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.