association supports it. Interestingly, Victim Support, whose representatives I met a couple of weeks ago, is also of the view that prisoners should have the right to vote. I hope that Members will take that on board. I acknowledge that the Government are between a rock and a hard place, and they have not been helped by the quality of the judgments. They are having to clear up yet another mess left by the previous Government, who sat on the issue for six years and achieved precisely nothing during that time. It is now time for this Government to bite the bullet and do the right thing.
Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): It is a little unnerving to find myself disagreeing with so many right hon. and hon. Members and with a substantial proportion of public opinion, but I firmly believe that we must rescind the ban on a prisoner's right to vote. I have listened to the arguments on the law and the role of the European Court. It has been suggested that the Court is extending its brief and seeking to prevail over the will of this Parliament and stretch the ambit of the convention beyond the fundamental human rights that it was originally set up to address. I see this in a rather different context-namely, as an opportunity to maintain and extend our understanding of human rights over time. There has never been a time when much of the popular will has been directed towards driving up protections and rights for prisoners. That is why it is important that the Court and our belonging to the convention should exert outside pressure to challenge us to go further in the name of social progress.
It has been argued that our standards are already among the highest, and in some respects they are, although not in respect of a prisoner's right to vote. In many other countries, that right is extended either wholesale or on a more generous basis than it is here in the UK. It is absolutely right that we should aspire to the very highest standards in the rights that we afford people. The philosophical importance of convention rights is that they extend protection to minorities, even the undesirable ones that we do not like very much. We unpick and undermine those protections at great risk.
Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Does the hon. Lady agree that the House should be able to make a value judgment between a civic right and a human right? Human rights include the right to food, shelter and family life, whereas civic rights include the right to vote. There is a distinction between the two, and surely we can make a value judgment on behalf of our constituents and exercise our right to say that one is not the same as the other.
Kate Green: My point is that this external pressure is useful, as it repeatedly questions what our understanding of human rights should be. It is too easy for us to get locked into a narrow definition and understanding of those rights that constantly looks to the past. That is what will happen if we simply sit within our own jurisdictional context and fail to look at what is going on in the wider world.
It has also been suggested that the European Court is making some poor-quality decisions. Questions have been raised about the qualifications of some of the judges and their weakness. Points have also been raised about different sentencing systems in different convention countries. Although I absolutely accept that all of that is true, it should not provide a reason on its own to weaken the overall authority of the convention and the institutions in place to police it. The convention may well not be a perfect framework, but as things stand, it offers one of the best protections of human rights that we have.
I strongly agree with the Attorney-General and the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) that the convention will be weakened if we start to pick and choose which bits of the Court's findings we like or dislike. How can we expect other countries not to pick and choose if we start to do so ourselves? How can we expect prisoners not to pick and choose which laws they do or do not agree with if we do not seek to follow the rule of law?
It is important to reflect on how to determine the balance when it comes to extending civil rights to those who disregard the laws of the land. That is a valid question which Members have raised. However, when it comes to setting sanctions in our criminal courts, I would start with the sentencing framework, the approach to sentencing and the identification of sentencing objectives that we already have in place in our criminal justice system. Sentencing should be proportionate and relevant; it is not clear that in all cases removing the right to vote would necessarily apply to all crimes.
It is true, as some hon. Members have suggested, that removing the right to vote might address sentencing goals such as punishment and possibly even deterrence, but what about the goals of rehabilitation and reintegrating prisoners into society, as others have mentioned? On that note, let us remember that so many people in our prisons are among the most marginalised and excluded in society before they go to prison, and they are often the most poorly educated, as has rightly been pointed out. I ask the Government to take the opportunity to develop good-quality programmes of prison education to address the range of factors that determine and drive social exclusion. Will Ministers identify how their thinking is developing about providing programmes to address the role and responsibilities of the citizen, as exercising the right to vote could become part of the rehabilitative process?
As I say, I am aware that these are not popular arguments-either in this House or perhaps beyond it-but I believe that there are strong arguments against the current ban. My starting point would be to have a
right to vote across the piece, but to allow judges to determine where it would be appropriate to remove it and then to justify their decision in open court.
Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): I start my comments in light of the doctrine of the supremacy of Parliament, as set out in Hood Phillips's "Constitutional and Administrative Law". As paragraph 3.13 clearly states:
"The legislative supremacy of Parliament means that Parliament (The Queen, Lords and Commons in Parliament assembled) can pass law on any topic affecting any persons, and that there are no fundamental laws which Parliament cannot amend or repeal."
Secondly, all our main legal authorities-from Dicey to Coke and Blackstone-assert that Parliament has the right to make or unmake any law whatsoever. Thirdly, no person or body is recognised by the law of England as having the right to override or set aside the legislation of Parliament.
In that light, if the House were to vote to confirm the current legislative provision that prisoners should not have the right to vote, that must surely be respected. Once a document is recognised as an Act of Parliament, no English court can refuse to obey it or question its validity. That is our common law, as established in the case of Manuel v. Attorney-General of 1983. The courts of our land must therefore respect the wishes of Parliament.
Schedule 3 to the Representation of the People Act 1983, as amended by the Representation of the People Act 1985, makes it quite clear that someone convicted and sentenced to imprisonment loses the capacity to vote.
Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that no one is being forced to forfeit their vote? Criminals choose to forfeit their votes when they decide to break the law. All that people need do in order to retain their votes is comply with the law.
Successive Governments have made plain that when people are convicted and sentenced to imprisonment, they lose the moral authority to vote. In 2003, Baroness Scotland of Asthal clearly stated that those who were convicted and imprisoned would lose that moral authority. The earlier legislation was right then as this legislation is now, and we should respect that.
Parliament's supremacy has been challenged by the European Court of Human Rights. That cannot be right. It cannot be right for judges from developing judiciaries in eastern European countries to challenge the supremacy of our Parliament and our judiciary.
It is ethically and morally wrong to allow prisoners the right to vote. The concept that those who commit a crime must pay the price with their liberty and the withdrawal of certain rights must be correct.
Mr Tom Harris (Glasgow South) (Lab): I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the House for my earlier absence and for missing the opening statements. I was making my way back on the Eurostar from Brussels.
Let me begin with as much of a mea culpa as a humble Back Bencher can offer for the previous Government. It has been said on a number of occasions that Labour should have dealt with this issue over the past six years, and I think that there is some merit and validity in that criticism. However, there may also be some merit in the political strategy of kicking something into the long grass for as long as possible, which seems to have been about the only strategy that the Labour Government had.
I was disappointed that the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) referred to Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib in connection with prisoners' rights. It does not promote calm and sensible debate to suggest that reinforcing a legal position that this country has enjoyed for hundreds of years puts us on the road to destroying all civil liberties for all prisoners. That is absolutely not what is at stake.
There are two separate issues. Let me deal first with the principle, which relates to public confidence. I cannot bring myself to try to tell my constituents that the legal and penal systems are on their side when we are bending over backwards to give an additional right to people who have of their own free will chosen to commit an imprisonable offence, and have thereby chosen to give up the right to vote. So often we hear our constituents complain that the legal system is on the side of the offender rather than the victim. Whether there is a lot of truth or a little truth in that does not matter as much as the fact that people will perceive in this debate a further chipping away of what they consider to be our standards in relation to supporting the victim and the law-abiding citizen and not supporting the criminal.
Mr Dodds: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Would not implementing the European Court's decision also reinforce the disconnection between ordinary citizens-ordinary people-and Parliament and politics generally? People already believe that we are out of touch to a great extent, and implementing the Court's decision would cement that view.
Mr Harris: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am sure that had it not been for the judgment in Europe, the House could have found something more important to discuss this afternoon, although I accept that we must put the issue to bed one way or another.
I believe that it is simply wrong to offer votes to people who have chosen to commit an imprisonable offence. The only upside for those of us sitting on these green Benches is that if they do get the vote at least when we go and canvass them they will almost certainly be in. The argument that giving prisoners the vote will help their rehabilitation is stretching the point to breaking point. Does anyone actually believe that someone sitting in a prison cell who is desperate to get out again will improve their behaviour and do everything that needs
to be done to lead a respectable life simply on the basis that they are to have the opportunity to vote in council elections next May? That simply does not make any sense. I suspect that there is not a single person currently incarcerated in this country whose rehabilitation will be affected one way or the other by being given the vote.
I am not a lawyer, so much of the process here is beyond me. However, there have been occasions when British judges sitting in British courts have made interpretations of the Human Rights Act 1998, and sometimes they have made bad interpretations and we have had no choice but to go along with that. That is different from what is happening now. A decision has been made in a court in a foreign land, and it would be wrong for this House to bend over backwards and give way to that judgment without putting up a fight.
We have the right to represent our constituents' views. We also have the right to make a stand on a point of principle. I accept that the law may ultimately go against the opinion of the vast majority of the House on this, and we may have no choice but-God help us-to pay compensation to prisoners as well as allowing them the vote. From what I hear, that may well happen and I accept that, but it would be wrong of us to concede a point of principle because people are threatening to sue. We cannot allow law to be made on that basis.
Regardless of where the barrier is set-at one year, or four years-many people will get the vote who do not have the vote at present. If they think they can claim compensation, let us ask the courts this question: is it right to give compensation to a prisoner who, when he was imprisoned, had not bothered to register to vote? Surely if at that point he had no intention of voting, he has not been deprived of the right to vote because he chose to deprive himself of that right before he went into prison by not registering to vote, and therefore he does not deserve a penny in compensation.
Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The last Labour Government spent five years dithering over this issue. They did nothing. As with so much else, the Labour party left it to the incoming coalition Government to sort out the mess. Therefore, the one thing on which we can all be agreed is that this is an issue on which we need to take no lessons from those on the Opposition Benches. They had five years to sort out this problem while in government and simply failed to do anything.
"the principle of proportionality requires a discernible and sufficient link between the sanction and the conduct and circumstances of the individual concerned"
"in sentencing the criminal courts in England and Wales made no reference to disenfranchisement and it was not apparent that there was any direct link between the facts of any individual case and the removal of the right to vote."
There is a perfectly straightforward way forward that deals with the ECHR points and meets the collective view of this House that prisoners should lose the right to vote while in detention, because it has always been agreed that if one commits a serious crime, one should lose the right to have a say in how one is governed. The way forward lies in the ECHR's judgment in Hirst, but it also lies in the ECHR's judgments in cases involving other European countries: Frodl v. Austria and Scoppola v. Italy, the No. 3 case. In Frodl, the Court said that
"the sanction of disenfranchisement...should preferably be imposed not by operation of a law but by the decision of a judge following judicial proceedings".
"that a decision on disenfranchisement should be taken by a court and should be duly reasoned."
When a judge sentences an individual to prison the court has to make a number of decisions: on the length of imprisonment; on whether terms for individual offences should run concurrently or consecutively; and on whether part of the sentence should be suspended. Depending on the exact nature of the offence, the court will also have to put its mind to a number of other possible consequential orders.
I see no reason why a judge should not inform the defendant when sentencing that, in addition to their term of imprisonment and as a consequence of their conduct, they would, as part of their punishment, be disfranchised in regional, national and European elections for a specific period of time. As with every other aspect of sentencing, one would expect the Lord Chief Justice, senior judges and the Supreme Court to issue sentencing guidelines. Crown Court judges and magistrates are given sentencing guidelines on every other aspect of sentencing, so I see no reason why it should not be possible to devise effective sentencing guidelines on disfranchisement that start from the general premise that those who go to prison will lose the vote while they are in prison.
Chris Bryant: I am sorry to stop the hon. Gentleman's drift, but one of the problems with that argument is that many of us disagree with judges deciding who gets to vote or does not get to vote. There is another problem, because if we go over to a system where the judges decide, every current prisoner would be granted the vote.
I listened to the hon. Gentleman's speech. He raised lots of problems but gave no solutions. This is an exercise in finding what might be a solution. Sentencing guidelines are effective ways of informing judges and telling them what they should do. As we have heard, the English courts have been pretty robust on this issue, so I see no reason why on devising sentencing guidelines we could not put our trust in the English judges to get it right when advising Crown Court judges and others how they should approach the issue of disfranchisement. It would of course be possible for defence counsel at the time of sentencing to make representations on this aspect of a court's potential sentencing powers, as with any other aspect, and for the defendant to be heard before sentence was passed. Not only would it be made
very clear that there was a link between the facts of the case and the removal of the right to vote, but the courts would very publicly be making it clear that, so far as the UK is concerned, those whose criminal conduct is such that it results in their having been sentenced to an immediate term of imprisonment also risk losing certain rights of citizenship, including the right to vote.
I appreciate that for many hon. Members this debacle appears to be a convenient opportunity to put two fingers up to Europe, two fingers up to human rights and two fingers up to the judges. I simply note that the motion includes the words
"acknowledges the treaty obligations of the UK".
The motion, in rightly acknowledging our treaty obligation but arguing for the retention of a blanket ban, puts the House in the same position that the previous Government put themselves in. That resulted in the Joint Committee on Human Rights observing:
"It is also a matter for regret that the Government should seek views on retaining the current blanket ban, thereby raising expectations that this could be achieved, when in fact, this is the one option explicitly ruled out by the European Court."
Time prevents me from arguing why this House should seek to support human rights, so I simply conclude by saying that increasing judicial review will be a feature of our lives. If this House collectively started to pick and choose which decisions of the Supreme Court we supported and which decisions of the judges we did not support, that would be a very unsatisfactory way forward. What we need to do is not only acknowledge our treaty obligations, but meet them, and we need to do so in a way that meets the concerns of everyone in this House, from the Prime Minister downwards, about having to give the vote to those in prison.
Mr Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): As I read the judgments in the cases of Hirst, and Greens and M.T., I was struck by the supreme irony of what the European Court of Human Rights was proposing. The judges in that Court clearly surpass even the Red Queen in "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" in their ability to believe two impossible things before breakfast. On the one hand, they say that the right to influence the laws under which we live by helping to choose the people who make those laws is so important that even criminals should retain it. On the other hand, they say that even the law-abiding people of this country have no right of last resort to decide the laws of their country if they are overridden by the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. One can believe one or other of those views, but one cannot uphold both views consistently at the same time.
How did we get into this pickle? As we have heard, after the war Lord Kilmuir codified what were seen to be British liberties and rights in the presumption that two things would follow, the first being that enshrining them in the European convention on human rights would bring the advantage of British liberties to
"lesser breeds without the law",
as Kipling had it. Secondly, it was assumed that the convention would have no effect on the people of this country because it enshrined the laws and liberties that we already had so there would be no need to change them. It was assumed that whereas the European Court could overrule courts in other countries with judiciaries
who did not have experience in human rights or who were open to intimidation or bribery, we did not have that problem so there would never be any conflict between our courts or laws and the Court.
As we know, things have not worked out like that. In becoming a signatory to the convention, we did not just enshrine and encode the liberties that we had, we changed the way in which, and the basis on which, laws were made, and we changed the people who made them. British liberties evolved through Parliament making laws and the courts elaborating on and clarifying them, as well as through common law, but they were always subject to Parliament being able to have the last word and to make the law if it did not agree with what the courts had done. Our liberties did not result from giving courts the right to explicate an abstract list of rights. They were not given a right to strike down, invent or rewrite laws, but that is what we did, without realising it, when we signed up to the convention after the war-and that is what the European Court of Human Rights is empowered to do.
Rights are not absolute. One right must always be balanced against another. The rights to free speech and free expression must be balanced against the right to privacy or the right to our reputation under the laws of libel. That balance, reconciliation and limiting of extremes is essentially a political matter and it has always, in the last resort, been made by a political body-Parliament. We have done that reconciliation if it needed to be done, but it is no longer up to us-we are no longer allowed to do so. Instead, that power to make a political judgment rests with courts, which are not elected and which lack political skills or sensitivities. That is wrong, and that is why the long-term solution is for us to leave the treaty on the European Court, to entrench the convention rights in our law and to leave our courts to interpret them with Parliament having the ultimate right to disagree, as it does, if it wants to.
I have a question for Government Front Benchers. On what basis are we told that we have to sign up to the Court's judgment in the short term because we will face a huge damages claim if we do not? In all the judgments I have read, the Court has explicitly refused to award damages. It has said that the ruling was sufficient justification in itself and that the prisoners did not need any damages. It considered whether exemplary and punitive damages should be imposed, not so much because the prisoners merited it but to force us to concede, and it concluded that it should not do so. The practice direction that goes to the Court says that it considers it
"inappropriate to accept claims for damages with labels such as"-
I am of course not a lawyer, so I speak, I hope, the language of common sense. I share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) that the motion conflates two complicated and quite separate issues. One is the question of the
encroachment of the European Court of Human Rights into matters of British sovereignty and the other is the much more relevant and thorny question of whether any category of prisoner should ever be given the right to vote.
I confess that in preparing for this speech, I was rather torn. I spoke strongly against the first part of the motion about 15 days ago at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and the reaction was like sitting on a whoopee cushion in church. Apparently, the Court has never been criticised on the Floor of the Council. It is simply not done. So to stand up and say that we think the Court is encroaching on matters that should properly be taken as part of sovereign concerns was considered to be a small international incident. I was rather proud of that.
However, the point that I made then, and the point I would make today, is that I think there is a real concern-I say this as a non-lawyer-that the Court is encroaching into areas that are not part of its mandate. As we have heard so eloquently expressed today, the Court was set up in 1948 by Churchill and others to guarantee that there would never be another genocide in Europe. We seem to have gone from that to interpretations of the protocol. That protocol on voting is not about prisoner voting but the right to free and fair elections, which can be seen as completely different. So there has been real mission creep. Of course, the award of compensation of €23,000 to a convicted axe murderer suggests to my constituents that the Court has not only had mission creep but is in danger of becoming completely unhinged.
I am a passionate supporter of our rehabilitation agenda. I think it right and proper that we spend Government time and money on breaking the cycle of reoffending in which 65% of prisoners come out of prison and are re-incarcerated within two years, and I can see reasons to make the privilege of voting part of the rehabilitation package. That is not just my view. I have a category C prison in my constituency-Erlestoke prison. My very first political outing was a hustings at the prison, organised by the prisoners, where candidates were quizzed on this very issue. Everybody said, "It is an absolute right. You must have it. It is a human right." I said, "I don't think so. Perhaps this is something that could be part of your rehabilitation-potentially something that is awarded within six months of release." Guess what? The prisoners agreed. They thought that was right and proper, and nobody stood up and demanded their right to vote. By the way, that is also the view of the governor of the prison-that it should be awarded, potentially on release, to certain categories of prisoners.
However, I have great sympathy for the viewpoint advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry). I think these are matters for British judges in British courts. I cannot see why, as has been done for years in France and Germany, these cannot be part of the sentencing decision, or perhaps of the parole decision. That would be a very sensible step forward.
Despite my concerns about the wording of the motion, I think I am going to vote for it, for the following reason. It is important that the House sends a strong political message to the Court. If the Court has never been criticised in the Council, perhaps there has never been a parliamentary vote that pushes back on its
particular proposals. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) says it has been done; I am not aware of it. It is important for us to stand up and say, "Enough is enough. You are crossing boundaries and we need to take proposals forward."
In summary, I suggest to the Government that those proposals should look hard at the idea of the British judiciary making decisions about British prisoners. That, I believe, is the recommendation in the very sound report by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. The question of compensation seems insane. If we are forced to pay compensation to any prisoners who have been awarded these decisions up until now, I would ask that some, if not all, of it be paid to the victims' compensation funds or put into the rehabilitation space.
Last but not least, can we please consider the words of Rob Owen, the head of the St Giles Trust, a social organisation which Members on both sides of the House think is doing incredible work? He said to me today that this whole debate is
"a distraction, and...a drain on"
"resources that could be far better used"
"dramatically reduce reoffending...saving taxpayers millions of pounds and creating thousands"
"victims of crime."
Simon Reevell (Dewsbury) (Con): I am pleased that this has not just been an in or out of the European Court of Human Rights debate, because many from all walks of life turn to that Court, whether they are concerned about the DNA database or hunting legislation. Who would criticise Gary McKinnon for taking his case there in the face of the Extradition Act 2003? Who, as a matter of principle, would not cast an eye to Strasbourg if a high-speed train route was being put through their constituency? But if it is not in or out, is it much better to talk about pick and choose? Is it really suggested that we can welcome rulings that we like, and simply ignore those that we do not?
Would we dream of taking that course if it were the House of Lords as was that had found in Hirst's favour, and we were talking about a House of Lords judgment? Or in those circumstances, would the mood be that the Government should get themselves to Strasbourg and try to use the ECHR to overcome that ruling? Do we really suggest that some rights should be regulated by legislation in Parliament, over which there should be no prospect of review in the courts? If so, might we pause and wonder what would be on the list alongside prisoner votes? What if control orders, as were, came back and went on the list? What about challenges to the Extradition Act? I do not believe that prisoners should be allowed to vote, but I am more concerned about the rule of law, because we cannot be law-makers and law-breakers.
Cases such as the Hirst ruling catch the eye, but so do decisions of the UK courts, and there have been too many instances where the ECHR jurisdiction has been necessary. A trip to Sandhurst and the view of the officer cadets on the subject of prisoners' votes was mentioned. We used to have a system of justice that
basically followed the principle of military justice of "March in the guilty man." We had that system until a man called Findlay, a member of the armed forces, having been turned down by every court in the United Kingdom, went to Strasbourg and won his case. As a result of that, the military justice system was completely overhauled and the previous Government brought in the Armed Forces Act 2006, which, just a few weeks ago, we all ratified so that it continues. Were it not for the ECHR, that system simply would not have changed.
I do not like the Hirst ruling, but I like less the fact that it was ignored for more than five years. On balance, I like even less the idea of picking and choosing when it comes to this nation's legal obligations.
Andrew Bridgen: Is not the crux of the argument that by supporting the motion this afternoon, we are not seeking to extend the powers of this Parliament but resisting the extension of the powers of the Strasbourg court, an unelected European body that has little respect for or makes little acknowledgment of the great and enviable democratic history of this place?
We are entitled to moderate and we should, but we should do that within the rule of law. It is clear that four years is not appropriate, because that would see people convicted of serious crimes of violence, serious sexual offences, perhaps even including the offence of rape, and offences of drug distribution being included. We should not allow judges discretion, not because we do not trust them, but because we must have a robust system that will stand a challenge, and doing it in court on guidelines on a case-by-case basis weakens our position.
We should look at the duration of detention, not just the length of sentence. In fact, Mr Hirst, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter and whose plea was accepted because he had mental health problems, had served his tariff sentence and was being detained because he posed a risk as a result of his mental health when he brought his challenge. It is not a matter just of the length of the sentence, but of the time that someone is lawfully detained once the threshold sentence is passed. We should take the very simple step of amending the Limitation Act 1980, so that anybody who receives damages arising from litigation on this subject can have the damages taken away by the victims of their crime. What prevents that at the moment is the time limit that has usually been exceeded before the convicted person is in funds and so the victim is precluded from claiming. It would take half an hour to draft the amendments to the Limitation Act that would solve that problem.
There are too many examples to mention of necessary and welcome ECHR intervention, so we should not be tempted to walk away from that institution. We should make the best that we can of the situation in which we find ourselves-a situation that we on this side of the House inherited. We do not allow our citizens to pick and choose, so we should not seek to pick and choose ourselves.
Ben Gummer (Ipswich) (Con):
My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) got to the heart of the matter when he said that two things were at stake, one of principle and one of politics. I will
deal first with two matters of principle on which I do not think the House has yet touched. The first has vexed moral and political philosophers for centuries: the difference, and combat, between freedoms and rights.
Many Members have rightly called the House's attention to the thought of rapists and murderers being given the vote and what that would be like for our constituents. I wonder whether I can place a more positive image of voting in the minds of Members: that of the long queues that formed in the first democratic elections in South Africa, or in the elections that followed the fall of socialist regimes in the eastern bloc, and in those only a few weeks ago in southern Sudan when the people there found their independence. Those people were expressing a freedom; for the first time they were expressing their freedom from tyranny.
Voting is an expression of freedom, but it is more than that: it is the constructive act that makes freedom possible. Those who commit crimes deny freedom to others, either by the force of violence or by inhibiting the actions of people and communities through fear. It is a right and proper mode of retribution for a community to deprive such an individual of their freedom, because that is what he or she has done to others. Surely, therefore, it goes against the essence of the retributive punishment being meted out by the state on behalf of the community if the individual is able to participate in that community while in prison. On that simple issue of principle, I cannot understand, despite all the elegant arguments put forward, why prisoners should be granted that most special and precious freedom, which is an expression of the freedom of those in the community.
Lorely Burt: The hon. Gentleman is making a cohesive argument, but I ask him to reflect on what we are doing here. We are not taking away a freedom from someone, but a human right. That is the only difference between us.
Ben Gummer: I thank the hon. Lady for that point, because it brings me to the second matter of principle that I want to talk about, but I do not want to get into the dangerous territory of discussing rights and freedoms. I am trying to explain why I believe that voting is traditionally a freedom in this country, not a right. That is in part why we have got into this mess.
Taking the European Court of Human Rights on its own terms, those Members who have looked at the comments of the dissenting judges will know that they are very telling. The main point of dissent is that protocol 1 of article 3 is not a substantive individual right. It is one that forced contracting states to provide free and fair elections, but the bounds by which the states make those decisions are left to them.
What worries me, as I said earlier, is the encroachment of jurisprudential evolution on the Court's decision making, which is changing the nature of the convention. It is not the convention that is at fault, but the Court. Here we come to the key point, because the reason we have to listen to the Court's judgment, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Mr Ruffley) so rightly pointed out, is that the Wilson Government decided in 1967 to allow petitioning in person to the European Court and for its decisions to hold force of law in this country. That changes entirely our relationship with the convention. The problem is with the Court, not
with the convention, and that is not my point but one that Lord Hoffmann has made with far greater eloquence and force.
There is a subsidiary point, which has been brought up several times in the debate, about the rightness of decisions. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is entirely correct that the shameful denial of service by homosexuals in the military was wrong, but the fact that the European Court judged it to be wrong does not make the existence of the Court itself right. It is right that we reflect on the ability of this House to make the right decision at the right time, even if other courts prompt us to do so.
I shall make quickly two other points about the political issues and why we need to face the matter now. First, I yield to no one in my passion for penal reform, rather like my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry). I am a proud patron of the Longford Trust, and, with the fantastic plans that the Lord Chancellor has laid before the House, we are about to embark on the most significant period of penal reform since the era of Lord Shaftesbury; but, in what will be a remarkable period of reform and release for some of the most vulnerable people in our community, we will lose the public's confidence if we start off on this footing.
Secondly, I have many problems with the European Union and I disagreed with the Lisbon treaty, but the simple fact is that many people-a majority both in this House and on the Government Benches-believe in this country's continued membership of the European Union. This debate makes it impossible to have a clean debate about the European Union, however, because too many people understand the EU and the European Court of Human Rights to be the same thing. For those reasons, in principle and in politics, I shall support the motion.
Members have already discussed how today's debate could be portrayed as one of illiberalism versus liberalism, and that is a great shame, because it was Government Members who decided to scrap the DNA database for people who are innocent of crime. That was decided not because of an ECHR ruling, but because it was the right thing to do, so it is a shame when people cite particular examples, because it is this House that makes those decisions, and I am proud of that.
Members have also referred to judgments, and my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) talked about how the issue has become an aspect of the debate about what constitutes a free and fair election. In the Frodl case, the comments on that point were that universal suffrage is required, otherwise it
"risks undermining the democratic validity of the legislature thus elected"-
"and the laws it promulgates."
I, like many other Members, am not a lawyer, but I have a strong sense of justice. People commit crimes not because somebody else has told them to do so, but according to their own free will. Other Members have said that that usually deprives other citizens of their freedoms and rights, so there is a conscious decision to commit a crime, and that is why this House is entitled to make a conscious decision to deprive people who commit criminal offences and are sent to prison of their opportunity to vote in elections.
The 2005 Hirst judgment was a majority verdict, but not one that would pass in a court of law here: a vote of 12 to five means that we are in the situation we are in today. There was a lot of discussion in the judgment about whether this House had had the chance to debate whether depriving somebody of their opportunity to vote is just or proportionate in the light of 21st century standards. That issue has received limited attention today, but the key points about freedom of choice and depriving others of such freedoms have been made.
Members have also cited examples. The hon. Members for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann), for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) and others talked about the sentences that people have received for particular crimes-the people to whom we would risk giving the vote if the original proposal that the Government made in December were to pass. I have used before in this House the example of someone in Barrow-in-Furness who was convicted of a crime-brandishing a knife during an armed robbery-that carried a sentence of less than four years. There are other examples involving people who have committed rape. These things matter to people in the street. When I went into any pub in Suffolk Coastal in December, everybody was appalled at the idea of any prisoner serving a criminal sentence having the vote.
I want to bring to the House's attention something that greatly surprised me when I was doing my research on this topic. The AIRE-Advice on Individual Rights in Europe-Centre represented prisoner Frodl from Austria against the Austrian Government at the European Court of Human Rights, and gave a contributing opinion to the 2005 Hirst judgment. It has also given evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. I am not saying that the AIRE Centre should not exist, but I was surprised, as other Members may be, by some of the people who contribute to it. It might not be surprising that the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and other charitable trusts provide funding, but I was a little surprised that Comic Relief does so. I was also surprised when I discovered that the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which uses public money, contributes to it, and even more surprised that the European Commission does so. I was most surprised when I found that the Foreign and Commonwealth gives money to this organisation, whose No. 1 priority is to help to represent prisoners in the ECHR. We should look into that use of public money. I hope that the Attorney-General listens to that and acts on it.
Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): I apologise for not being in the Chamber earlier, as I was in the Armed Forces Bill Committee. That got me thinking that this Government have done nothing to make it easier for our gallant men and women serving overseas to get the vote-I will not repeat the arguments that we have had on the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill-but seem rather keen to help criminals to get the vote. I hope that the Attorney-General will reflect on that.
Mrs Laing: In fact, it was the previous Government who did nothing to help our armed forces to get the vote. Some of us argued from the Opposition Benches, hour after hour, day after day, to try to make the Government do something about it, and eventually, three months before the election, they did.
Thomas Docherty: I have a great deal of time for the hon. Lady, but on this occasion she and I will have to disagree, although I hope she will be agreeing with me next Tuesday and Wednesday as we play ping-pong with the other place.
I have been raising the issue of prisoner voting rights for several months, particularly with reference to the Scottish Parliament elections. It is incredibly disappointing that none of the Scottish nationalists saw fit to grace us with their presence today, given that it is their Government in Scotland who have responsibility for the forthcoming parliamentary and local government elections next year. I raised the matter with the Cabinet Secretary for Justice last year. I do not intend to go through all the correspondence that my colleagues and I have had with him and with ministerial teams on this. However, the situation has been confirmed to me and to my colleague, Richard Baker, who is, for now, the shadow Minister but will, I am sure, become Justice Secretary. The SNP Government have not even bothered to write to the Deputy Prime Minister-who, let us be clear, is behind the move to give prisoners the right to vote-to express the Scottish people's opposition to it.
Thomas Docherty: The Attorney-General shakes his head, but this is a Liberal Democrat policy. I remind him that in 2007 the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), who was president of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, urged the then Government to give prisoners voting rights in the Scottish elections. I am delighted that my right hon. Friends resisted that request by Scottish Liberal Democrats, and delighted that today we will again be resisting the pressure from Liberal Democrats to give people who have broken the law the right to vote.
I am deeply concerned by the Government's attitude towards the ongoing test case involving the devolved Parliaments and Assemblies. It is clear from the 2007 case that the European Court is minded to grant prisoners the right to vote in Scottish Parliament elections, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has said repeatedly in this debate and elsewhere, the Scottish Parliament is a primary legislative body. It is difficult to envisage how the Attorney-General, as fleet-footed and talented as he is, will persuade the European Court that the Scottish Parliament is exempt.
I hope that the Attorney-General, when he is not looking at his BlackBerry, will clarify why he thinks the Scottish Parliament will be exempt from this issue.
My colleague Richard Baker MSP wrote to soft-touch Kenny MacAskill on 10 December last year. As I said, the Scottish Government do not believe that they have any role to play in lobbying the UK Government. That is another stain on the record of the SNP Government, who seem quite happy to pick fights with the UK Government, but will not stand up for what the people of Scotland want.
I think that Members from all parts of the House hold principled views on this issue. Although I fundamentally disagree with the Liberal Democrats on this issue, I respect their stance. I hope that they understand that voting is a right. As a former Prime Minister said, there are rights and there are responsibilities. People who break the law and who commit heinous crimes should not be allowed to vote.
As the Government have yet to clarify what the tariff limit will be if they lose the case, we have to assume that it will still be four years, as was leaked previously. I draw the Attorney-General's attention to one of the problems in Scotland, which is that the Scottish Parliament has its own sentencing policy, its own judiciary and its own tariffs. Under a tariff system, the limit might be set at one year, six months or four years. Crimes that have a certain sentence in England, Wales and Northern Ireland might not have the same sentence in Scotland. I hope that the Government will reflect carefully on what the impact will be on Scotland if they use a tariff system, rather than using specific crimes. I accept that the Liberal Democrats probably do not intend to give paedophiles the vote. However, if the limit was set at four years or less, the disgusting individuals involved in the shocking case of child abuse in the south of England last year would qualify to vote. I am sure that that is not the intention of any party.
I am conscious that other hon. Members wish to speak, and I have said my piece. I will vote tonight for the motion in the names of my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and other hon. Members.
Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): It has become a badge of honour to stand up in this debate and say, "I am not a lawyer." The hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) started her speech by saying that she was not a lawyer so she would speak common sense. If I were a lawyer, I am not sure that I would take too kindly to that, but I am sure that she meant it in the best spirit. I am not a lawyer and am more of a kindred spirit with those who have spoken, as I see it, as representatives of their communities.
We have heard many eloquent and learned explanations of the tangle that we find ourselves in as a result of the findings of the Court, and about how its decisions have evolved way beyond what was envisaged by a previous generation of politicians. In the aftermath of world war two and all the horrors of that conflict, politicians could not have foreseen a time when human rights would be referred to by many people in the same breath as health and safety. I seek not to trivialise the debate, but that is what can be heard in any debate on the
doorstep, in the pub or at the shop. What is meant is that the legislation that covers those issues has become disconnected.
Most Governments, if not all, come to power on a wave of public good will. Despite the current one not having come about in the normal way, they retain significant support from the general public. Like all Governments at various times, however, they have found themselves making a proposal that they know full well flies in the face of public opinion. The electorate store up such follies, as they see them, perpetrated by Governments. They eventually reach a tipping point and say to themselves, "This Government no longer speak for me". We are a long way from that, but the current proposal is a very small step in that direction. We are losing touch with those whom we represent. Hon. Members are elected to this place to articulate the hopes, fears and concerns of the electors.
Andrew Bridgen: Does my hon. Friend agree that we have been assured, and often reassured, in the House that we are a sovereign Parliament? Will he join me in urging all right hon. and hon. Members to act like a sovereign Parliament on this issue, and to represent the views of our constituents and resist those of an unelected European body that is seeking to push itself further into domestic UK affairs?
We are here to articulate the concerns of the electorate. On some decisions there is room for doubt, but on this one they are giving us a clear message. In fact, they are agreeing with comments by the Attorney-General himself. I note that in the Westminster Hall debate that took place a few weeks ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) quoted him-so I am sure it must be correct-as having said:
"The principle that those who are in custody after conviction should not have the opportunity to vote is a perfectly rational one."-[ Official Report, 11 January 2011; Vol. 521, c. 2WH.]
If we go along the route of giving prisoners the vote, we will be acting contrary to the overwhelming views of those we represent, and in an irrational manner. I will support the motion. I do not approve of votes for prisoners, and I certainly do not approve of any form of compensation for them. I know that I speak for virtually 100% of my electorate in saying that.
Nick Boles (Grantham and Stamford) (Con):
This has been a very interesting debate, and rather unusual for me. I have to confess that in most debates, I arrive knowing what I think on the subject, sit here waiting for my chance to say what I think, say what I think and
then vote accordingly. On this subject, which is so complicated, I find that my views have shifted during the debate.
My views on prisoner voting have shifted very slightly. I am still of the view that all people convicted and given a prison sentence should lose their right to vote, but I was much struck and influenced by the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), who suggested that in the last six months of a sentence, as part of the rehabilitative process, the Parole Board or whatever is the right authority might give a person back that right if they were showing signs of becoming a good citizen. I have therefore changed my position. I still believe that all convicted prisoners should lose that right, but I am open to persuasion on the possibility of restoration of the vote in the last six months of a sentence.
Before I came to the debate, I was of the view that if the European Court imposed fines, we should simply refuse to pay them and challenge it to send a gunboat up the Thames to extract the money from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. I would say good luck to it in that-I have tried to do so for my constituents on several occasions and so far not been very successful. That was my view before, but I was persuaded by my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Simon Reevell), who is no longer in his place, that we who believe in the rule of law and who want the laws that we pass in this place to be respected cannot allow a precedent to be created whereby it is okay to pick and choose which laws we obey and which judgments we accept. If we believe that the Hirst judgment is intolerable, we should go to the root of the problem and not try to evade the particular case.
What is the root of the problem? I have reached the uncomfortable conclusion that the root of the problem is the nature and location of the Court. Good judges are not good judges just because they are qualified-although there have been questions about the qualifications of some ECHR judges-or because they understand the laws of the country and respect the right of the legislature to make them, and that their role is simply to interpret and apply them. Good judges are good because they are products of the society within which those laws are created and to which those laws are applied. Judges earn legitimacy to make judgments, tough as they may be. Because they are part of that society, they understand it-they are part of the warp and weft of it.
My fear is that the Strasbourg Court can never be that. That is why I agreed most with the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) when he described why incorporating the convention into our law and making it subject to the interpretation of the Supreme Court-our Court and our justices sitting not 300 yards from Parliament-was a way of making the convention, which is a fine document, something that the British people would come to respect and even love as part of their fundamental freedoms.
I hope that the debate will be one small step along the way to us saying to the Strasbourg Court: "Back in your box! Your role is to bring to our attention-this Parliament's
attention-when you believe that our laws are out of kilter with the convention. But that is your role and no further. The specific questions of how the laws that we make apply to individual cases and citizens in this country should be for British judges in a British court." In that way, we would have a law that we could all respect.
Mr Ian Davidson (Glasgow South West) (Lab/Co-op): I wish to echo the remarks of the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), who started off by saying that he was not a lawyer, but I would go further. Not only am I not a lawyer, I have never been a lawyer, and I have no intention of ever becoming a lawyer. As far as I am aware, no one in my family unto the nth generation has ever been a lawyer.
We are in danger of turning this debate, which is about basic, simple questions, into a lawyers' talkfest. There is always in tendency in these circumstances for lawyers to show how clever they are by overcomplicating the basic issues at stake. The essentially simple questions are these: should prisoners be allowed to vote, and who should decide?
On the first question, I am clear that prisoners should not be allowed to vote. That is the view of the vast majority of Labour party members and voters up and down the country-there is no doubt about that. As I indicated earlier, we take the view that prisoners are a sub-set of those who have been found guilty. For that comment I was denounced by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for being too subtle, of which, it must be said, I have not often been accused.
Our system decides who of the guilty should be sent to prison and who should not. That way of subdividing the guilty is perfectly acceptable to me. Those who are deemed to be prisoners have been found to have broken the civic contract that operates between members of society and the society in which they live. I am therefore clear that the vast majority of our people are hostile to prisoners voting.
The second question is this: who decides? I do not think that this is a judicial decision or a legal matter; it is a political decision about who should decide, and I am clear that we in this country should decide who should vote in our elections, rather than somebody external to this country. I was denounced earlier when I called on the Member for Doncaster and Brussels Berlaymont to speak up for Brussels-
Rotherham sorry. Again, perhaps I do not know the distinction. When the Member for Rotherham and Brussels Berlaymont, the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane), was sounding off, I said, "Speak up for Brussels." His key response was, "Well, it is not physically or geographically in Brussels"-so presumably all my arguments failed. It is not a question of geography though; it is a question of mindset. There is a Brussels mindset, irrespective of where it is physically
located, that basically says that European is best and that there is a political elite in Europe that knows better than we do in this country how our country should be run. We have to say, "Up with this we will not put." Enough is enough. In these circumstances, we ought to be saying that we wish to repatriate these powers, if they need to be repatriated, and if it is a question of ceasing or stamping on judicial activism by the European Court, that is what we need to do.
This issue should not be seen in isolation. Only today, in The Scotsman-so it must be true-the headline read: "Euro rule lets 900 accused escape justice. Judgment over human rights leads to ten prosecutions being dropped every day in Scotland." The system in Scotland has done us fine for years, but here we have an example of the EU or its various arms, based in Brussels, Strasbourg or somewhere else-someone external-coming in and telling us how we should run our own affairs. As I said before, we ought to be sending the clear message that, "Up with this we will not put", and that we will reject the influence of the Court as it constantly creeps across the United Kingdom.
Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): When someone is convicted of an offence, a number of elements are available to the court in disposing of the sentence. I cannot think of a single objective that is met by withdrawing the right to be registered to vote and to vote. It is clearly not a deterrent; I do not see that it is a punishment; I do not see that it helps rehabilitation; and I do not think that it is much of a penance either. The question is, therefore, why do we do it?
I think that Parliament should decide these issues. It should not be for the Supreme Court across the square or the European Court. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) for securing a debate in Westminster Hall on 11 January on this matter, and I am glad that we are having this debate now. The motion is defective in terms of setting policy, although it is very good for expressing opinion. I can agree with its first elements, but as my amendment-it would replace the last clause from the last semicolon in the motion-states, it would be a good idea to note that nearly
"a third of men have by the age of 30 been convicted of a serious criminal offence for which they could"
be sent to jail for six months or more. Hon. Members who have spoken about the problem of people breaking the law were right to phrase it that way. The question of whether someone is sent to jail as well is an extra issue. If we are going to say that breaking the law means that the right to vote should go, a third of us here would have lost the right to vote at some stage in our lives. Fortunately, however, most courts do not use a sentence of six months or more for offences for which one could be used.
We could split the motion-we might have to return to this point-between its European side, with which I mostly agree, and the question of whether we should maintain the blanket ban, or whether we should either say, as the Government suggest we might, a certain number of years, or, as others have said, a certain period before release. We can debate those issues without trying to put the two together. Although the debate has
been interesting-having listened to it for four hours, I have probably gained as much as many who have been here the whole time-I believe that we ought to consider the issues separately. By all means, we can talk to the public and the newspapers, and look at the good cartoons in the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, most of which could form the basis of a good speech. However, we ought to return to the question: what is the objective of sentencing policy that makes the withdrawal of the right to vote so important?
I leave the House a question: who has the responsibility to register those who are convicted and sent to jail? If I am already on the electoral register, is there a system for the courts to tell my returning officer to take me off it, or am I just left on? If I have set up a proxy beforehand, would that still work? Those are matters of detail, which are not important today. The important question today is: do we, as the motion says we should, acknowledge
"the treaty obligations of the UK"?
I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) on that. As for the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), whom I knew before he became middle-aged, he said that it was not the right time to bring the issue up, when the period that was "not the right time" allowed for more than five years of procrastination, with one election followed by another within five years. That was not the strongest argument that he brought forward this afternoon.
Sir Peter Bottomley: In the debate in Westminster Hall on 11 January, I quoted Justice Dennis Challeen. He said-I will précis it-that we want people to be responsible, but we deny them more responsibility; that we want them to think of others, but we put them in situations where they do not. As for using the vote, if people could start saying what kind of society they want to be part of, and if they want to be law-abiding subjects and useful citizens on release, as many do, then it could be part rehabilitation. However, I do not believe that by giving the vote we will suddenly find the reconviction rate dropping by 20 points. That would be ambitious. Those are ambitions that we ought to have-I am glad that tribute has been paid to what the Lord Chancellor is proposing to do to change our penal system to make it work better-but would it not be even better if many fewer people were committing criminal offences for the first time, and if the period in which they did were reduced even faster?
Winston Churchill's speech as Home Secretary from 1910 can be quoted, but that point is on the record, so I will not go into that. What I would say, to those who want to start condemning the Prison Reform Trust or the Howard League, or those such as myself-I have served on the council of both Nacro and Mind, the National Association for Mental Health, and I was chairman of the Children's Society, trying to deal with those at risk of becoming serious and serial criminals-is that we have to recognise that most of the people whom we are talking about are bad, mad or sad, or a combination. However, they are not always that all the time, so the
sooner we start learning how to get deterrents, prevention, rehabilitation and can convert them to law-abiding citizens, the better.
Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) is right in much of what he says. He does not have a lot of support in the House today, but I agree with him that we ought to have another debate to consider the issues in greater detail and singly.
This issue is far more complex than it at first appears, and certainly more than the Daily Mail and others would have us believe. There is no question of criminals who have been convicted of serious crimes being given the vote as a result of today's debate. The ECHR does not require it, the Government do not propose it and the vast majority of the British people-and, I think, of Members of this place-are firmly against it. The Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform took evidence last week, and we published a short report in an attempt to inform the debate. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) mentioned that, and that other Members have said that, after listening to the debate and reading the Committee's report, they have thought about the matter more carefully than before.
"there has to be a sufficient and discernible link between the conduct and the nature of the punishment."
"if somebody commits a crime of serious violence...one can argue...that is a fundamental attack on the basic human rights of the victim...and, therefore, it is perfectly reasonable, as part of the punishment, that the deprivation of the right to vote should be imposed."
Lorely Burt: As I understand it, the hon. Lady is proceeding on the principle of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth". Like the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson), who is no longer in his place, I am not a lawyer, but I thought that British justice had abandoned that principle.
"calls into question the purported authority of the HoC Political and Constitutional Reform Committee to investigate a matter already decided by the highest court in Europe".
Mr Hirst further accused me, as the acting Chairman of that Committee, of ignorance of the law. Okay, I know that it is difficult to admit it this afternoon, but I was once a lawyer. He goes on to threaten:
"Neither the Council of Europe nor I will let the UK off the hook with this one."
Well, it is time that someone stood up to Mr Hirst, given all the taxpayers' money that he has spent on legal aid in bringing this case, which is causing nothing but trouble for the Government, Parliament, our courts and our prisons.
Mr Hirst killed a woman with an axe. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter on the ground of diminished responsibility, and his guilty plea was accepted on the basis of medical evidence that he was amoral-that is, he had no moral judgment. I would argue strongly that Mr Hirst took away the right to life of the woman he killed, and that he therefore deserves to lose some of his rights. Criminals who have broken the law forfeit some of their rights. I am sorry to disagree with something that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray) said earlier. Having a vote is not a privilege; it is a right. However, it is not an absolute right; it is a right with conditions attached, and this Parliament can attach those conditions.
I will vote for the motion before us today, but I also say to the Government that there is a way through this problem. We in this Parliament can adhere to our British principle that the loss of the right to vote is part of the punishment for those who commit a serious crime while at the same time fulfilling our obligations to the rule of law under the European convention, which the UK drafted in the first place. We can do that by drawing a distinction between different crimes, and by introducing some judicial discretion in sentencing, based on legislation. That would mean that we would no longer have a blanket ban on prisoners voting, but that only a very small category of prisoners would be able to vote. I do not have time to go into detail this afternoon, but I commend to Ministers and to the House the evidence given to the Select Committee on 1 February. Learned lawyers-very good ones, too-gave evidence on how a way through this could be found.
I also want to say something about public opinion. We have to be careful about this, because public opinion has been whipped up on this subject. There are people in prison who deserve not only retribution but sympathy and help. Edmund Burke said in his speech to the electors of Bristol in 1774:
"Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion."
"the rule of law is very valuable to us. We tend to take it for granted but we need to make sure that we do not let it slip."
It is only by upholding the rule of law that we can play our part in enabling the European Court of Human Rights to hold other countries to account when serious breaches of human rights occur. This afternoon, however, it is our duty to make it clear that this Parliament has at last considered this matter, and that it has a decisive view that, in most circumstances and with few exceptions, a criminal conviction carries with it the loss of the right to vote.
Mr Brian Binley (Northampton South) (Con):
I agree with the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris), who is no longer in his place- [Interruption.] Ah, there he is. I agree with many of the words he spoke. I also
agree with the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson)who said that we had heard a lot from lawyers. They indeed play an important role-dare I say it, some might say too important a role-in this House. Many of my friends are lawyers, so I would not go there. It is ironic, however, that the problem we are debating today can be placed at the very door of lawyers. I feel that sometimes they ought to take responsibility for such problems; they are the people who we need to solve them, yet it is they who have left us with a massive issue about sovereignty. We need to reflect on it and ensure that this House-and, frankly, not the lawyers-take the decisions. I also find it ironic that constitutionalists are split on this issue. I shall mention just two-because they suit my case. The first authority I shall quote is not considered to be a raging Tory. Indeed-
"not proper for a European supranational court to intervene in matters on which member states... have not surrendered their sovereign powers."
"International institutions which are set up by everyone become in practice answerable to no one".
We should take note of what those wise men said. Indeed, we should take note of the many who argue that article 3 of protocol 1 does not constitute a universal right. Therein lies another legal argument for our lawyers to get stuck into.
I want to use my time to speak not about the voice of the law, but about the voice of the people I represent. That is what I think this House should primarily be about. Our constituents deserve to have their views heard, and I have taken much trouble to try to ascertain them. They agree with the sentiments I expressed in the Council of Europe only two weeks ago when I said that many Britons hold the view that restricting the vote of those who freely choose to place themselves outside the rule of law for their own personal gratification, gain or ambition is not a denial of human rights, but a choice those people make. That is simple stuff, not wrapped up in legal language, but we need to take note of it. My constituents also tell me that they are sick to death of the opportunist claims made for compensation, but they are especially sickened by the claim made by the racist John Hirst, who murdered his landlady with an axe. He does not deserve compensation, they tell me, and they do not believe that he cares about the vote either. What he does care about is the money he might get, which is another truth that we need to face up to.
The judgment of people in my constituency is thus quite clear. They say that they do not want prisoners to have the vote. They want to ensure that there is a price for prisoners to pay-a price to pay for those who place themselves of their own free will and volition outside the law. That, with respect, is my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley). That matter needs to be taken into account too.
In the time left to me, I want to urge the Minister and the Prime Minister to recognise the dangers of such a judgment, not only for the European Court of Human
Rights but for the whole concept of the European Union. European institutions continue to enlarge their own areas of decision making at the expense of sovereign Parliaments. If that continues, the institutions themselves will be at risk. The Government need to recognise that fact; more importantly, so do the European institutions. As we saw in eastern Europe and as we are seeing in north African states such as Egypt and in states all over the world, the people will be listened to in the end. That needs to be taken into account both by this Government and by the wider European institutions; they would do well to take heed of that.
Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con): I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley). I shall begin by taking off my wig and putting on a very hard hat, because I am another of the lawyers who now have the great pleasure of being in this place.
I will not support the motion if a vote is called, not because I believe for a moment that prisoners should have the right to vote, but because I consider the motion to be a bit of a dog's dinner. I commend the speech of the Attorney-General, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve). I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) that the House should debate the subject again properly, because this dog's dinner confuses a number of issues. As I have said, I do not think that prisoners should have the right to vote, but the subject does not excite me a great deal, although I accept much of what has been said. The Attorney-General made clear his view that it was important for us to debate the issue of prisoners and voting, and to present our opinions on the matter as a Parliament because they might prove useful in another place.
Let me throw this into the mix, for what it is worth. There is no blanket ban at present, as we know. As for whether we should introduce a further restriction, let me say-I have said it before, but I will say it again-that in all the 16 years or so during which I was a barrister in the criminal division, none of my clients who received a custodial sentence ever said to me, "It is an outrage: I have now lost my right to vote." They said many other things, mostly rather derogatory things about my pleas in mitigation and the like, but that was not one of their complaints.
Please, let us not allow our judges to decide whether someone should retain or lose the right to vote. Indeed, let us not place that burden on them. To put it bluntly, judges have enough to do, and have enough of what is often nonsense to read out. I do not think that it is their role to make such a decision. I think that, in a sense, we would abdicate our responsibility if we gave it to them. We can imagine the nightmare that would result: a draftsman would have to specify the circumstances in which a person should be given the right to vote and those in which that right should be taken away, and then someone would appeal against that. It is a bad idea.
I also urge the Government not to prescribe a particular period. I know why a period of four years has been floated-I will not bore all the non-lawyers about the history of that, and why it has now been removed-but
I think it would be a bad idea to specify two years, three years or four years. I know of cases in which paedophiles have received custodial sentences of less than four years; I know of violent offenders who have received custodial sentences of less than four years, and whose period on licence has been extended because the court has found them to be dangerous. There is also the problem that arises when people have been found to be dangerous and have received what is effectively a life sentence because of the nature of their crimes, but the actual period for which they must serve before being considered for parole is well under four years.
I realise that that sounds technical, but these are really important matters. We could end up with a very peculiar state of affairs. Someone who clearly should not have the right to vote because he is dangerous and has committed a truly terrible offence such as a rape, or an offence of wounding with intent under section 18 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, might serve a sentence of less than four years. That is one of my reasons for urging caution against a prescriptive figure.
I suggest that when we have considered the matter and returned to the debate, we should consider an idea which, although I wish it were mine, actually belongs to my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland). As you might imagine, Mr Speaker, he and I have discussed the matter at length, over, obviously, just a couple of pints of lemonade. My hon. Friend's idea, which I consider very worthy, is that anyone who is given a custodial sentence in the Crown court should lose the right to vote. If an either-way offence is involved, a person takes a risk by opting for trial or a committal for sentence, but if they end up in the Crown court, it is already clear that a serious offence is involved. I think that an admirable way of solving the problem would be to specify that someone who receives a custodial sentence in the Crown court should lose the right to vote.
Mr Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): First, I wish to express my gratitude that both Law Officers, the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General, are present for this debate. Secondly, I want to commend my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer) on making such a remarkable speech. His exposition of why prisoners lose the vote in this country was highly effective and eloquent, and what he said is consonant with the will and view of the people of this country.
We in this House too often forget how certain measures were introduced. I was surprised, however, that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) had forgotten that the measure under discussion was a Labour measure, introduced by Attlee's Government. I will give the hon. Gentleman the dates, just to encourage him a little. In 1948, Germany was divided, and Europe was fighting to maintain democracy and its values in the west. Out of that came the Council of Europe. In May 1949, the statute of the Council of Europe was signed in London, and it included an emphasis on human rights. The Cabinet agreed to the convention on 24 October 1950, and it was signed on 4 November 1950 and ratified on 8 March 1951. The Labour Government did that because of the state of democracy in Europe, as many Europeans felt that would be a bulwark against Soviet hegemony in Europe.
Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman is right that it happened under a Labour Government, but it happened with the full support of the Conservative Opposition. Indeed, that is why the Labour Government supported David Maxwell Fyfe's appointment to the chairmanship of the key committee-the legal committee-in the Council of Europe that drafted the original version of the convention. That happened while there was still a Labour Government.
Mr Shepherd: The hon. Gentleman should also remember that Lord Jowett and the Labour Cabinet were greatly anxious about another court in the English legal system. The convention was therefore very tightly drawn.
Moving forward in time, the Hirst case caused a great deal of anxiety in this country. I do not think it the most important case, but we are using it as the means by which we ask questions about the nature of, and what has happened to, the European Court of Human Rights. I think Tyrer v. the UK is more important, because something foreign was then extended to our British legal system: the notion that the Court's role was to use the law as a living instrument. That is in direct conflict with our common law tradition, and no one in this Parliament or this country signed up to such an important agreement. That is why we are in trouble, and that is what lay behind Lord Hoffmann's elegant and eloquent introduction to the policy review argument of Professor Pinto-Duschinsky.
At the heart of this matter, we have to grapple with a profound point. I heard my good friend the former Lord Chancellor, Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary et al, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), say that their claim was that we were bringing rights home. The truth is not quite that. The statute was brought in, which I support entirely. It is important, because there could be tyranny; one vote could have given us 90 days of imprisonment without charge. Fortunately, that was defeated by this House, but that episode shows how thin our liberties lie. The question, therefore, is how do we entrench them? That was the purpose of the very subtle piece of legislation called the Human Rights Act 1998.
I believe these matters should be brought home. I think our common law judges can define the points and do that work, but there can be no entrenchment of that. That has always been the problem with the British constitution; we cannot entrench that which is good, because another Parliament can do away with it or a simple majority in this House of Commons can undermine it.
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