Magazine article The Spectator

Prisoners of Strasbourg

Magazine article The Spectator

Prisoners of Strasbourg

Article excerpt

Does it matter if prisoners are allowed to vote or not? Save for in the odd council ward in Brixton or on Dart - moor, some 84,000 prisoners - among an electorate of 46 million - are unlikely to have a material effect on the outcome of British elections. But there is a good reason why David Cameron this week did not even attempt to whip his MPs into supporting prisoners' votes: such a move would have prompted a fierce rebellion among Tory backbenchers. The issue of prisoners' votes has become a proxy for a much more significant question: are European countries governed by their own elected representatives, or by foreign judges?

When Mr Cameron said that the idea of letting prisoners vote made him 'physically sick', he implied that even the Prime Minister was powerless, because the decision was ultimately made in Strasbourg. This is a dangerous precedent and wholly incorrect. Parliament remains sovereign in Britain, and if our MPs vote that prisoners should remain disenfranchised - in a bill with the Queen's signature - then this is the final word. The idea that Parliament can be overruled by a panel of judges in the Alsace is a new and entirely unacceptable development. It must be loudly and emphatically rejected.

The only reason we have a bill going through Parliament to grant prisoners limited voting rights is that the European Court of Human Rights ruled that a blanket ban contravenes the European Convention on Human Rights. But it now seems, in the opinion of British lawyers advising parliament, including the former Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay of Clashfern, that a compromise proposed by the government - prisoners serving sentences of less than four years would be allowed to vote in Westminster and European elections only - does not go far enough. They say that prisoners denied the vote in next year's Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections could challenge the result of those polls in the European Court. …

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