Debate on prisoners' voting rights divides Brighton and Hove MPs

Posted On 13 Feb 2011 at 10:59 pm

Brighton and Hove’s MPs were divided on the issue of voting rights for prisoners this week.

MPs debated the issue in response to a judgment of the European Court of Human Rights.

Caroline Lucas, the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, supported giving the right to vote to prisoners.

She said on Twitter: “Only 22 MPs vote to uphold human rights and allow prisoners to vote.

“Shame on rest – penalty for prisoner is to lose liberty, not identity.”

Simon Kirby, the Conservative MP for Brighton Kemptown, and Mike Weatherley, the Conservative MP for Hove, opposed extending the vote for prisoners.

Those on remand – who are in prison awaiting trial – can vote, as can those who have been jailed for contempt of court or because they have not paid fines.

Mr Kirby said: “When someone commits a crime serious enough to lead to prison, to my mind that means that their rights and liberties should be similarly curtailed – and that includes voting.

“Caroline Lucas’s vote shows she does not understand the very strong feelings this issue raises in the minds of law-abiding citizens.”

Fears

While some MPs opposed lifting the ban on principle, others expressed fears that the votes of prisoners could influence the result in marginal seats.

More practical concerns were expressed about how prisoners would vote and how candidates would canvass them, especially as they might not all be in the nearest prison.

Two MPs with Brighton and Hove links spoke during the debate.

Tony Baldry, a Sussex University law graduate who has represented Banbury for the Conservatives since 1983, said: “The European Court of Human Rights has not said that we have an obligation to give every prisoner the vote.”

He said that the judges had decreed that “a blanket ban was not proportionate”.

He also said: “It would be wrong simply to put two fingers up to the court because we did not like the implications of its judgment.”

He suggested giving British judges the power to strip prisoners of their right to vote when they were being sentenced.

Mr Baldry did not vote when the debate ended.

Nick Boles, who contested Hove for the Tories in 2005 and is now the MP for Grantham and Stamford, said that his views had shifted – slightly – during the course of the debate.

He said: “I am still of the view that all people convicted and given a prison sentence should lose their right to vote.”

Swayed

But he said that he been swayed by the argument that prisoners could be given the vote in the final six months of their sentence.

This would be part of the rehabilitation process if a prisoner had shown signs of becoming a good citizen.

He also said: “Before I came to the debate, I was of the view that if the European court imposed fines, we should simply refuse to pay them and challenge it to send a gunboat up the Thames.”

He said that he had been persuaded during the debate “that we who believe in the rule of law and who want the laws that we pass in this place to be respected cannot allow a precedent to be created whereby it is okay to pick and choose which laws we obey and which judgments we accept”.

Mr Boles said that the way to solve the problem was to have a rethink about the way that the European court worked.

He said that it should flag up possible breaches of human rights then leave it for Parliament or Britain’s newly created Supreme Court to decide whether the law should be changed.

Like Mr Kirby and Mr Weatherley, he supported the motion.

The text of the motion, which was agreed, was as follows.

“That this House notes the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights in Hirst v the United Kingdom in which it held that there had been no substantive debate by members of the legislature on the continued justification for maintaining a general restriction on the right of prisoners to vote, acknowledges the treaty obligations of the UK, is of the opinion that legislative decisions of this nature should be a matter for democratically elected lawmakers and supports the current situation in which no prisoner is able to vote except those imprisoned for contempt, default or on remand.”

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