Committee (and remaining stages)

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

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 2:15 am, 7th April 2010

My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have spoken in this debate, which has been about two things: the addition to the Bill which the amendment proposes-it is not in the Bill, but is an amendment to it; and the Constitution Committee and the wash-up generally.

I heard the extensive criticisms of the Bill that were made at Second Reading and repeated again this morning, and obviously we have taken note of them. A number of items of constitutional importance have been dropped by the Government as a consequence of what has been said. Indeed, it is worth making the point that, ironically, we have been criticised for dropping some of the things that we have dropped, but lessons have no doubt been learnt. Once again, I repeat how grateful we are to noble Lords who had strong feelings about this Bill and who have taken part in discussions today so that, at the end of the day, we have a Bill to send back to the other place. I repeat again that we very much take on board what my noble friend Lord Rooker said about post-legislative scrutiny of this Bill in time to come.

Let me turn to the issue of the amendment. Everyone in the Committee is well aware of the expertise and high reputation of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, when he talks about these matters. He is attempting through the amendment to repeal Section 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, thereby removing the statutory prohibition on voting by convicted prisoners. It remains the Government's view that the right to vote goes to the essence of the offender's relationship with democratic society, and the removal of the right to vote in the case of some convicted prisoners can be a proportionate and proper response following conviction and imprisonment. Indeed, the noble Lord himself said just as he ended his address that he had never believed that all prisoners, whatever they had done, should be given the right to vote.

Our approach to implementing voting rights for prisoners aims to arrive at a solution that respects the judgment of the Court in Hirst while taking into account our own traditions. Indeed, the Committee knows that the European Court affords a wide margin of appreciation not just to the United Kingdom but to other countries when they pass their judgments. We have been consistently clear that we oppose enfranchising all prisoners irrespective of the seriousness of their crimes or the length of their sentence, which would be the actual effect of the amendment. We consider that the more serious the offence, the less an individual should have the right to retain the right to vote when sentenced to imprisonment. Tying the entitlement to vote to sentence length has the benefit of establishing a clear relationship between the seriousness of the offence or offences and the suspension of the right to vote.

Our proposed approach to the enfranchisement of prisoners is therefore based on the length of custodial sentence to which a prisoner has been sentenced. We have consulted on a range of options that would allow those receiving sentences of up to one year, two years or four years imprisonment to retain the right to vote. We are considering the responses to the consultation and will set out our next steps towards implementation once the responses have been analysed. However, even for those, this amendment would not deliver a satisfactory outcome-which is unlike the view of the noble Lord who tells us that he does not support the enfranchisement of all prisoners. While it would remove the current statutory bar by repealing Section 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, it puts nothing in its place regarding the necessary arrangements which would enable prisoners to exercise their right to register and to vote in practice.

Some people believe that once the statutory bar is removed, there would be few practical considerations of substance to be dealt with. We say that that would not be true. In contrast, I have to tell the Committee that extending the franchise to convicted prisoners to any degree would require obviously a considerable number of issues to be resolved and settled in electoral law, if nothing else, if it is to be done consistently and effectively. Let me mention just a few of those issues. Where should prisoners be entitled to be registered to vote-for example, in what constituency? How should prisoners be recorded on the register? How would prisoners cast their votes-by post, by proxy or a combination of the two? How would the security of the ballot be enforced? This amendment would provide for none of those things. It would risk creating inconsistencies in approach. Electoral administrations would not have clarity on how to implement the legislation, which could lead to anomalies in arrangements. A rushed implementation of prisoners' voting rights may also mean that it is not possible to ensure that the right systems are in place to prevent electoral fraud.

It is vital that Parliament has proper time to scrutinise, debate and amend proposals for enfranchising prisoners. [Laughter.] If noble Lords say, as they do, with some justification, that they should have had longer to review this Bill, they can hardly support this amendment. Supporting amendments to complex electoral legislation, given the lack of parliamentary time available, and seeking to implement Hirst 2 as an amendment to this Bill is not appropriate. I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.