Conservative Diary

« More evidence that Downing Street wants the Liberal Democrats to win in Oldham East and Saddleworth | Main | Liberal Democrat of 2010 »

The Government's plan to keep the Liberal Democrats happy by allowing serious offenders to vote

Screen shot 2010-10-15 at 15.16.59
by Paul Goodman

This is the story not so much of a coming political car crash as of a Parliamentary motorway pile-up in peak time. It stars a gloating axe killer, a European court, human rights, a vexed judgement, an recent Parliamentary answer, satisfied Liberal Democrat MPs, unhappy Conservative backbenchers, an opportunistic Labour Party, a Tory Minister being used as a human shield to protect the most important Liberal Democrat in the Government, a Conservative leadership trying to square a circle, a rampant media - and an administration facing the prospect of its biggest Commons revolt to date.

On Monday December 20 - after most MPs had returned to their constituencies and homes for Christmas - Mark Harper, the Cabinet Office Minister, issued a written statement called "Voting Entitlement".  This brief heading offered no clue about the importance of what was below it - namely, the Government's plan in response to judgements made by the European Court of Human Rights about prisoners and voting.  The Department wasn't trying to smuggle out a major statement, surely?

Its essence was as follows -
  • The court says that we must introduce legislation to meet its requirements by August next year.
  • If we don't, we'll have to shell out a shedload of money to meet some of the 2,500 claims currently before the court.
  • However, it doesn't oblige us to give all prisoners the vote - only some of them.
  • Four years imprisonment is often regarded as the distinction between short-term and long-term prisoners.  So we'll go with that: any prisoner serving a sentence of less than four years will get the vote, unless a judge specifically says otherwise.  The Government "will...bring forward legislation providing that the blanket ban in the existing law will be replaced".

It's far from clear whether -

  • This proposal is legally watertight.
  • Or whether, even in its own terms, it's equitable, since some violent criminals, whose offences are particularly obnoxious to the public, will be serving less than four years, while some non-violent criminals will be serving more.

What's certain, however, is that under it some criminals convicted of very serious offences undoubtedly will get the vote.  It's worth recalling that John Hirst, the axe killer whose successful appeal helped force the Government's response, and who was filmed celebrating the decision while quaffing champagne and smoking cannabis, said in response to the court's decision -

"I'm going to celebrate for the 75,000 prisoners who will be getting the vote.  That includes murderers, rapists, paedophiles. All of them will be getting the vote because it's their right."

Hirst was wrong to suggest that that they'll all get the vote.  However, some serious offenders undoubtedly will, and this is quite bad enough.  It's not hard to see how events will unfold -

The essence of the Clegg/Harper case is that the Government has no alternative.  However, there at least four - two of which have been flagged up on this site by Dominic Raab.

  • At one end of the political scale, the Government could have produced different and tighter criteria.  For example, Malta and San Marino ban prisoners serving sentences of more than year from voting.  France bars prisoners convicted of certain categories of crimes.
  • At the other, the Government could withdraw from the ECHR altogether.
  • If the Government won't do that it could, as Rabb suggested, simply ignore the Court's judgements.  As he put it, "The human rights lobby will claim that this would damage the international rule of law. But, half of the Strasbourg judges had no prior judicial experience. And the real challenge to the rule of law now comes from judges behaving like unelected legislators".
  • And if the Government doesn't want to do that either, it could put three options before the Commons rather than one.  That's to say, it could offer the Commons the options of voting for its own proposals, for all prisoners being allowed to vote, and for the status quo.  This would be consistent with the Party's view in Opposition, when Dominic Grieve was quoted as saying -

"The principle that those who are in custody after conviction should not have the opportunity to vote is a perfectly rational one.  Civic rights go with civic responsibility, but these rights have been flagrantly violated by those who have committed imprisonable offences.  The Government must allow a parliamentary debate which gives MPs the opportunity to insist on retaining our existing practice that convicted prisoners can't vote."

As Raab wrote - 

"If, as I suspect, Parliament voted to retain the current ban, Britain would have met the challenge of the Strasbourg Court, which complained the blanket ban lacked democratic legitimacy. What would we have to fear? Who is seriously suggesting that Britain would be kicked out of the Council of Europe, whilst France deports Roma en masse and the Strasbourg Court is backed up with serious human rights violations committed by the Russian, Bulgarian and Romanian governments?"

My sense is that there would be wide support on the Government benches for a vote on the status quo.  In the event of such a vote, the outcome could depend on Ed Miliband.  As Harper rightly points out in his written answer, Labour did nothing to address this matter in Government, letting it drift and leaving it for the next administration to deal with.  A whipped Labour vote for the Government's preferred option would probably maximise a Conservative revolt.  A vote against it could defeat the Government if a revolt's big enough in any event.

David Cameron could and should escape this prospect by a fifth option: dumping the Clegg/Harper plan altogether, and throwing the Government's weight behind the status quo - no votes for prisoners - and returning the matter to the court, thus meeting its challenge, as Raab would put it.


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.