Committee (11th Day) (Continued)

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Lords at 11:00 pm on 19th January 2011.

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Photo of Lord Knight of Weymouth Lord Knight of Weymouth Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 11:00 pm, 19th January 2011

My Lords, I have added my name to my noble friend Lord Corbett's amendment, even though in many ways I disagree with the stance that he takes on prisoners' voting. My instincts would be to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, when he was Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department for Constitutional Affairs as was; when he announced that the Government of the day were appealing against the European Court's ruling in 2005, he said that,

"it has been the view of successive governments, including this Government, that persons who have committed crimes serious enough to warrant a custodial sentence should forfeit the right to have a say in how the country is governed while they are detained".-[Hansard, 14/7/04; col. 1242.]

That is a sentiment that I can certainly agree with. Indeed, as the Secretary of State for Justice is currently pursuing a progressive path of trying to ensure that fewer prisoners are locked up, it follows that those who remain in prison will be there for more serious offences, and in my view that in turn somewhat lessens the argument for votes for prisoners. That does not mean that I am not in favour of rehabilitation and that I do not think that there is a good principled argument to be made, but I happen to disagree with it. However, as my noble friend said, we should not rehearse the arguments at any length tonight.

However, in the context of this Bill, the Government have to allow for prisoners when deciding the boundaries for future general elections, given that the Prime Minister has said that he reluctantly accepts that he has to bow to the European court ruling in the case of John Hirst. This amendment enables me to ask the Minister a few questions that are directly pertinent to the Bill. First, the amendment refers to prisoners who are serving a term of "4 years or less". What is the Government's view on whether all prisoners should get the vote, as my noble friend has argued? What is their view on whether it should be given to those who are serving shorter prison terms? The amendment mentions four years but it could be two years or six months. Does the Minister think that the vote should be given to those prisoners who are coming towards the end of a sentence, however long the initial sentence was, and that that would be consistent with looking to rehabilitate them back into society?

Secondly, what is the right number of years? Does the Minister have a nice round figure that he might want to share with us, given that we have talked a lot about other round figures when discussing the Bill? My third question relates to the question that my noble friend Lady Liddell asked of my noble friend Lord Corbett in relation to the location of prisons. I hope that my noble friend gave the correct answer in that respect. When I was the Member of Parliament for South Dorset, I represented two prisons for some of the time and three prisons for another part of the time because the prison ship was located in my constituency, which meant that there were up to about 1,500 prisoners in my constituency. I would not have relished canvassing them and I certainly would not have relished the casework implications of representing the inmates in the various prisons. Some of them occasionally wrote to me. Contrary to what the Minister said about MPs representing absolutely everybody in their constituency, I am afraid that I tended to try to duck the casework involved with the issues that the prisoners raised as it would have occupied all my staff's time and would have constituted a very slippery slope for me and for them. In addition, South Dorset was a very homogenous community in terms in ethnicity and religion with the exception of the prisoners. The majority of the inmates of the Portland young offender institution come from London and reflect the ethnicity and different religious make-up of London rather than that of Portland. Their inclusion would certainly change the character of the constituency significantly. Indeed, given tonight's vote, there is the question of how the Isle of Wight will be accounted for in terms of the significant number of prisoners who now live on the island, and how they will be catered for.

Thirdly, if registration is based on the home address, as has been suggested, what would the Minister do to ensure that we avoid fraud in postal voting? That may become a sensitive issue as regards prisoners having postal votes given that postal voting has raised enough difficult issues as we have extended the opportunities for people to vote by post. It would be useful if he could tell us what arrangements will be made to enable candidates to canvass prisoners. Finally, what is the timetable for changing the law in respect of prisoners getting the vote, as that is critical for the Bill?