In a rare piece of European good news for the government this week, the 47-member Council of Europe has endorsed the UK’s action plan to resolve a simmering dispute over the ban on allowing prisoners to vote in elections.
At a meeting attended by justice secretary David Lidington, the council’s committee of ministers said it ‘noted with satisfaction’ the plan announced by the Ministry of Justice last month to correct anomalies in the treatment of offenders. The council is responsible for overseeing the implementation of judgments from the European Court of Human Rights. While the court has no connection with the EU, its ruling that a blanket ban violated the European Convention on Human Rights became a cause célèbre in the debate running up to the Brexit vote.
In Hirst (No 2) v the United Kingdom (2005), the court held that article 3 (right to free elections) of protocol number one to the European Convention on Human Rights had been violated by the ‘automatic and discriminate restriction’ of the applicant’s right to vote while in custody. In 2011, MPs voted by a majority of 234 to 22 to continue the ban in defiance of the Strasbourg ruling.
The new action plan introduces administrative measures to allow prisoners released on temporary licence and on home detention curfew to vote. Up to 100 people would potentially benefit. The committee of ministers said this would suffice to comply with the court’s judgment given the ‘wide margin of appreciation in this area’. It encouraged the authorities to implement the proposed measures as soon as possible.
Resolution of the issue will be a feather in the cap for Lidington. Former prime minister David Cameron had painted ministers, including then attorney general Dominic Grieve, into a corner by announcing publicly that the idea of prisoners being given the right to vote made him 'physically sick’.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: 'We have always been clear – this government will not allow offenders behind bars to vote. That will not change. We are maintaining the ban on voting for convicted prisoners in custody, whilst addressing an anomaly on licensing, and finally drawing a line under this issue.
'Our laws will always be a matter for the UK to decide.'