Joint Committee On Human Rights Twenty-Sixth Report


2. Letter from the Chairman to Gareth R Thomas MP

COMPULSORY VOTING BILL

As part of its function to consider human rights in the United Kingdom, the Joint Committee on Human Rights examines all bills introduced to either House with a view to reporting to each House on their compatibility with Convention rights under the Human Rights Act 1998, and with other rights which arise in international law under human rights instruments by which the United Kingdom is bound. The Committee is considering whether to report to each House on the Compulsory Voting Bill. It has carried out an initial examination of this Bill, and would be grateful for your comments on the following points raised by its Legal Adviser. I should make it clear that the Committee's remit extends to human rights in a broad sense, not just the Convention rights under the Human Rights Act 1998.

As you know, this Bill would oblige registered electors to vote at parliamentary elections by inserting a new section 22A in the Representation of the People Act 1983. The obligation to attend at a polling station or to complete a postal or proxy vote might in some circumstances engage a person's right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (ECHR Article 9) if he or she belonged to a religious group which prohibited its members from participating in the political life of the State, or if he or she had a conscientious, religious or philosophical objection to doing so. It might be difficult to show that compelling such people to attend at a polling station was 'necessary in a democratic society' for any of the permitted purposes under Article 9(2). Even if the provisions could be brought within one of the permitted purposes (the interests of public safety, the protection of public order, health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others), it is questionable whether compulsory voting could be said to be 'necessary in a democratic society' for a legitimate purpose when so many democratic states appear to function satisfactorily without it (unless it could be shown that the UK was in a special position).

Proposed new section 22A(3)(b) of the Bill contains a statutory exemption from the obligation to attend at a polling station or complete a proxy vote for people suffering from ill-health or disability. Proposed new section 22A(2) and (4)(b) would confer on the Secretary of State a statutory power, but not a duty, to provide by statutory instrument for other exceptions. However, the exemptions on the face of the proposed new section do not include an exemption for those with conscientious, religious or philosophical objections to participating in the electoral process, nor would the Secretary of State be under a duty to provide by statutory instrument for such an exemption.

In the light of this, the Committee is considering whether to report to each House on the desirability, on human rights grounds, of including in the proposed new section an express exception for people with conscientious, religious or philosophical objections to participating in the political process, and would welcome any comments you might feel able to make.

The Committee understands the difficulties which the sponsors of private members' bills, with limited resources, often face in responding to questions from the Committee about the human rights implications of their bills. Nevertheless, without suggesting that you are under any obligation to respond to its concerns, the Committee would of course give full weight to any representations which you might wish to put before it.

It would be helpful to the Committee if it could receive a response before the House rises for the summer recess, so it can decide whether, and how, to report to each House on the Bill.

16 July 2002


 
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