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Cameron defies rights court over prison votes - May-23-12
Source: The Times - Law
David Cameron today defied a human rights court ruling that Britain must give some prisoners the vote, telling MPs that it was up to Parliament to decide and not European judges.
“I have always believed that when you are sent to prison, you lose certain rights and one of those rights is the right to vote,” the Prime Minister told the Commons at question time.
“Crucially I believe this should be a matter for Parliament to decide and not a foreign court. Parliament has made its decision and I completely agree with it.”
Yesterday the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) gave the UK Government six months to change the law on prisoners’ voting rights, or face thousands of court cases and spiralling legal costs.
The court acknowledged that it was up to national authorities to decide exactly who can vote from jail, but insisted that denying the right to all inmates indiscriminately was contrary to rights law.
The Strasbourg court ruled in a separate case that depriving an Italian convicted murderer of voting rights did not breach his human rights.
The judges emphasised that this was because in Italy, unlike the UK, there is no “general, automatic, indiscriminate” ban in place. In Italy, only prisoners guilty of certain types of offences, and serving at least three years in jail, lose the right to vote. They regain voting rights three years after the sentence has been completed.
The judges said that if the UK complies with the order to grant some prisoners voting rights within six months, the court will strike out all similar pending cases from UK prisoners - about 2,500 – lifting the threat of massive potential Government damages payments to prison inmates.
They warned the Government against any attempt to do as little as possible in implementing the ruling by saying that the trend was towards fewer restrictions on convicted prisoners’ voting rights. Judges could be given the discretion to decide which offenders are allowed to vote, the ruling added.
The decision upheld an earlier ruling that the current UK blanket ban on prisoners being allowed to vote is a breach of human rights.
Ministers had been expected to try to find a compromise that will prove acceptable to the court as well as Conservative backbench MPs who are furious at what they claim is interference in UK law by European human rights judges. Mr Cameron’s comments today suggest that instead the government appears to intend to remain defiant, whatever the cost.
Nigel Dods MP, the leader of the DUP, asked the Prime Minister: “Will you give an undertaking that you will not succumb to the diktat from the European Court of Human Rights in relation to prisoners’ voting?
“Will you stand up for the resolution that was passed in this House by an overwhelming majority and that you will stand up for the sovereignty of this House and the British people?”
Mr Cameron replied: “Well, the short answer to that is yes.”
Earlier today, shadow chancellor Ed Balls said he would support the Government’s opposition to the ruling. He said: “I am all in favour of prisoners having the right kind of support and being rehabilitated but voting is one of the things I think you give up if you go to prison. So we all agree that this is the wrong thing.”
In 2004 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the blanket ban in the UK was unlawful in a case brought by John Hirst, who killed his landlady with an axe. The then Labour government lost a series of appeals and legal challenges against the judgment.
In 2010, David Cameron said the thought of granting inmates the right to take part in elections made him “sick in the stomach”. MPs backed a motion opposing the European ruling by 234 to 22 in February last year.
Last night Conservative MPs warned that the decision had set the scene for a constitutional clash with the European Court of Human Rights.
David Davis, a former Tory shadow home secretary, said: “This regrettable decision is an infringement of the UK Parliament’s right to decide on matters which are fundamental to the British way of life, and which are not appropriate to judicial intervention.”
Dominic Raab, Conservative MP for Esher & Walton, said Parliament had already overwhelmingly rejected votes for prisoners. “Strasbourg is setting the scene for a major constitutional clash over who writes the laws of the land,” he said.
Penal reform groups, however, demanded that the Government act following years of delay. Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “People are sent to prison to lose their liberty, not their identity.”
Angela Patrick, director of human rights policy at the Justice campaign group, said: “We should welcome any prisoner who wants to participate in the democratic process. The time has come for Parliament to act.”
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