Parliament can move very quickly when it needs to. Laws can be passed within days if necessary - even hours. But the legislative process can move extremely slowly when political needs dictate. And that is what has happened to the issue of votes for prisoners.
It was in 2005 that the grand chamber of the European Court of Human Rights held that the UK’s blanket ban on voting by convicted prisoners breached article 3 of protocol 1 to the human rights convention. But let’s fast-forward to last summer, when the grand chamber gave the UK six months to introduce legislative proposals. By that, the court presumably meant that the government should put a bill before parliament. Instead, six months later to the very day, the Ministry of Justice published just a draft bill. Generally speaking, this is good parliamentary practice: a draft gives MPs the opportunity to consider whether it meets the government’s objectives. But this one doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. And the government seems not to know what its objectives are.
That’s because the draft bill offers three options. The first would allow prisoners serving sentences of less than four years to vote. The second would allow votes for prisoners serving less than six months. And the third would make no significant change to the existing law. The MoJ announced that its draft bill would be considered by a parliamentary committee drawn from the Commons and the Lords. Once the joint committee had ‘finished its scrutiny’, the government would ‘reflect on its recommendations’. It would then put a real bill before parliament.
It has taken parliament six months to appoint the joint committee. One reason for the delay was that a Conservative MP tried to change the way in which MPs were chosen to serve on it. Christopher Chope’s idea was that members should be elected by the parties instead of being chosen ‘through the usual channels’. His motion was debated - but defeated after the government argued that pre-legislative committees should reflect all shades of opinion.
So we now have a committee comprising six MPs and six peers. On the Commons side there are three Conservatives, two Labour MPs and one Lib Dem. On the Lords side, there are two Conservatives, two Labour peers, one Lib Dem and Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, the former president of the Supreme Court who sits as a crossbencher. The joint committee has invited written submissions by 13 June. John Hirst, the former prisoner who brought the original challenge in 2001, is among those who are expected to give oral evidence.
The first thing the committee will notice is that the operative parts of the bill appear to have been drafted by a child. Clause 3, for example, says: ‘Schedule 3 re-enacts the current general ban on prisoner voting, but with a few minor changes.’ A parliamentary draftsman would instead have written: ‘Schedule 3 has effect.’ The second thing that stands out is that the government has not yet worked out how it would extend the bill to Scotland and Northern Ireland.
But the most striking thing about the bill is that, as the explanatory notes confirm, the government envisages that it could contain more than one option in its final form. So it wouldn’t matter what the joint committee thought about the three options. It wouldn’t even matter what parliament thought of the three options. It would be left to the government to implement whichever option it chose - or perhaps not to implement any option at all. This contempt for parliament is glossed over in the draft bill’s commencement clause, which has been replaced with a note saying that its wording will depend on the final form of the bill.But the prime minister has already decided. ‘No one should be in any doubt,’ David Cameron told MPs on 24 October last year. ‘Prisoners are not getting the vote under this government.’
Is the prime minister really going to change his mind if the UK’s most senior former judge tells him that option 3 - no change - would breach the human rights convention? He knows that already. And so does the committee of ministers of the Council of Europe, the officials who supervise enforcement of the court’s rulings.
Those officials no doubt thought they were being very generous last December when they gave the government nine months to sort itself out, adjourning consideration of the UK’s response until their meeting this September. How will they feel when they discover that the joint committee is not due to report until after parliament returns in October? And that it will be some months before a bill is put before parliament? And that even when that bill becomes an act, the government may continue to ignore its international obligations? Pretty cross, I’d say.