These are hard times for the government and there is no respite. Today, parliament will
debate a prisoner’s right to vote, in accordance with the wishes of the resented European Court of Human Rights. The Guardian’s Patrick Wintour writes what many suspect: on the back of a free vote, the House will deny prisoners the right to vote in all cases
and outlaw compensation claims.
Such a result would seem a set-back for the government, which was thought to favour a limited
franchise on prisoner voting. If it became law, then the government would apparently be at odds with the ECHR – precipitating an ignominious procession of grasping lags, searching for
compensation at Strasbourg.
That may yet happen, but there are plenty of reasons to hope that it won’t:
1). The ECHR’s original judgement was not absolute. It
did not judge that blanket bans or substantial bans contravene human rights. How could it? Several signatory countries enforce total or near total bans and are deemed to be within the law. Rather,
the ECHR wanted the British government to clarify the legal position in respect of human rights.
2). Signatory countries frequently ignore or dilute the ECHR’s wishes without leaving the convention or inviting claims.
3). The Attorney General claims that the government is merely ‘sounding out the opinion of the House’, which suggests that the government is free to reject
recommendations and award certain prisoners a very limited franchise (‘the bare minimum’ as Ken Clarke put it this morning). This appears to be the most likely outcome, but will
obviously have awkward political consequences.
4). The ECHR must realise that parliament is intent on showing its strength. The legislature’s political will is combined with a growing desire among senior judges to
restrain and reform the ECHR – something for which there is nascent pan-European support. Parliament and the courts are defining their independence in defiance, and the ECHR can resist if it