Yesterday’s debate delivered the predictable result – a heavy defeat for those opposing the motion that reasserts our current law that suspends the voting rights of sentenced prisoners. We are now in uncharted territory. One thing we know for sure is that this is not even the end of the beginning.
The vote on the backbench motion – 234 in favour of maintaining the ban, 22 against – was just that, a vote on a motion. It has no legislative effect. The Coalition Government now needs to prepare its own legislation to be laid, probably before the summer recess, to amend the 1983 Act in order to give effect to Strasbourg’s ruling. That legislation will require another vote, which even if it is heavily whipped, is unlikely to command a majority in the Commons.
A further watering down – perhaps providing the option of maintaining the ban for all those sentenced to 6 months or more (coherent at least, as a divide between those convicted by a Crown or magistrates court, as Anna Soubry MP argued) – is possible, but even that would probably still fail. The whole tenor of yesterday’s debate proved that many MPs from all parties have decided to dig in their heels. And they are in tune with the public, who are opposed to prisoners voting in principle. Besides, as was argued by Anne Main MP – whose amendment to explicitly prohibit compensation was not called – legislation with a new sentence threshold would not last long: “the litigation will not stop because we have put that line in the sand”, she said.
So, after the next inevitable defeat, although there is huge scope for uncertainty in all of this, it looks like the Government has essentially three political options.