I took part in a panel discussion last night at a conference in London on ‘Challenges to Implementing the Judgments of the European Court of Human Rights: Dialogues on Prisoner Voting Rights’. The panel comprised Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, former President of the Supreme Court, Baroness Hamwee, and me. Lord Phillips and I served on the Joint Committee on the Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill and Baroness Hamwee serves on the Joint Committee on Human Rights.
The panel addressed Parliament’s role in responding to the Strasbourg judgments on prisoner voting. I opened by pointing out that Parliament as such had not expressed a view. The House of Commons has debated the issue of prisoner voting rights – and voted by a large majority against enfranchising any prisoners – but the House of Lords has not expressed a view, although the recent report of the EU Committee did contrast the position of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) judgment with a recent judgment of the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) that may lead to the UK having to enfranchise some prisoners in elections to the European Parliament.
The only action taken so far by Parliament has been the appointment of the Joint Committee on the Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill. The report of the Joint Committee was published in December 2013 and still has not received a substantive response from the Government. It constitutes in my view the most useful summary of the history of the voting rights of prisoners as well as examining the issues of principle involved in responding the judgment of the ECHR in the Hirst case. Some MPs, as was shown in the debate in the Commons in 2011, appear to think a blanket ban on prisoner voting is longstanding. I quoted one who said it went back centuries. It actually dates from 1969. Between 1967 and 1969 there was no ban and prior to 1967 prisoners serving twelve or fewer months were entitled to vote and some did so.
The Joint Committee offered a reasoned report recommending that we revert to the position that existed at the time we signed the ECHR, namely that those serving twelve months or fewer be entitled to vote. However, as we discussed in the panel, the practical political obstacles in achieving that are substantial. Successive governments have been keen to lob it into the long grass, MPs have opposed it, and the issue – which at the time of the earlier changes of the law was not notably contentious – is now politically toxic. It creates a serious situation in terms of the UK’s standing in maintaining the rule of law. The impasse may in due course be resolved not through the ECHR route but as a result of the CJEU ruling, subject of course to what happens on 23 June…