Prisoner voting battle ‘will take a decade’

Britain will have to continue its fight with the European court of human rights for a decade if it is to protect the ban on prisoner voting, David Davis has warned parliament.

The European court of human rights has suspended the 2,534 cases against the UK government over prisoner voting until the end of September, as ministers explore legislating to escalate the issue to a battle for sovereignty between parliament and the court.

Davis told MPs and peers on the draft voting eligibility (prisoners) bill committee he believed the struggle with Strasbourg will result in a victory for Britain so long as the government allows a free vote on the legislation.

"It has to be the parliament challenging the court, not the government," he urged. "So every reasonable option should be put before the House."

Jack Straw, the former Labour home secretary whose unholy alliance with Davis was behind the 2011 Commons vote on the issue, said "no-one knew" when the ECHR was set up that "it would set itself up as a 'supreme court' in Europe.

He rejected Lord Peston's suggestion that the court's position was settled and that the government's sole goal was to come up with a "rational response to the status quo".

"I believe the response we have is entirely rational," Straw replied.

"I don't accept your premise that Strasbourg has spoken and that's the end of it. This is a quasi-judicial, quasi-political court.

"They have got to think through what happens when they come out with judgements beyond those which were consented to."

Davis said Britain is not isolated on the issue and suggested the implicit criticisms of the court contained in the recent Brighton protocol were a direct result of unrest across Europe.

"There is a receptive atmosphere there to the arguments we are making," he added.

"It won't happen quickly. This will take probably a decade, it will take a long time."

The prisoner voting struggle between Britain and the European court of human rights has already been going for eight years since the original 2005 judgement.

That found a blanket ban preventing all convicted prisoners from voting constitutes a violation of the right to free elections contained in article three of the European convention on human rights.

An appeal has been rejected and the court has now adjourned its consideration of the outstanding cases, having instructed the UK government to legislate to reform the status quo.

The government's draft bill contains three proposals – a ban from voting to those sentenced to six months' imprisonment or more and a ban from voting to those sentenced to four years' imprisonment or more, which may satisfy the court.

It also contains a continuation of the blanket ban, which Davis expects MPs to back when the issue comes to a vote – in defiance of the European court.