Yesterday during Justice Questions, my colleague James Gray (North Wiltshire) asked a vital question regarding votes for prisoners, which resonates through notions of national sovereignty, natural rights versus conferred rights, and the principle of incarceration.
What was of particular concern was the Justice Secretary’s response:
Prisoners given the right to vote under the Government’s proposals will vote by post or proxy in the constituency of their normal residence. That is the basis on which prisoners on remand and prisoners convicted but unsentenced already vote under existing long-established procedures.
Mr. Gray’s supplementary was equally compelling:
If, as the Government propose, prisoners serving less than four years are given the vote, the vote will be given to 6,000 violent offenders, 2,000 sex offenders, 6,500 robbers and burglars, and 4,500 drug offenders, which any sensible person, including the Prime Minister, I think, would find wholly offensive and unacceptable. Does the Secretary of State agree that it should not be the European convention on human rights that decides matters but Parliament, and will he listen not to the lawyers but to other European countries such as Belgium, where the vote is given to prisoners serving up to four months? Let us make it four months-even better, four days; even better than that, four minutes.
Mr. Clarke explained that due to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and our continued binding commitment to it means that prisoners can bring legal proceedings against the Government for denying them the franchise while incarcerated:
I urge Members on both sides of the House not to go too far beyond expressing understandable annoyance, and not to begin to commit themselves to a course that would cost the taxpayer tens of millions of pounds, to no particular effect…
We are under legal obligations which no one is suggesting we should repudiate…If my hon. Friend wishes really to enrage his constituents and mine; he runs the risk of taking a decision that will result in thousands of prisoners being given compensation for their lost rights and in tens of millions of pounds of expenditure incurred by the taxpayer.
This is a major cause for concern. The arguments that underpin this debate are fundamentally philosophical, not just legal. As a sovereign nation, Britain should maintain the right to be the arbiter of its own legal system, any force which undermines this should be challenged. That is why I support David Cameron’s ideas on creating a British Bill of Rights. Allowing prisoners the vote is a dangerous precedent to set and one which shouldn’t be argued from the standpoint of liberty.
The debate demands much more time in the House and I shall be following the proceedings carefully in the coming weeks.