A bar on sentenced, serving prisoners voting was first put in place in 1870. Successive Governments have maintained the position that, when an individual breaks their contract with society by committing an offence that leads to imprisonment, they should lose the right to vote while they are incarcerated.
Five years ago, in a case known as Hirst (No.2), the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the existing statutory bar on convicted prisoners voting was contrary to article 3, protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights-the right to free and fair elections.
The Court ruled that barring convicted prisoners in detention pursued a legitimate aim, but that a blanket ban was not proportionate. In its judgment, the Court acknowledged that the right to vote under the first protocol was not absolute, and that contracting states to the European Convention had to be given a margin of appreciation-a broad discretion-to decide what limitations on that right would be proportionate.
That judgment was handed down in October 2005. The last Government stated clearly and repeatedly that they would implement the judgment, published a timetable for legislation, and issued two consultation papers about how to do so. But they did nothing. The result is that the United Kingdom stands in breach of international law obligations-obligations that we expect others to uphold-and prisoners are bringing compensation claims as a direct result of the last Government's inaction.
In November 2010, the European Court of Human Rights handed down a further judgment against the UK, Greens and MT. In that judgment, the Court set a deadline for the introduction of legislation of August 2011. There are in the region of 2,500 claims before the European Court of Human Rights which have been suspended pending implementation. We have been given a window to act and it is right that we do so. If we do not, we only increase the risk of damages.
It is plain that there are strong views across Parliament and in the country on the question of whether convicted prisoners should be entitled to vote. However, this is not a choice: it is a legal obligation. So the Government are announcing today that we will act to implement the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights. In deciding how to proceed, we have been guided by three principles. First, that we should implement the Hirst judgment in a way that meets our legal obligations, but does not go further than that. Secondly, that the most serious offenders will not be given the right to vote. Thirdly, that we should seek to prevent the taxpayer having to face future claims for compensation.
The Government will therefore bring forward legislation providing that the blanket ban in the existing law will be replaced. Offenders sentenced to a custodial sentence of four years or more will lose the right to vote in all circumstances, which reflects the Government's clear view that more serious offenders should not retain the right to vote. Offenders sentenced to a custodial sentence of less than four years will retain the right to vote, but legislation will provide that the sentencing judge will be able to remove that right if they consider that appropriate. Four years has in the past been regarded as the distinction between short and long-term prisoners, and the Government consider that permitting prisoners sentenced to less than four years' imprisonment to vote is sufficient to comply with the judgment.
The right to vote will be restricted to UK Westminster Parliamentary and European Parliament elections only, and not in other elections or referendums. That is the minimum currently required by the law (a case considering whether article 3, protocol 1 applies to elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly is currently before the European Court of Human Rights: the Government's position is that they do not). Prisoners will vote by post or proxy, and will be entitled to register to vote not at the prison, but at their former address or the area where they have a local connection.
We believe that these proposals can meet the objectives that we have set out of implementing the judgment in a way that is proportionate; ensuring the most serious offenders will not be given the right to vote; and seeking to prevent future claims for compensation. We will bring forward legislation next year for Parliament to debate.
While the franchise is reserved to Westminster, the implementation of this policy will clearly have implications for Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the administration of justice is devolved. The Government will work closely with colleagues in the Scottish and Northern Ireland Administrations before legislation is introduced on the practical implications of the approach.
Governments have an absolute duty to uphold the rule of law. And at this of all times we must avoid risking taxpayers' money in ways that the public would rightly condemn. In the light of this, and of the legacy left by the last Government, the only responsible course is to implement the judgment, and to do so in a way which ensures the most serious offenders continue to lose the right to vote.