Committee (and remaining stages)

Part of Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill – in the House of Lords at 2:15 am on 7th April 2010.

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Photo of Lord Ramsbotham Lord Ramsbotham Crossbench 2:15 am, 7th April 2010

I fully accept that the Bill that we are now discussing is but a shadow of the one that came before us yesterday afternoon. I am conscious of the hour and do not wish to detain your Lordships on a subject which many may deem peripheral. However, I submit that it is actually far from peripheral in the context in which we are conducting this wash-up-namely, the forthcoming general election-because it has to do with the way in which the Government have chosen to handle an issue that could endanger the whole process. Indeed, it could have been dealt with years ago. If this were a normal Committee stage, I would now set out my reasons in full, cataloguing what has happened in the nine years since the High Court rejected the case made by three serving prisoners, that all prisoners should be enfranchised in accordance with Protocol 1, Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which this Government caused to become part of the United Kingdom law in October 2001.

One of the three, John Hirst, appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, which in March 2004, unanimously ruled against the UK Government's blanket ban on sentenced prisoners voting, which had been set out in Section 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, but dated back to the Forfeiture Act 1870. The government appeal to the Grand Chamber of the European Court was dismissed in October 2005.

In logic, you would expect that a Government who pride themselves on acting within the law and who have introduced more legislation than any other in our recent history, would abide by the decision of the highest court to which it could appeal and take the necessary steps to implement what was laid down. But no, frightened of offending reactionary public opinion by appearing not to be tough on criminals-which is not the same as Mr Blair's unfulfilled pledge to be tough on crime and the causes of crime-the Government determined to prevaricate for as long as possible, going to absurd lengths, such as suggesting that prisoners had lost the moral authority to vote.

Civil and political rights determine who may vote, not moral authority and goodness knows who else the Government would have deemed to have lost the moral authority to do so, with the notable exception of Members of this House, if they decided to go down that route. The European Court was damning in its criticism of the Government's line, saying that it found no evidence to support the claim that disfranchisement deterred crime and that there was no evidence that the Government had ever sought to assess the proportionality of the ban as it affected convicted prisoners. The Grand Chamber went even further by stating that there was no place under the European convention where tolerance and broadmindedness are the acknowledged hallmarks of a democratic society for automatic disfranchisement based purely on what might offend public opinion.

The prevarications included the charade of two so-called consultations. The first, initiated in December 2006 and promising a legislative solution early in 2008, was farcical on two counts: first, it was based on the wrong question. The court having ruled that all convicted prisoners have the right to vote, the issue should have been who should not, rather than who should be allowed to do so. Secondly, there was no response until April 2009, over two years later, and a year after the promised solution. The second consultation, announced at the same time as the results of the first, was also farcical on two counts: first, it lasted for 20 weeks, ignoring the Government's published code of practice laying down a maximum of 12 weeks; and, secondly, because despite frequent questioning it was clear from the start that the Minister of Justice had no intention of doing anything before the election.

Comparisons are odious, but what makes that delay even more reprehensible is that, during that period, the Ministry of Justice was abusing the process in a completely different way, again for its own ends. On 15 March this year, the chairman of the Bar Council drew the attention of a Grand Committee of this House to the fact that the Minister of Justice, prevaricating over prisoner voting consultations, had rushed through a consultation on draft conditional fee agreements, stipulating that consultation should be limited to a mere four weeks, rejecting all pleas for extensions and publishing his response a mere two weeks later. He justified that deviation from the code of practice as being "in order to be in a position to implement the proposal as soon as possible". The Bar Council chairman commented that that wording made it sound as though there were not so much a predisposition to implement the proposal, as a predetermination. The same observation applies to the issue of prisoners voting with the addition of the word "not" before "to implement".

The Committee of Ministers at the Council of Europe has publicly expressed its condemnation of that prevarication three times in the past six months, most recently on 8 March, when it said that it was seriously concerned that a failure to implement the European Court's judgment has given rise to a significant risk that the next United Kingdom general election would be performed in a way that failed to comply with the European convention and requiring the Government to rapidly adopt measures of an interim nature to ensure the execution of the court's judgment before the forthcoming election. In other words, we are being accused of behaving like a recalcitrant third-world country, rather than the country which, until now, has had a proud record of setting examples for others to follow. Clearly, the possible threat to the general election is not regarded as requiring the same urgency as conditional fee agreements.

Much has been said today about the contempt in which the parliamentary process is being treated during this wash-up. I have sided not just with the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, but with all those who have called for time to be allowed for proper scrutiny of legislation and for Bills to deal with discrete issues, rather than the vast catch-alls that have marked criminal justice Bills in particular. I cannot imagine why the Government have not included this issue in all that legislation. Time and again, it has had to be raised whenever an opportunity arises, such as tonight. I hope that the issue will be put to bed very quickly by the next Government, because it is a disgrace that this has gone on for six years, which, as I have pointed out previously, is longer than the whole of World War II.

There is another reason why I want to put the issue on the record. The Government's prevarication amounts to nothing less than deliberate and inexcusable defiance of the rule of law as laid down by the courts. At the same time, they have gone to extreme length to punish those who do the same thing, as demonstrated by the record numbers in our prisons, the fact that we have more life-sentence prisoners than the rest of Europe added together, and that more than 3,000 new laws carrying prison sentences have been introduced.

At a time when the reputation of Parliament is at an all-time low, what respect can anyone have for a Government who so flagrantly fail to practise what they preach? What message does that attitude to the law send, not just to criminals but to young people who may be tempted to turn to crime?

Ghana was faced by exactly the same situation in November last year, when two lawyers took the Government to court for refusing to allow prisoners to vote. In sharp contrast to this country, the High Court found against the Government on 23 March-a mere four months later-contending that it found it extremely difficult to understand what constitutionally legitimate interest was served by the non-recognition of prisons as places of residence for the purpose of voter registration. The court commended the lawyers for advancing the frontiers of human rights in Ghana's justice system. I find it ironic to be proposing the amendment because of the refusal of the Secretary of State for Justice to advance the frontiers of human rights in the United Kingdom's justice system when he was the Minister responsible for the introduction of human rights into our law in the first place.

As the Minister knows, I have never called for all prisoners to be allowed to vote. Clearly, some have committed crimes that justify that right being removed, but that should be decided by the courts as part of the sentence. Had we been having a normal Committee, I would have been able to set that out in more detail but, in the mean time, I ask for the removal of a wholly unnecessary blot on our national escutcheon, which we share with very few countries in Europe, such as Albania and Bulgaria, by the omission of Section 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, thus allowing prisoners to execute their civil and political right to vote. I beg to move.