So today Parliament voted in favour of this motion, tabled by David Davis and Jack Straw, by 234 votes to 22.
That this House notes the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights in Hirst v the United Kingdom in which it held that there had been no substantive debate by members of the legislature on the continued justification for maintaining a general restriction on the right of prisoners to vote; acknowledges the treaty obligations of the UK; is of the opinion that legislative decisions of this nature should be a matter for democratically-elected lawmakers; and supports the current situation in which no prisoner is able to vote except those imprisoned for contempt, default or on remand.
N.B. it was a backbench business motion, which is a new innovation that means backbenchers can call for a number of debates during the course of the year, rather than us just being restricted to debates on Government legislation and the occasional Opposition day debate. (Although we’ve always had some general debates, particularly on a Thursday, but those topics are chosen by the Government too).
I mention this because it means a) the vote was an expression of Parliament’s opinion, not a vote on the legislation that would be required to give prisoners the vote, b) the Government frontbenchers and the Shadow Cabinet didn’t take part, and c) it was a one line whip which meant MPs didn’t have to be here and many of them would have taken advantage of it to go back to their constituencies early. That’s why the turnout was low.
The 22 MPs who voted for prisoners to have the vote – or, more accurately, voted against a blanket ban on prisoners voting – are listed here: http://www.epolitix.com/1832-blog/blog-post/newsarticle/mps-who-voted-for-prisoner-voting/. And here’s a piece from the New Statesman which explains what the vote was about and, from a legal point of view, why Parliament is having to consider the issue.
I’m not sure when the actual legislation that is required to give effect to the ECHR judgment will be brought before Parliament, and we still don’t know quite how it will be framed. There was a suggestion that prisoners serving sentences of less than four years would be given the vote, on the basis that to make it any lower might leave the Government vulnerable to too many legal challenges and compensation claims. Others have argued for one year. Today’s vote certainly shows how difficult Cameron’s job will be. Persuading Tory MPs that prisoners should be allowed to vote was always going to be tricky, but add not just “Europe” but the much loathed “human rights” to the mix, and pow! you have an explosive cocktail.
I have to get a train, so will wrestle with my unco-operative iPad (maybe I’ve just got a duff one?) on the journey home and maybe blog on why I voted the way I did. And before anyone leaves a ‘you want murderers, rapists, paedophiles to vote’ comment, please at least take the time to read the New Statesman piece first. And read the text of the motion itself, which is what I voted against.