By Matthew Barrett
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The Sunday Telegraph reports this evening that the Government plans to introduce a Bill on prisoner voting this coming Thursday. The newspaper says that the Ministry of Justice's Bill will give Parliament the choice of three options:
- Votes for prisoners who've been imprisoned for four years or less
- Votes for prisoners who've been imprisoned for six months or less
- No votes for prisoners at all
What is unclear is how the Government would proceed if MPs decide, as one might predict, to vote for the third option, not to give prisoners the vote, and the Court decides to fine the Government. The fact that the Government appears to be willing to be fined by Europe rather than defy the will of Parliament will seem a positive step for many Conservatives.
If the different options of the Bill are presented as a free vote, as one would expect, Cabinet members will also be free to vote as they wish, and it will be a point of interest as to how Ministers choose to vote. David Cameron's vote will be watched especially closely. A month ago at PMQs he said:
"I do not want prisoners to have the vote, and they should not get the vote—I am very clear about that. If it helps to have another vote in Parliament on another resolution to make it absolutely clear and help put the legal position beyond doubt, I am happy to do that. But no one should be in any doubt: prisoners are not getting the vote under this Government."
This statement would make it seem inconsistent for the Prime Minister to do anything other than vote for the third option in the Bill.
Others who will be closely watched will be George Osborne, Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith, and Owen Paterson. Chris Grayling and Dominic Grieve, the Government's main law officers, may feel obliged to vote for either of the first two options (or indeed, may not). Some Tory MPs will note that if Grayling and Grieve consider the third option to be legal, they should be able to vote for it themselves. The Cabinet would certainly look a little silly if they were to put the no-votes option to the House, but none of them actually voted for it. On the other hand, Cabinet splits will be on display if they do vote in different ways.
The three-option Bill is an attempt by Ministers to square the Government's legal obligation to respect the Court's view that prisoners should be given the vote with the political reality, which is that the Government must respect the Commons' view, must not get on the wrong side of Conservative backbenchers and grassroots, and must not fall out with the centre-right media and, of course, most voters.
It is not the perfect solution, and many MPs will still feel uneasy with even the possibility of giving some prisoners the vote. However, if the Bill includes a third option, giving the House of Commons the ability to reaffirm its opposition to any prison voting, it will prove a far more suitable compromise than a Bill not giving that option at all.