MPs to go toe to toe with Europe over votes for prisoners

UK government is at odds with EU over prisoner vote. Picture: PA
UK government is at odds with EU over prisoner vote. Picture: PA
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The UK government is preparing to offer parliament a fresh say on whether prisoners should continue to be banned from voting.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling is to publish draft legislation on Thursday setting out three options, including a retention of the outright ban ruled illegal by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in 2005.

That is a day before the deadline to comply with the ruling set by officials at the ECHR in Strasbourg, which has the power to issue fines for any breach.

Last February, the Commons called by a margin of 234 to 22 for the blanket ban to be maintained, and David Cameron has flatly ruled out defying parliamentary opinion.

The Prime Minister told MPs last month that he was happy to introduce legislation to “help put the legal position beyond doubt”.

“But no-one should be in any doubt: prisoners are not getting the vote under this government,” he vowed.

Mr Grayling insists parliament can reject the ECHR’s ruling – despite concerns raised by Attorney General Dominic Grieve that Britain is under an international legal obligation.However, he said there would be “consequences” for the UK.

The draft legislation – which will not be voted on this week – is expected to offer three options: votes for prisoners who have been imprisoned for up to four years, for up to six months or the status quo.

The ECHR says individual countries can decide which prisoners should be denied the right to vote from jail, but cannot impose a blanket exclusion.

Tory MP Peter Bone welcomed what he said was “the government for the first time… saying parliament’s decisions will overrule the European Court”.

He added: “The British people want parliament to be supreme, ignore this Mickey Mouse European court.”

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said a vote on legislation would strengthen the UK’s argument that it should retain its ban – which is backed by Labour.

“You have to keep going back to the European court on this because I think the job of the
European court is to look at what is proportionate, what is responsible,” she said.

“We haven’t passed laws on this before, even though we have passed motions, and I think when we do so, the European court should look at it again.”

British courts operated on the basis of assessing whether parliament was acting in a “responsible and proportionate” way, she said. “The European court should take the same thing into account.”

However, Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn said ignoring a ruling of the court would leave Britain 
unable to criticise countries which flout the rules and summarily lock up citizens.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “People are sent to prison to lose their liberty, not their identity. A 19th-century penalty of civic death makes no sense in a 21st-century prison system whose focus is on rehabilitation, resettlement and the prevention of re-offending.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “The government is considering how best to proceed following the judgment of the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights.

“An announcement will be made to parliament shortly.”