Votes for prisoners and Parliamentary sovereignty


               I do not have strong views on votes for prisoners. I have received practically no comments on the subject from  my constituents. I do want more civil liberties restored, but votes for prisoners was not on my list.

              I do have very strong views on the need for Parliament to re establish its sovereignty. The government’s EU  Bill to reassert Parliament’s ultimate right to decide on behalf of the British people will only have meaning if Parliament does assert its rights in defined cases where others seek to limit its jurisdiction or constrain its decisions. I have been waiting for a long time for there to be a Parliamentary majority to assert a different view from that of an unelected international institution, as these international agreements and institutions increasingly govern us.

                Ideally the first reassertion of sovereignty would have come in a dispute with the EU. Instead, today, it comes in  the form of a likely conflict between the majority view of Parliament, and the view of the European Court of Human Rights, a body established under a non EU Treaty. I have to make decisions based on  the world as it turns out, not as I would like it to be. I will therefore vote against the decision of the ECHR.  

                Cabinet Ministers and Shadow Cabinet Ministers will abstain. They believe the UK has to meet its legal obligations under the Treaty, as interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights. Parliament is likely to say it wishes to interpret the human rights UK citizens should enjoy, and to do so in a different way from  the Court. If the ECHR does not like our decision, so be it. If Parliament cannot decide these matters for itself, then it is no longer sovereign.

               I have also supported an amendment to the motion which makes clear that UK courts should not award compensation to prisoners for their loss of voting rights. I hope this amendment is called, and recommend to colleagues they should vote for that as well as the main motion.


  1. Ken Adams
    February 10, 2011

    As this vote is not binding on the government and Ken Clarke is reported to have said it will be ignored, I cannot see that Parliament can be considered sovereign.

    Reply: The government will need to command a majority to give votes to prisoners, so a big majority against is of more than academic interest. Let’s see what happens next.

    1. Ken Adams
      February 10, 2011

      Thanks Mr Redwood, obviously Mr Clarke is wrong to then to suggest this is not a binding vote.

  2. Eric Arthur Blair
    February 10, 2011

    100% agree and support this post John, first word to last.

    And may every Member of Parliament be aware that British people will be watching Hansard for the record of who passes through which lobby, and we will be posting and circulating that list far and wide throughout the internet tomorrow.

    Those who do not stand up for the sovereignty of our Parliament will be seen as traitors in the eyes of a great many people. A great many.

  3. lifelogic
    February 10, 2011

    They clearly should receive no compensation as the right to vote has virtually no actual real effects and has virtually no value. Should any claim arise then perhaps the state could pay in £10 to the court (as that clearly exceeds that value of the vote lost). Clearly no legal costs or legal aid should then apply.

    What is needed from everywhere from a legal systems is a clear set of rules so people know what the law actually is. This is the opposite of what benefits lawyers which is a system made of jelly with endless ambiguity and several court levels.

    A system of endless levels of courts all with different competing agendas and very expensive and slow access benefits only lawyers – as is doubtless intended by those organising it.

    I do no care much if prisoners vote or not though I can see some benefits in them doing so. Clearly it should however be decided in the UK quickly and without any ambiguity for lawyers to exploit.

    1. lifelogic
      February 10, 2011

      Of topic but £3000 for an 8 week term at Cambridge to read say English must be one of the few good profitable businesses left in the UK. How can it cost more than perhaps £1000 to organise a few lectures, a reading list, and a tutorial or two for 40 days.

      So over three year a profit from the Cambridge “Brand” of perhaps £18,000. This money lent to students by the state just to pay to Cambridge in fees and brand surcharge. What will they be doing with this circa £18,000 “brand” profit I wonder.

      Perhaps the state should just lend students the actual genuine costs of an English or similar course only and let people pay for the brand with their own money if they wish? Or they could just study their hobbies in their spare time, perhaps with the OU or similar.

      1. lifelogic
        February 10, 2011

        Lord Oakeshott on radio 4 this morning does at least seem to understand that the banks are pulling back funds back off perfectly sound businesses and not lending anew. Thus preventing businesses from growing to take up the slack in the economy at huge cost to the UK.

        Also he understands that this so called lending agreement with the banks is virtually worthless.

        I never though I would agree with someone from the perversely named “Liberal Democrat” party on anything very much.

        1. Stuart Fairney
          February 11, 2011

          I get very nervous when politicians start demanding banks lend money and directing where it should go. This thinking leads to Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the community reinvestment act which are now recognised as prime movers in the subprime debacle in the US.

          Perhaps a better approach would be for the government to stop crowding out small lenders with their insane budgetary deficits. Honestly, if you were a UK bank, would you prefer to lend to a small business or a government with legal powers to seize assets by force from people to pay its debts and the ability to counterfeit at will?

          As usual I fancy it would be better for the government to get out of the way altogether (and I say this as a small business owner who has struggled to get funds recently).

          1. lifelogic
            February 11, 2011

            I agree but what is needed is plenty of new competition and a regulatory regime which does not discourage such lending as the current rules clearly do.

  4. Brian Curnow
    February 10, 2011

    Posted on Twitter

  5. Peter van Leeuwen
    February 10, 2011

    IMHO, the UK parliament sovereignty is not in question.
    It was equally sovereign when it passed the European Communities Act 1972, as it was sovereign when it ratified the Lisbon Treaty. No “foreign courts” interfered, no foreign military pressure exerted. But agreements, treaties and acts stand until repealed.

    In the next World Cup, the homegrown FA (Football Association) might of course claim supremacy over the “foreign” FIFA in interpreting fouls, incidents and rules in general, but it may have to break FIFA agreements and leave the World Cup to exercise this “sovereignty”.

    The real problem (IMHO again) is that your parliament while sovereign, is not a very good representation of the will of the British people, due to your electoral system.

    1. waramess
      February 10, 2011

      I can see why politicians might wish to see Parliament re-establish it’s sovereignity but like you I fail to see why the rest of us should care a damn which of them prevails under the present system.

      Giving prisoners a vote may just puff up the figures a little and give the politicians the illusion that they have a slightly more legitimate basis for governing

    2. grahams
      February 10, 2011

      Your analogy is interesting. FIFA (and UEFA) are, like the EU, necessary to regulate international rules and relations which you have to accept if you want international competition. Unfortunately, FIFA also imposes its rules on each nation’s internal game, with malign results ( such as not being able to experiment in goal-line technology). There is a case for challenging that, especially for lower leagues.
      The EU and its Court are crucial to regulating trade and relations between member states but have a tendency to interfere in national matters on sometimes spurious grounds that they affect relations between member states. The latter may be worth challenging.
      The European Court of Human Rights, by contrast, is chiefly intended to regulate the internal affairs of signatories. So in principle its rulings should not be challenged.
      Unfortunately, the ECHR has accrued ever greater jurisdiction in nit-picking matters via protocols agreed since 1983 that stray far beyond its noble original intentions. Yet the basic Convention is still widely flouted by some signatories. There is IMHO a case for withdrawal from some or all of these protocols but it is politically difficult because they seem so nice on paper.

    3. grahams
      February 10, 2011

      An EU Court ruling banning actuarial discrimination in insurance, being irrelevant to the single market, would be a classic example of an interference that should be challenged. Let’s hope the judges opt for freedom of trade.

  6. alan jutson
    February 10, 2011

    Good to hear.

    Let us hope for a commonsense outcome.

    1. lifelogic
      February 10, 2011

      That would be rather unusual.

  7. Alte Fritz
    February 10, 2011

    Having suggested something on these lines (pessimistically), the best of British!

  8. Alan Wheatley
    February 10, 2011

    I heartily agree with all you say.

    I would add a point I have not heard addressed in recent discussions concerning the ECHR. If we are to be bound by laws and judged by courts, then we must have the means to determine what those laws say. There would seem to be no such means with respect to the judge made law of the ECHR, and therefore I see no reason to be bound by it.

    I suggest the best course of action is to withdraw from the ECHR Treaty and for the UK to conduct its affairs according to the laws of the UK. Should there be differences between ECHR law and UK law then this can be a pressure point for a change of UK law, providing, of course, that is what the UK wants.

  9. Andy
    February 10, 2011

    I particularly agree that they should receive no compensation.

    It may be a gross generalisation on my part but I strongly suspect very few of the people who are in prison would actually bother to attend the polling stations if they found themselves on the other side of the wall on polling day.

  10. Electro-Kevin
    February 10, 2011

    I don’t think that the general public can discern from the EU and the ECHR. It’s all the same thing to them. For practical reasons I don’t think it matters.

    Why ?

    Unlike our European partners the British Parliament – and our judges – always seem to apply EU rules to the hilt and with a left-wing bent. And then they do a very good job of shifting blame on to the EU for the predictable cock-ups which follow.

    If you want to protect our sovereignty, Mr Redwood, then you need to identify where the attack on it is really coming from and alert the people to it.

    I don’t think it’s coming from without.

  11. James Sutherland
    February 10, 2011

    I would certainly be happy to see both amendments pass – indeed, I’d prefer to move in the opposite direction, barring those convicted of serious crimes from voting or holding public office even after release, as is the case in some US states. Sadly, I get the impression our current government is at best reluctant to stand up to foreign interference; I hope a crushing defeat of their position today might convince them to change that stance.

  12. English Pensioner
    February 10, 2011

    “I have received practically no comments on the subject from my constituents.”
    Could it be because they all know that you can do nothing about it? In the past few years I have written to my own MP on a couple of issues which affected me personally, and in both cases he has told me that he appreciated my problem, but that the Department involved had told him that the matter was governed by European legislation and that there was nothing to be done.
    Good luck to you if you can help reassert our sovereignty, but I’m not holding my breath!

    Reply: That view does not stop people writing to me about other issues.

  13. Martin
    February 10, 2011

    Compensation is an interesting point. Would those citizens who lose the vote because of queues at polling stations or unexpected events force them to be away from home then also be allowed compensation?

    How much? Given the turnout figures and the attitude of most folk who lose their vote for non custodial reasons I suspect the courts might well award modest even trivial sums.

    Regarding the ECHR – this has lost its’ way. The big legal issue is the right of non legal aid entitled folk when confronted by the rich and powerful (encouraging the CPS) in court and the behaviour of the lower courts.

  14. Acorn
    February 10, 2011

    The EU is going to sign up to the Council of Europe’s sub-division, that is the European Court of Human Rights. Presumably the 48th member. So if we think the EU has violated our rights (sovereignty?), we can take them to the ECHR, whoopee.

    “Approximately 139,650 applications were pending before a judicial formation on 1 January 2011. More than half of these applications had been lodged against one of four countries: Russia, Turkey, Romania or Ukraine.” (ECHR 2010 Report)

    I don’t know why you are even bothering with this. Ignore the ECHR judgement; don’t pay any fines. Do like the Russians; the Turks etc etc. Or; let the HoL re-draft the 1688 Bill of Rights, combining the good bits from the 1998 Human Rights Act; then repeal the latter. Simples.

  15. Mark
    February 10, 2011

    I support your views and voting intentions on this. David Davis and Dominic Raab have laid out the ground that explains how the present judgement is at variance with the original principles of the Convention – all power to them for explaining what most of us in our heart of hearts knew. As a leading light in securing the convention, the UK would never have signed it while not permitting votes for prisoners if it thought that there was any incompatibility in the positions. It turns out that wording the French proposed was rejected for precisely that reason.

  16. Cliff
    February 10, 2011

    I hope a great many of our ordinary MPs vote against giving the prisoners a vote and therefore confirms that our parliament is sovereign. I hope that this sends a clear message to both the executive and Europe that we have had enough of the interference from outside sourses.

    If we must give prisoners votes, how about setting up a separate constituency just for prisoners? They could all vote for just the one MP and that way, their votes would have very little influence on our parliament.

  17. David in Kent
    February 10, 2011

    Prisoner votes may only be of symbolic significance (except perhaps in Dartmoor) but this is an opportunity to pick a fight with ‘Europe’ which MPs have been looking for.
    Too bad the Strasbourg court is not the EU.

  18. Freeborn John
    February 10, 2011

    Liberal democracy requires limits on democracy to protect human rights of minorities and citizens from the power of their own states . In 1957 it was felt a good thing that German soldiers and policemen knew they could appeal to court above their government should they received orders to in violation of the ECHR, and we should still value such safeguards even today. So even if the ECHR has made a bad decision here, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the concept of the ECHR as court independent of the executive that can strike down human rights abuses of state power.

    There is however very much wrong with transferring issues unrelated to human rights to undemocratic institutions in Europe, i.e. those normal issues of politics which used to be decided through our elections, and which are now increasingly decided by the EU and which no voter has a hope of influencing, and which we cannot repeal later by electing a new government. The only thing that should be beyond the short-term majority in parliament in human rights and the EU has encoruched into almost all areas of normal domestic politics now.

    The political cowardice of Cameron is at work here. Rather than tackle the main issue of the sub-ordination of democratic politics to the EU, he is using this ECHR ruling as a phony war with ‘Europe’ that conveniently (for him) lets him strut around pretending to be tough about Europe, while he actually does nothing about the main issue of the EU for fear of confronting vested interests in Brussels, Paris and Berlin. If he thinks the real issueabout Europe is above his pay-grade then he will fully deserve to lose the next election.

  19. Graham Elliott
    February 10, 2011

    The point I do not understand in this blog is, assuming (for discussion) that it is right to say that the sovereignty of Parliament is under some threat, surely it must be under threat from something specific, rather than something general which is an aggregation of all things that appear to fetter Parliament in some way or other. I can understand the EU being that specific thing, but since the ECHR is nothing to do with the EU, how can its rulings on human rights aspects be the very embodiment of the abstract threat of loss of sovereignty? It is particularly unfortunate that a such a stand is made against a body which most of the general public thinks is an arm of the EU, because that causes confusion. It seems fine to hold the view that we should resile from the Human Rights Treaty (if that is one’s view), but not on the grounds of parliamentary sovereignty, but rather on grounds to do either with the notion of human rights or with a specific decision made by the court (e.g. over prisoner votes). I think making this a vote about sovereignty is promoting the issue’s importance too much and weakens any later more critical action against genuine cases of erosion of sovereignty.

  20. blingmun
    February 10, 2011

    @ Peter van Leeuwen
    “The real problem (IMHO again) is that your parliament while sovereign, is not a very good representation of the will of the British people, due to your electoral system.”

    The problem is that MPs don’t care what their constituents think. They don’t need to. Most of them have safe seats dished out by the likes of Cameron, Clegg and Miliband. Consequently few MPs are willing to hold the the Government to account.

    One possible solution is to give constituents power of recall. If 10 per cent signs up to a petition then a bi-election is called. No misdemeanour’s or guilt in the eyes of the law should be necessary. Simply, enough people don’t want the war in Iraq or the Lisbon Treaty and that’s it, if the MP insists on voting with the Government he or she’s gonna face a bi-election. The system could provide for a minimal term of 12 or 18 months following an election, in which time the MP would be allowed to get on with the job. Even then, they would do so knowing that a demand from the Government whip should be balanced against the sledgehammer of the power of recall.

    Reply: Seats are not dished out by Mr Cameron. You have to compete to win votes from the local selection committee.

    1. Stuart Fairney
      February 11, 2011

      JR, that’s not entirely true now is it? The tories had the famous A-list and labour centrally ban persons they don’t like from being in the field for selection. Then of course there are less formal methods such as the leader ringing up a local chairman and suggesting his OBE is long overdue and in an unrelated matter how much he likes such-and-such a candidate.

  21. Javelin
    February 10, 2011

    I actually like this point of law because it’s quite arbitary – in fact the more ambigious / arbitary the law the better because it pits a nations view equally against an EU courts view.

    However the main point I have on the law is that when prisoners are imprisioned they have many rights withdrawn (e.g. freedom to associate or family life) but still keep others (e.g. right to life, right to legal representation and dignity). When a prisoner serves their sentence there are some laws that are not necessarily linked to imprisonment, but down to opinion of what constitutes rehabilitation.

    In reality not all rights are equal. In fact all “human rights” vary according to circumstances. Even right to life is not immutable when a police officer believes their life to be threatended. I think what is needed is to list all the principles behind the contexts for all the rights and then the Human Rights Act needs to be amended to take these into account.

    Finally, the last section of the Human Rights Act is all about the judges rights to pensions. Do we actually know what judges are paid and what their pensions are? Do we know whether judges pensions will be trimmed in line with other public sector workers? If we’re all in this together, as MPs claim, then are MPs willing to go on record to call for judges pensions to be trimmed?

  22. Derek Buxton
    February 10, 2011

    Well said Mr. Redwood, good to hear that you will vote against the orders from above. What a shame though that Cameron is holding ministers hostage, they know that if they follow you they will lose preferment. That in itself shows parliament in a bad light.
    I’m afraid Mr. van Leeuwen is not quite correct, we were taken into a “common market” that is all. We were later given a vote on staying in or coming out. But we were not told that it would morph into the EU which, in addition to it’s other faults, is not a “free market” organisation, it is in fact protectionist as designed.

  23. rose
    February 10, 2011

    Did the existence of the ECHR save our independent schools? (Though not our Direct Grant schools.)

  24. BobE
    February 10, 2011

    Very good blog John.

    A question.
    If prisoners did get the right to vote then what constituency would they vote in? Or would it be a postal vote as is for the armed forces.

  25. sjb
    February 10, 2011

    JR writes: “I will therefore vote against the decision of the ECHR. ”
    I hope you will reconsider because it will be a sad to see an intelligent man, and a law-maker to boot, failing to respect the judgment of the Court.

    JR writes: “Parliament is likely to say it wishes to interpret the human rights UK citizens should enjoy, and to do so in a different way from the Court.”
    Imagine things get worse in Britain … unemployment rises much further … outbreaks of public disorder … the Coalition falls … most of the people who voted LibDem in 2010 change their allegiance to Labour, which has embraced Bennism … Labour win a landslide victory … but with the next General Election looming things have not improved and the polls show the Conservatives at 55% … so Labour use their large Parliamentary majority to declare a state of emergency and postpone the election indefinitely.

  26. Bazman
    February 10, 2011

    Do prisoners have the right to a Christmas? I have heard stories in certain newspapers of lags scoffing mince pies, guzzling turkey, shovelling down roast potatoes some even wearing Christmas hats and pulling crackers at the same time. It’s absolutely disgusting and to make matters worse happens every year on the same day right under the noses of the correct authorities.

  27. Iain Gill
    February 10, 2011

    on votes:

    bigger injustice is Indian nationals here on a work visa (or student visa) and their spouse being given the vote

    Commonwealth citizens without indefinite leave to remain or UK citizenship should not have the vote here

    British citizens do not get the vote if they live in India

    (words left out-ed)
    This is not fair or just for the British people

  28. Mark
    February 10, 2011

    Did Ann Main’s resolution get called? What was the result?

    Reply: No, it was not voted on, but I and others spoke out in its favour

  29. Kenneth
    February 10, 2011

    I applaud you, John and your colleagues for tonight’s solid vote. I hope it sends a clear signal.

    You never know, it may also be a sign that backbench MPs are increasingly seeing Parliamentary sovereignty as more than just a party issue.

  30. fairweather
    February 10, 2011

    My (emotional) instinct is to deny votes to prisioners, but then I ask myself: ‘from where does the right to vote emanate?’ Does it do so from Parliament itself, or does it arise from myself? Ultimately Parliament, and even Queens, only govern by consent – that is our individual & collective consents.

    If I admit that the legislature can deny the right to vote to a whole class of citizens, for one reason (albeit maybe a good practical one), then I also admit that they might do the same to another group. If the right is not given by the legislature, then they cannot, or should not take it away.

    The right to liberty is only taken away as a ‘last resort’, and the same should apply to voting. Voting is the cornerstone of our society and should be part of the rehabilitation of offenders. Denying the total class of prisioners the vote is a potentially dangerous thing, and, on careful consideration is just plain wrong. On this occasion, I think the European Court is right.

    sebastian fairweather

  31. Mike Paterson
    February 11, 2011

    And yet just last week, these same MPs voted overwhelmingly against an In/Out referendum. So they’re miffed about their own sovereigny over a relatively piffling matter of prisoners’ votes but the sovereignty of the British people can go to hell. Beneath comtempt.

  32. Simon_C
    February 11, 2011

    Personally, I’m in favour of votes for prisoners. And in favour of the ECHR. Ultimately, Parliament can assert their independence by pulling out of the ECHR, and just signing into UK law the subset of Human Rights that the UK think they can agree with.

    If they did do that, they would also be setting a great precedent on how other countries can decide to ignore the human rights they don’t like. Maybe we’ll have catholic countries deciding they can discriminate against gay people etc.

    As the saying goes, defending the rights of good people, or for things you believe in is easy. Standing up for the rights of people you have done you (or sociatey) harm, or who’s views or life styles you don’t agree with. That’s much harder.

  33. Bazman
    February 11, 2011

    Maybe we should let the markets decide Huh? The right to vote is universal and this is where it begins and ends. If you do not believe this then you are wrong. Amazingly it even applies to the likes of Sutcliffe and Huntley. Huntley is drinking coffee as we speak. Disgusting! Disgusting as it is, but true. Britain does, quite rightly, not have the death penalty.

  34. Ian harris
    February 13, 2011

    Dear Mr. Redwood, On prisoners having the right to vote… .
    I believe that to give most prisoners the right to vote would be a great advantage. In fact why didn’t someone think of it before?
    To dis-enfrancise prisoners from a society that they will be coming out to live in again can only be for the good of all. Keeping a prisoner in toucxh with social norms, political arguements to and against a matter, public discourse will no doubt be absorbed by prisoners 23hrs aday prior to an election. We have taken away their liberty and they don’t have much left & will not part with anything including their ‘vote’ without scrutinising each party. Perhaps more so than the ordinary working person rushing around fatigued and one pay check away from abject poverty.

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