Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill - Joint Committee on the Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill Contents

1  Introduction

1. On 22 November 2012 the Lord Chancellor, the Rt Hon Chris Grayling MP, in a statement to the House of Commons,[1] announced the publication of the Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill.[2]

2. The draft Bill sets out three legislative options in respect of prisoner voting. Option 1 would allow all convicted prisoners serving sentences of less than four years to vote in parliamentary and other elections; Option 2 would allow all convicted prisoners serving sentences of six months or less to vote; Option 3 would re-state the existing prohibition on all convicted prisoners voting, which is contained in section 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1983.

3. The Government brought forward the draft Bill as a result of the decision of the European Court of Human Rights (the "ECtHR"), in the 2004 case of Hirst v United Kingdom (No. 2).[3] In that case the Court found that the UK's longstanding prohibition on convicted prisoners voting was incompatible with Article 3 of the First Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights ("the Convention)), which requires signatory states to "hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature." Under Article 46(1) of the Convention signatory states are also required to implement judgments of the ECtHR in any case to which they are a party.

4. Following the Hirst judgment the previous Government conducted two public consultations on prisoner voting; the present Government also sought to persuade the ECtHR to reverse its decision by intervening in a similar case involving Italy. The consultations were inconclusive, and the attempt to persuade the ECtHR to reverse its decision proved fruitless. On 22 May 2012 the ECtHR accordingly gave the United Kingdom until 23 November 2012 to bring forward legislative proposals to implement the Hirst judgment. The draft Bill was published on that day.

5. The House of Commons had in the meantime, on 10 February 2011, voted overwhelmingly in favour of a motion stating the House's support for continuance of the prohibition on prisoner voting, and affirming that "legislative decisions of this nature should be a matter for democratically-elected lawmakers."[4] The inclusion of Option 3 in the Draft Bill is in part an acknowledgement of the clearly expressed views of the elected House.

6. At the same time as announcing publication of the draft Bill the Lord Chancellor announced that a Joint Committee of both Houses would be appointed to conduct pre-legislative scrutiny. But he made it clear that, unlike most committees conducting pre-legislative scrutiny, this Joint Committee would have an open-ended remit:

    "The draft Bill sets out three different potential approaches for the Committee to consider … However, it will of course be for the Committee, once established, to consider whether approaches beyond those canvassed in the draft Bill should also be considered by Parliament in due course."[5]

7. Many of our witnesses suggested that the issue of prisoner voting is not, in itself, of utmost significance. But, as this brief summary of the background to our inquiry shows, the ramifications extend far wider than the question of whether a few thousand prisoners should be entitled to vote in general, local or European Parliamentary elections. We have accordingly produced a wide-ranging report, which in places steps back from the specifics of the draft Bill and explores fundamental issues around the nature of rights in the United Kingdom and our place in the international community.

8. Ultimately, UK law can only be changed by an Act of Parliament, and any Bill brought forward either by the present or a future Government will be fully debated. We hope that our Report will inform these debates, and that it will clarify the issues on which Parliament as a whole will, in the end, decide.

1   HC Deb., 22 November 2012, cols 745-762 Back

2   Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Draft Bill, (November 2012), Cm 8499; hereafter referred to as the "draft Bill". Back

3   Hirst v United Kingdom (No. 2) (2005), ECHR 681, hereafter referred to as Hirst Back

4   HC Deb., 10 February 2011, cols 493-586 Back

5   HC Deb., 22 November 2012, col. 746 Back

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Prepared 18 December 2013