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Highlights from the Conservative contributions to the debate on votes for prisoners

By Jonathan Isaby

Prisoners votes In advance of yesterday's debate on votes for prisoners, the man moving the motion, David Davis, made his case on ConHome here.

So below are some of the highlights from the contributions of other Conservatives during the debate.

NB A full breakdown of how all MPs voted is here.

South West Devon MP Gary Streeter said the motion invited people to address  the "fundamental issue" of "whether or not we can pass our own laws":

"There comes a time when it is necessary to take a stand. I argue that right now, on this issue, it is right for this House, today, to assert its authority. The judgment of the ECHR in the Hirst case flies in the face of the original wording and purpose of the European convention on human rights, in which it was clearly intended that each signatory should have latitude in making decisions on the electoral franchise in that country.

"We decided in this country centuries ago that convicted criminals should not have the right to vote, and I support that decision. After all, the punitive element of incarceration is the denial for the time being of certain rights and privileges that our citizens enjoy. We decided long ago that in addition to surrendering their liberty, convicted criminals while in prison would also give up their right to vote. That was the case in 1953 when the treaty on human rights was signed, and it remains the case."

Attorney General Dominic Grieve set out the Government's position early in the debate:

"Ministers will abstain. The Government believe that the proper course of action will be to reflect on what has been said and think about what proposals to bring back to the House in the light of the debate. The Government are here to listen to the views of the House, which are central and critical to this debate, as was acknowledged in the Hirst case."

And here's what he had to say in reply to one backbencher enquiring about how the award if compensation by the Strasbourg court could be enforced:

"The truth is that enforcing something against a Government who do not wish to have it enforced against them is very difficult, because the Government retain Executive power. If a judge in our High Court said that the Government should do something and the Government said, "We won't do it," it would be very difficult to do. Equally, however, it is worth bearing it in mind that the Government would be in rather serious breach of the principles of the rule of law and would, in fact, be behaving tyrannically. One needs to be careful. The principles on which United Kingdom Governments have always operated is that if international obligations confer a power on a court and a court orders compensation, we will honour those international obligations as it is our duty to do so, because without that we diminish our own status, in terms of our respect for international law as much as domestic law. It is therefore a bit of a red herring to suggest that just because something cannot be enforced, that is a justification for ignoring it. It might be a justification for enacting other legislation or taking other steps, but it would be a fairly momentous change in UK practice if we ignored something to which we had indicated by international treaty we subscribe."

MAIN ANNE MP St Albans MP Anne Main had tabled an amendment which would have instructed the Government not to pay any compensation to prisoners or former prisoners over this issue, but it was not called for the Common to vote on it:

"I am disappointed that my amendment was not selected, because several hon. Members have raised the spectre of what this step will cost, and we cannot have that elephant in the room. We cannot grandstand today or make large speeches and not accept that someone, somewhere is looking at the detail of what is said and seeing whether they can bring us to heel with threats. Hanging over us is the fact that prisoners around the country will be studying what is said and queuing up to test the strength of our resolution."

"If we leave this elephant in the room, leading to compensation, costs and judgments against us, costing our taxpayers money, we will be treading a path that most of our constituents would find incomprehensible; and if today we cannot debate that amendment because it was not selected, I propose that it be brought back as a motion before the House. I took comfort from the Attorney-General when he said he hoped there would be further debates on the subject, and I think that is a crucial debate. We should vote today in the certain knowledge that the will of House is that we do not extend voting rights to prisoners who are incarcerated, and in the next debate we must make it clear that we do not believe they should be compensated for that loss at all."

PPC Karen Bradley Staffordshire Moorlands MP Karen Bradley sought to define the function of prison and why it was right for prisoners to lose the right to vote:

"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."

Hollobone_phillip Kettering's Philip Hollobone wanted the Government to be more robust on the issue and show some leadership:

"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.

"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."

David Ruffley 2011 Bury St Edmunds MP David Ruffley feared the diminishing confidence of the public in the judicial system:

"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."

Banbury MP Tony Baldry proposed one way forward to circumvent the ECHR ruling:

"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."

Peter Lilley Commons Former Cabinet Minister Peter Lilley said that it was wrong that political judgments now were resting with the courts:

'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."

Picture 15 Ipswich MP Ben Gummer evoked the image of voting as an expression of freedom:

"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."

Nick Boles Commons Grantham and Stamford MP Nick Boles highlighted the fact that ECHR judges are not representative of a particular society:

"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."

Sir Peter Bottomley was the only Tory to vote against the motion:

"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."

Anna Soubry And Anna Soubry abstained when it came to the vote:

"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."

PATEL PRITI But Priti Patel was robust in her defence of the motion:

"The majority of the public believe that those who are convicted of criminal offences and sent to prison should forfeit their right to vote and not have the same rights as other members of society. I find it extraordinary that we are talking about the rights of convicted criminals-people in prison-rather than the rights of those who are the victims of crime.

"The public are also fed up with the fact that the human rights agenda has been used to undermine our judicial process, and we now have the bizarre scenario where we are effectively talking about giving prisoners and convicted criminals more rights. There are also genuine concerns about the capitulation of successive Governments to these unelected judges in Strasbourg who are determined to expand their influence into areas of law that should not be anywhere within their jurisdiction. They are completely encroaching on that territory."

"My constituents constantly make the point that they are outraged. They feel that the rights of criminals, as opposed to the rights of victims, are constantly discussed and put first. I was not sent to the House by the voters of Witham slavishly to nod through laws and accept every diktat that comes from Europe or the Strasbourg Court. I was elected to this House to defend the national interest, to support my constituents and to hold law-makers to account. It would be a great disservice to the British people if we were to say that the authority of this House and this Parliament is now so denuded, so irrelevant, that we are powerless to act, stand up, speak out and do the right thing in this Chamber. This is a democratic and sovereign Parliament, which has done more to promote democracy and the rule of law than any other. We should not be forced to bow down on this issue, and I urge all hon. Members to put Britain and the law-abiding majority of this country first by sending a clear and unequivocal message to Europe by supporting the motion."

Drax Richard Dorset South MP Richard Drax was scathing in his criticism of human rights laws:

"I have heard the word "rights" used a lot this afternoon, but surely equal weight should be given to the word "responsibilities". If someone behaves irresponsibly-criminally-they should lose those rights. My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General said that he is angry about this issue, and the Prime Minister has been quoted as saying that it makes him feel sick. I suggest a remedy-a constructive one, may I humbly add?-and that is a steely spine and a determination to rid us of all these human rights laws. It beggars belief that we are having to discuss this subject at all. It only reminds us in this House how impotent we really are. Tied to the well-intended European convention on human rights, subjugated by judges and bureaucrats in Europe, and told we may have to pay £100 million to disfranchised prisoners, we are left humiliated in this place.

"Preventing prisoners from having the right to vote is a point of principle for us all. They lost it in 1870, and my constituents say that they should not get it back today. I agree with the former Law Lord, Lord Hoffmann, that while democracy and freedom are certainly human rights, the right to vote is a constitutional right and is therefore different. In my view, prisons should punish. I appreciate that moves are afoot for the emphasis to be more on rehabilitation. I implore our Government that that must not be at the expense of justice."

Raab Dominic Finally, summing up for the proposers, was Esher and Walton MP Dominic Raab:

"The fact is that we face a serious abuse of power-there is no other word for it. I therefore want to put this question to the House: how perverse would a Strasbourg ruling have to be before we, as British lawmakers, stood up for the national interest and our prerogatives as democratic lawmakers? If not now, on prisoner voting, when? I make this prediction: if we do not hold the line here, today, there will be worse to come-far worse-in the years ahead.

"What happens if we agree to the motion? Strasbourg could rule against us and we could face compensation awards. However, the architects of the convention introduced a vital safeguard: Strasbourg cannot enforce its own judgments. The worst that can happen is that we remain on a very long list of unenforced judgments to be reviewed by the Committee of Ministers-there are about 800 such judgments at the moment. There is no risk of a fine and no power to enforce compensation, and absolutely no chance of being kicked out of the Council of Europe.

"A number of compromise solutions have been mooted, and I have paid careful attention to each and every one. The problem is that giving the vote to prisoners sentenced to six months or less or a year or less is not a compromise, because it is bound to be rejected by Strasbourg. The Court made that crystal clear in the Frodl case last year, and the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, Thomas Hammarberg, stated that unequivocally on Radio 4 last Saturday. Such so-called compromise proposals are the worst of all worlds. We buckle and accept the erosion of our democracy and Strasbourg rejects the compromise anyway.

"It is time that we drew a line in the sand and sent this very clear message back: this House will decide whether prisoners get the vote, and this House makes the laws of the land, because this House is accountable to the British people. I commend the motion to the House."


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