Thursday 7 November 2013

Parliament ~ Prisoner Voting ~ Evidence from Secretary-General of the Council of Europe and the Attorney-General

On Wednesday (6th November) a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament resumed its work considering the draft Prisoner Voting (Eligibility) Bill.   The Bill contains 3 options but also notes that there 'will no doubt be other possible options.'  The options put forward are: a ban for prisoners sentenced to 4 years or more; a ban for prisoners sentenced to more than 6 months or a ban for all convicted prisoners.  The third option is, of course, the status quo and cannot be compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights Protocol 1 Article 3 in the light of the Strasbourg case law (e.g. Hirst No 2) and note the Supreme Court's recent decision in Chester and McGeogh.  In our domestic law, it is open to Parliament to legislate contrary to the European Convention but doing so in this matter will place the UK in breach of its international obligations. 

The committee took
evidence from the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe Thorbjorn Jagland and also from Dominic Grieve QC the Attorney-General.  A full viewing of the session is recommended.  Parliament was reminded strongly of the need for the UK to abide by its obligations.  As Mr Jagland noted - “If the United Kingdom doesn’t implement a judgement from the court, it would set a bad example.  If the convention system is weakened or dissolved then it will harm human rights for millions of citizens on this continent and it will give much more cover to those who want to have more power at the expense of the people.”  Mr Jagland also noted that defiance, or even withdrawal from the convention system, is “inconceivable,” given the United Kingdom’s role, as a “founding father” of European human rights protection after the Second World War and its reputation as a global defender of treaty obligations.'

The Attorney-General warned the committee that flouting European judges over prisoner voting would risk international "anarchy."  Whilst sticking to international rules could be "irksome" at times, it had been the "settled view" of British governments for centuries that such obligations should be met -  Telegraph 6th October 

Both Mr Jagland and Mr Grieve sought to encourage the committee to consider the wider international implications of deliberately retaining the status quo (i.e. Option 3) and thereby denying prisoners the vote.

Some members of the committee were not at all sure that any action will be taken during the current Parliament and some clearly did not want to see any form of  voting for prisoners.  From the viewpoint of the UK's reputation, it is to be hoped that wiser counsels prevail.  Mr Grieve made it clear that, as things stand, either Option 1 or 2 would appear to meet the UK's obligation though the possibility of a future case at Strasbourg deciding otherwise could not be entirely ruled out. 
Observations from the Council of Europe were submitted to the joint committee in October.

See also the article by Joshua Rozenberg in The Guardian 6th November

Dr Howard Davis’ post -  here.


  1. I have long been of the view that this conundrum can be solved quite easily. Any sentence that arises out of a trial, or plea, on indictment should lead to the suspension of voting rights whilst actually in prison, but restoration when on licence. Any sentence arising out of a trial, or plea, of a summary offence should not lead to loss of voting rights. Any sentence arising out of a trial, or plea, of an either way offence should be treated as a trial, or plea, on indictment if conducted in the Crown Court, but a summary trial, or plea, if conducted in a magistrates court - even if this leads to a referral for a Crown Court sentence. In this way, loss of civil voting rights is matched to the general severity of the offence.

    1. Your solution is quite nuanced but would, as I understood the Attorney General, meet the UK's obligation. A simpler way of implementing Hirst No 2 would be to impose the voting ban on those who are serving a sentence of 12 months or more imprisonment. That seems very unlikely to ever fall foul of the E Ct HR's jurisprudence and is a straightforward solution. (This matter has, of course, assumed a symbolic importance which is out of all proportion to the problem. The world is not going to end because some prisoners are allowed to vote).

  2. I agree that some politicians are getting very exercised about this issue, but, whether or not it is of great importance, a solution must be found. The trouble with the simple numerical cut off at 12 months (or whatever) is that has the danger of producing hard cases on the boundary. Hard cases will almost certainly lead to more appeals. My solution is founded on the structure of our criminal justice system and recognises the logic of that system. There are no boundaries in the sentence itself.

  3. In the main, I don't have any particular problem with prisoners voting. What I do have a problem with is where their vote is cast under the current system.

    It would seem to me quite reasonable (and more-or-less in line with the current size of constituencies) to have a constituency for HM Prisons - in much the same way as there used to be University constituencies. Anyone with a sentence of under 12 months to vote in their local constituency, anyone with over 12 months to vote in the HMP constituency. Would also give a dedicated MP for prisoners and take a bunch of work off normal MPs.