The Parliamentary Joint Committee on the Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill today published its report – you can read it in full here (PDF/HTML/conclusions). I gave evidence to the committee a few weeks ago – you can watch again here.
The report strongly recommends enacting legislation so that ” all prisoners serving sentences of 12 months or less should be entitled to vote in all UK parliamentary, local and European elections”. The recommendation could not be more emphatic, with the committee concluding, amongst other things:
This morning Joshua Rozenberg and I gave evidence the Joint Select Committee on the Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill. You can watch our evidence session here – we are on from 10:34:30.
It was an interesting experience. There is clearly a range of views on the committee, to say the least. It will be fascinating to see what happens next – it is already almost a year since the draft bill was published and, as Joshua Rozenberg said, it seems quite possible that this issue will not be resolved one way or the other before the 2015 General Election, which is only 18 months away.
At first glance, prisoner voting proponents may interpret the Supreme Court’s R (Chester) v Justice Secretary decision (see Adam Wagner’s previous post) as a defeat for advancing prisoner voting rights in the UK. This blog post offers a different perspective. By comparing Chester to the seminal US Supreme Court case of Marbury v. Madison, we summarise that such proponents should take a step back and see the wood, rather than merely the trees. This is because Lord Mance’s Chester judgment offers human rights advocates, and therefore supporters of prisoner voting rights, an unequivocal foundation from which to defend future human rights claims.
Chester does not achieve the same ends as Marbury. Marbury established the institution of judicial review in the United States, against Congressional legislation. Chester does not disturb the supremacy of the UK Parliament. Comparison arises within the strategies of the leading judgments in each case. Chief Justice Marshall’s judgment in Marbury is celebrated not only for its conclusion, that the Constitution of the United States is the highest form of law and therefore “it is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is”, but also for how it reached that conclusion.
R (on the application of Chester) (Appellant) v Secretary of State for Justice (Respondent), McGeoch (AP) (Appellant) v The Lord President of the Council and another (Respondents) (Scotland)  UKSC 63 – read judgment / press summary
The Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling recently told The Spectator that he wants “to see our Supreme Court being supreme again“. In light of his respect for the court, he should read today’s judgment on prisoner votes very carefully indeed, as should David Cameron who has already endorsed the decision as a “great victory for common sense”.
The Supreme Court dismissed two claims by prisoners who argued their European Convention (Chester) and European Union (McGeogh) rights were being breached because they weren’t allowed to vote in various elections. I won’t summarise the detail of their arguments, which can be found in our previous posts on the Court of Appeal and Scottish Outer House Court of Session decisions.
We will aim to cover the substance of the decisions in due course. But what I find really interesting was the Justices’ views on the European Court’s various decisions on prisoner votes, which the Government argued were poorly reasoned.
Today, the Scottish Government have introduced the “paving Bill” to Holyrood which will finally settle the franchise for the independence referendum in 2014. If passed, it will finally extinguish the hopes of expats, diaspora Scots and those living furth of Scotland who wanted to vote in the poll.
Much of the attention has zoomed in on the enfranchisement of 16 and 17 year olds, which ministers hope to affect by establishing a Register of Young Voters alongside the local government register. It is envisaged that this young voters roll will not be published.
Update | The Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Draft Bill has been released. It will not be put straight before Parliament for a vote; rather, it will be put to a Committee of both Houses for full Parliamentary scrutiny which could propose amendments, then back to the Government which will “reflect on its recommendations” and subsequently introduce a bill. There is no timetable set out for this process, but I imagine the Council of Europe may want a timetable imposed.
The bill sets out three options:
- A ban for prisoners sentenced to 4 years or more.
- A ban for prisoners sentenced to more than 6 months.
- A ban for all convicted prisoners – a restatement of the existing ban.
One interesting point on a quick read through is that option three “would re-enact the current general ban on prisoner voting, with some minor changes.” The language is indeed different to that used to enact the current ban, which is contained in section 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1983.
It is being reported that Parliament will, after all, get the opportunity to decide whether the blanket ban on convicted prisoners being able to vote will be lifted. MPs could get three options to choose from, including removing the ban for prisoners serving six months or less and those serving four years or less. A third option will be to maintain the status quo, with no convicted prisoners being able to vote.
The crucial question is: will this be enough to satisfy the Council of Europe, which monitors compliance with judgments of the European Court of Human Rights? The Government appears to think so. For my part, I am not so sure. To explain why, it is important to get a few of the facts right first.
In a couple of weeks’ time, the government’s relationship with the Council of Europe will reach something of a turning point.
If the UK is going to comply with its international treaty obligations, ministers will have to “bring forward legislative proposals” by 22 November that will end what the European court of human rights calls the “general, automatic and indiscriminate disenfranchisement of all serving prisoners”.
That’s all the government has to do. There’s no need to give all or even most prisoners the vote. Parliament doesn’t even have to approve the proposals, although its failure to do so would lead to further challenges in due course.
But the prime minister painted himself into a corner last month. It’s true he offered to have “another vote in parliament on another resolution”. But a resolution is not the same as a bill. And David Cameron said, in terms: “Prisoners are not getting the vote under this government.”
No means no
The Government has until 22 November to put forth legislative proposals in order to comply with the court’s rulings on prisoner votes.
I will not retrace the bizarre flip-flop which took place yesterday afternoon as the Attorney General appeared to say one thing about implementing the judgment (it’s complicated) and then the Prime Minister another (no way). Joshua Rozenberg has it right when he calls the situation “profoundly depressing”. For the full background, see my post on Scoppola No. 3, the last judgment on the issue.
I do have three thoughts on the current situation. First, it has become popular to say that there may be a way of solving the crisis which doesn’t require the UK to give any more prisoners the vote, which would be to tell the European Court of Human Rights that we already let remand prisoners and others who haven’t paid fines vote. The argument has been made variously by the BBC’s Nick Robinson, The Independent’s John Rentoul and even last night by a member of the Justice Select Committee, Nick de Bois MP – he told BBC Radio 4 (from 26:25) that “you could almost argue that there isn’t a blanket ban… for example someone on prison on remand or.. for not paying a fine doesn’t lose their right to vote” (I am interviewed immediately afterwards).
In short, unless I am missing something, this argument seems bound to fail. Continue reading
The Ministry of Justice has published its annual report to the Joint Committee on Human Rights on the Government response to human rights judgments 2011–12. By signing up to the European Convention on Human Rights, the UK has committed to “abide by” judgments of the court. This commitment is monitored by the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers.
The report presents a snapshot of the current state of play in relation to the European Court of Human Rights, makes for very interesting reading (trust me!). Here are some tidbits:
- There were 28 judgments involving the UK from 1 August 2011 to 31 July 2012, nine of which the UK lost (UK loses 3 out of 4 cases, anyone?). See the handy table at pages 12-13.
- The UK currently has 24 cases before the Committee of Ministers, which means that they have not been implemented.
- The UK paid out €454,457 [this originally and wrongly said £] in damages for human rights violations (known as ‘just satisfaction’) in 2011, compared to €371,160 in 2010 (p.58). Fear of this figure ending up in the Daily Mail may be the reason that it is on the last page.
The Deputy Prime Minister has said that he cannot declare the Coalition Government’s House of Lords Reform Bill as compatible with the Human Rights Act, as prisoners will be banned from voting for Lords if the bill becomes law.
Under section 19 of the Human Rights Act 1998, a Minister of Crown in charge of a Bill must make a statement to Parliament on whether the Bill is compatible with European Convention on Human Rights. The Explanatory Notes to the new Bill reveal that no such statement of compatibility can be made in this case:
278… the Deputy Prime Minister has said that he is unable to sign a statement under section 19(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act 1998. The Government wishes Parliament to proceed with the Bill notwithstanding that such a statement of compatibility cannot be made.
The reason that the Bill will not be compatible with the ECHR is that perennial headache for this (and indeed the last) Government, prisoner votes. As the explanatory notes explain:
Last Tuesday saw the latest episode in the prisoner voting legal saga with the European Court of Human Rights’ Grand Chamber’s judgment reversing the Chamber judgment which found Italy’s automatic ban on voting for prisoners serving over 3 years in prison (and a lifetime ban with the possibility of future relief for those sentenced to more than 5 years) in breach of Article 3 of Protocol 1 to the European Convention on Human Rights.
Adam Wagner has compared the prisoner voting issue to a ping-pong ball in a wind tunnel, noting that ‘the ball is now back on the UK’s side of the table’. Indeed, the UK must still allow at least some prisoners the vote, as required by the 2005 judgment in Hirst v UK (No.2) and the 2010 judgment in Greens & MT v UK. Over at EJIL: Talk!, Marko Milanovic rightly accounts for the unholy mix of law and (inter)national politics that has generated the Grand Chamber’s unprincipled judgment. Indeed, as Carl Gardner suggests on the Head of Legal blog all that logically remains of the Hirst judgment is that automatic disenfranchisement of prisoners that are sentenced for less than 3 years (probably) breaches the convention.
CASE OF SCOPPOLA v. ITALY (No. 3)(Application no. 126/05) – Read judgment / press release / press release on UK implications
The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that states must allow for at least some prisoners to vote, but that states have a wide discretion as to deciding which prisoners. This amounts to a retreat on prisoner votes, but certainly no surrender. As I predicted, the court reaffirmed the principles set out in Hirst No. 2, that an automatic and indiscriminate bans breach the European Convention on Human Rights, but also reaffirmed that it was up to states to decide how to remove those indiscriminate bans.
I have compared the prisoner voting issue to a ping-pong ball in a wind tunnel. Today’s ruling means that the ball is now back on the UK’s side of the table.
Although Scoppola is a case which arose in Italy, the decision is of critical important to the UK for two reasons. First, the Court has made clear to the UK Government that it now has six months from today to bring forth legislative proposals which will end the blanket disenfranchisement of prisoners – see the Court’s helpful press release which explains the effect on the UK. Secondly, the Grand Chamber has now clarified the basic outline of how it expects states to comply with the original prisoner votes ruling, also of the Grand Chamber, in Hirst No. 2. For the full background, see my post from last week or Joshua Rozenberg’s excellent article on Guardian.co.uk.
The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights is to deliver its latest, hotly anticipated, decision on prisoner votes next Tuesday 22 May. The case is Scoppola v. Italy (n° 3). The Court’s press release is here.
The UK intervened in the case, with the Attorney General Dominic Grieve QC himself travelling to Strasbourg to explain the UK’s views (including, classily, some submissions in French). As a result, the UK was granted an extension of time to comply with the decision in the original prisoner votes case, Hirst No. 2 and the more recent Greens and MT. The UK will therefore have 6 months from 22 May 2012 to introduce a Bill to Parliament (see this correspondence between the UK and the Court) to make the UK voting system compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights. Which is to say, it will have until 22 November 2012. Or is it 23 November?
In his speech earlier this week the Attorney General announced that he would appear in person before the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in two weeks’ time, when it hears Scoppola v Italy No2, a case concerning prisoner voting. The United Kingdom is due to intervene in this case, for reasons that readers of this blog will be fully aware of.
I agree with Adam Wagner’s comments that the Attorney General’s speech should (if I may respectfully say so) be applauded for the mature and positive way it addressed some very important issues regarding the future protection of human rights at both the domestic and European level. Here I would like to focus in particular upon what Dominic Grieve said about prisoner voting, and his forthcoming appearance at Strasbourg. On page 9 of his speech he stated: