By Jonathan Isaby
On Wednesday, at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, two Conservative MPs made their feelings clear about the recent insistence by the European Court of Human Rights that not allowing prisoners to vote was contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights. Here's what they had to say during a debate on the implementation of judgments of the European Court of Human Rights:
Brian Binley: The Council of Europe was founded on principles of upholding democracy and civil liberties, and this Assembly was instrumental in preparing the European Convention on Human Rights, which led to the establishment of the Court. The Court has done much good work over the years and we, as one of its parents, should take pride in that. However, it has delivered a ruling of which last Thursday’s editorial in the The Times stated: “Within Britain, virtually nobody believes that prisoners should have the right to vote, aside from prisoners”. The ban on serving prisoners voting has been in place since 1870. However, in a case brought by John Hirst, a man jailed for killing his landlady with an axe, the Court ruled that the UK’s automatic restriction on the right to vote for convicted prisoners was in violation of Article 3 of Protocol 1, and therein lies the problem.
Many constitutional experts have questioned the Court’s right to make such a ruling. The former law lord, Lord Hoffmann, summed up their concerns, arguing that it was not proper for a European supranational court to intervene in matters on which member states of the Council have not surrendered their sovereign powers. Many in Britain hold that the restriction of the right to vote in the case of those who freely choose to place themselves outside the rule of law for their own personal gratification, gain or ambition is not a denial of human rights but a choice they make themselves. Others would simply argue that the issue is a constitutional one, and not a human rights issue.
This matter touches on a greater problem. Increasingly, the actions of the Court are creating resentment, not only in my country but across the continent. Polls increasingly show a level of dissatisfaction that questions not only the credibility of the Court but of the EU itself, and that needs to be recognised. A political class that ignores the concerns of the people puts itself at great risk. Perhaps this Assembly needs to get round to facing up to these issues before it is too late; perhaps it is time for the good parents to act.
Claire Perry: As a member of the cross-party Select Committee on Justice in my parliament, and as a member of parliament with a prison in my constituency, Devizes, I take a keen interest in the matter. Although I believe there is much to welcome in the report presented today, in the case of this specific judgment I believe that the Court’s judgment is wrong. It ignores the great differences between member countries in terms of definitions of crime, sentencing and prison regime. It ignores the fact that those are matters for sovereign parliaments. Crime, sentencing and punishment, including the selective removal of voting rights, are constitutional matters for sovereign parliaments and for courts to decide in our member countries. In my view, the European Court is really riding its luck by unilaterally extending its remit to areas where consent to do so has never been granted by our member parliaments.
It is that sort of judgment that creatively – some would say mischievously – extends the reach of the original protocols, while ignoring sovereign law. It is that behaviour that does so much to spoil the appetite in my country, and in other countries, for more European unity and co-operation. It is also the case that by awarding compensation of tens of thousands of euros to convicted murderers, the Court runs the risk of looking unhinged in the international media.
I finish with a quote from Winston Churchill, who in many ways was the founding father of this Assembly. He believed passionately in European co-operation, but from a starting point of sovereign independence. He said: “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak, but courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” I therefore urge the Court, this Assembly and our national governments to sit down and listen and reconsider the specific implantation plans for this judgment, as they are unworkable, unconstitutional and an unacceptable intrusion in the sovereign independence of our member states.
These view did not go down well with Christos Pourgourides, a Cypriot who chairs the Council of Europe's Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights: "On the issue of prisoners’ right to vote, I say to my Conservative colleagues from the UK that I recognise that the issue is sensitive in their country. However, I tell them, with all respect, that the rule of law was born in England and the UK’s international legal obligations require the UK to comply with the judgment with all due diligence. It is inappropriate – not to say unacceptable – for the oldest parliamentary country in Europe and a founding member of the Council of Europe to try to find excuses for not implementing a Court judgment."