By Jonathan Isaby
This afternoon in the Commons, Cabinet Office minister Mark Harper was summoned to the Dispatch Box to answer an Urgent Question on the decision to grant the right to vote to prisoners. Quite why Nick Clegg could not have done so, given that his is the only of the main parties to have actually promoted this policy, I don't know.
Mr Harper explained:
"The UK’s blanket ban on sentenced prisoners voting was declared unlawful by the grand chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in October 2005, as a result of a successful challenge by a prisoner, John Hirst. The Government accept, as did the previous Government, that as a result of the judgment of the Strasbourg Court in the Hirst case, there is a need to change the law. This is not a choice; it is a legal obligation. Ministers are currently considering how to implement the judgment, and when the Government have made a decision the House will be the first to know."
Labour shadow justice minister Sadiq Khan then responded with a flurry of questions:
"When the previous Government consulted on this matter, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), who was then the shadow Secretary of State for Justice and is now the Attorney-General, described the prospect of giving prisoners the vote as “ludicrous”. Does the Minister share that view? One of the most troubling aspects of the European Court ruling is that it opens the door to the possibility of serious offenders being given the vote. Will he explain how the Government would ensure that serious offenders are not given the vote? Press reports suggest that sentence length will be the key determinant in deciding which prisoners can vote. If that is the case, what length of sentence do the Government have in mind? How will they ensure that prisoners who are guilty of serious offences but serving short sentences are not given the vote? Will the Minister provide details of the precise mechanics that prisoner voting will entail? Can he also tell us whether prisoners will be allowed to vote in referendums as well as elections?
"The Prime Minister is reportedly “exasperated” and “furious” at having to agree to votes for prisoners. Does the Minister share that view? There is a strong sense that the decision is being forced on this country against the will both of the Government and of the people’s representatives in this Parliament. For the sake of public trust in British democracy, will the Minister who is standing in for the Deputy Prime Minister therefore agree that any legislation put before the House on this vital issue should be the subject of a free vote?"
The minister responded:
"No one would have realised, listening to that, that the right hon. Gentleman was ever a member of the previous Government, who also accepted that the law needed to be changed, and accepted the judgment. I have looked carefully at the media reports, and all I can see is an expression by the Government, relating to what they are going to say in a pending legal case, that they must comply with the law. I would not have thought that explaining that the Government had to comply with the law was particularly revelatory. In fact, the right hon. Gentleman shared our view when he was in government. He was quite right to draw the House’s attention to the fact that the Prime Minister is exasperated. I suspect that every Member of the House is exasperated about this, but we have no choice about complying with the law.
"The fact that the previous Government failed for five years to do what they knew was necessary has left our country in a much worse position, both because of the possibility of having to pay damages and because case law has moved on. The only thing that would be worse than giving prisoners the vote would be giving them the vote and having to pay them damages as well. That is the position that the previous Government left us in.
"I shall now turn to the right hon. Gentleman’s questions. I made it clear in my statement that Ministers were considering how to implement the judgment, and when decisions have been taken they will be announced to the House at the Dispatch Box in the usual way. No decisions have been taken, and I am therefore unable to answer any of his questions at this time. The previous Government took five years to do nothing when they knew that something had to be done—in exactly the same way as they behaved in not dealing with the deficit. This Government have been in office for only a matter of months, but yet again our two parties are having to deal with the mess left behind by Labour."
There then followed questions from a wide variety of MPs, including many angry Tories from across the whole spectrum of the party. Here is a selection of their points:
Mark Pritchard: Is this not another case of more legal nonsense from Europe? Is it not about time that we scrapped the Human Rights Act 1998 and introduced a British Bill of Rights—or at the very least repealed the Human Rights Act within a freedom Bill?
Mr Harper: I am afraid that my hon. Friend has not followed this case very closely. If the Human Rights Act disappeared today, that would make no difference. The decision was made by the European Court in Strasbourg. British courts upheld our domestic law, which is why the decision was appealed to the Strasbourg Court. Even if the Human Rights Act disappeared tomorrow, I am afraid that the judgment would still stand.
David T. C. Davies: Does the Minister recognise that is there a great deal of exasperation on the Conservative Benches not just about the disgraceful change in the law, but about the fact that Labour Members are trying to present themselves as Eurosceptics when they signed up to every bit of European legislation that was put before them?
Mr Harper: My hon. Friend has made his point very well. The synthetic outrage expressed by Labour Members whose Government accepted the need to comply with the law, consulted on proposals to do so, and yet again failed to make the necessary decisions—[Interruption.] The shadow Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Tooting, is yelling from a sedentary position. His party was in power for five years after the judgment was made, and did nothing about it. We have been in power for only six months, but we are getting on with considering how to implement the judgment, and when we have made our decisions we will present them to the House.
Andrea Leadsom: Will my right hon. Friend please explain, for the edification of the House, what would happen if the Government refused to accept the findings of the European Court of Human Rights, and what would happen if we accepted the findings but refused to make any compensatory payments?
Mr Harper: My hon. Friend will know that 60 years ago Britain signed up to the European convention. [Interruption.] The shadow Justice Secretary is yelling again; he clearly needs telling again, so I will tell him again. Because Britain signed up to the European convention 60 years ago, it binds us legally. The Government must act in accordance with the law, as the previous Government accepted. The danger is that compensation payments will be awarded against us to prisoners. As I said earlier, the only thing worse than giving prisoners the vote would be giving them the vote and then having to give them compensation on top of that.
Charles Walker: We in this place have a duty to represent the people who elect us and, almost to a man and woman, they will be saying, “No, no, no.” What is the point of having a sovereign Parliament if we have to bend down to the European Court on this? Surely we can help the Minister by having a vote and sending a strong message that we do not want this, and then he can go and negotiate it away.
Mr Harper: My hon. Friend will know that we do have a sovereign Parliament but that about 60 years ago it signed up to the European convention on human rights and effectively made that part of our law and our legal obligations. The Government are following the judgment of the Court in implementing our legal obligations—nothing more and nothing less.
Robert Buckland: Before the Government make their decision, will my hon. Friend and all his colleagues bear in mind that the ultimate expression of liberty is the right to vote, and that the principle is that it should be surrendered upon conviction and imprisonment?
Mr Harper: My hon. Friend will know that that is exactly what our representation of the people legislation currently says, but that has been judged to be unlawful by the European Court, and the Government are in the position of having to implement that judgment—as were the previous Government. That is what we are wrestling with at the moment, and when we have made our decisions we will bring them before the House.
Eleanor Laing: Does the Minister recall that the House fully debated this issue and voted on it on 11 January 2006, at which point we on the Opposition Benches were trying to help the then Government to resolve a difficult situation? They took absolutely no action for the following five years. Will the Minister reassure the House that the Court objection is to the blanket ban on prisoners being able to vote and that it is within the power of the Government to resolve the situation by making a decision about which prisoners can vote and which cannot?
Mr Harper: If I may say so, I think that that was probably the first very sensible question that we have had in this session… My hon. Friend listened to what I said in my statement. The blanket ban on sentenced prisoners voting has been ruled to be unlawful. The Government are considering how to implement the judgment to deal with that and, when the Government have made those decisions, the proposals will be brought before the House. Colleagues would do well to listen to how she put her question and to my answer.