MPs defy court over prisoner voting

Do prisoners deserve the vote? MPs don't think so
Do prisoners deserve the vote? MPs don't think so

By Alex Stevenson

MPs have decisively made clear their opposition to giving prisoners the vote, backing a Commons motion by 234 votes to just 22.

The dramatically one-sided division could help fuel ministerial resistance to a European court of human rights (ECHR) ruling that Britain must give those in prison the right to cast their vote in elections.

But the government is likely to ignore MPs' views in the short-term at least - because if London decides to defy the court it will face compensation payments worth hundreds of millions of pounds.


Tory MP David Davis, who has spearheaded opposition to the plans with Labour MP Jack Straw, opened the debate by insisting that "the historical task of this parliament is to correct bad law, no matter where it comes from".

He told MPs: "When someone commits a crime that is sufficiently serious to put them in prison, they sacrifice many important rights: not only their liberty, of course, but their freedom of association, which is also guaranteed under the UN charter of human rights and the European convention on human rights, and their right to vote.

"The concept is simple and straightforward: 'If you break the law, you cannot make the law.'"

Most of the participants in the Commons debate backed his view, but Tom Brake, the Lib Dems' backbench spokesperson on home affairs, was among those who spoke in favour of allowing more prisoners being right to vote.

"Once we start picking and choosing the laws should apply, and those we believe we can disregard, where does it end?" he asked.

"The Americans know - in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib."

Dominic Grieve, the attorney general, warned there would be "costs and consequences" of ignoring the European judgement.

"One of the problems in the judgement was the ECHR felt we hadn't debated it sufficiently," one Tory MP, Harriett Baldwin, told politics.co.uk.

Britain's legislation on the issue dates back to the late 19th century.

She added: "I think it's very sensible that we're sending a clear message that when you go to prison you lose your voting rights."

Prime minister David Cameron has said he feels "sick" at the prospect of giving prisoners the vote.

But justice secretary Kenneth Clarke acknowledged earlier this week that Britain will have to concede the point to Europe, but is thought to be deeply uncomfortable about the move.

"We are going to do the minimum necessary to comply with the ruling. Some of them are going to get the vote, but probably as few as we can," he said earlier this week.

Murderers and rapists are expected to top the list of prison inmates who will not be enfranchised.

The Commons' decision is a free vote, meaning MPs will not be instructed which division lobby to enter by party whips.

One MP, Conservative Nick Boles, said he had shifted his stance during the course of the afternoon.

"I find my views have shifted on this debate," he told the Commons.

"I am still of the view that all people convicted to a prison sentence should lose their right to vote. But... maybe in the last six months of a sentence, before release, as part of the rehabilitative process, a parole board might give them back that right if they were showing good signs of becoming good citizens."

Government ministers and members of the shadow Cabinet are abstaining in the vote.

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