MPs begin historic debate over whether to take a stand against Europe and overturn ruling that prisoners must have the vote
By James Chapman and Jason Groves
Last updated at 4:33 PM on 10th February 2011
- David Cameron give green light for MPs to defy European judges
- Prime Minister says their views will aid response to the ruling
- Tory anger grows at Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve over handling of issue
- Archbishop of Canterbury enters row by claiming prisoners should get vote
MPs today began an historic debate that could see Parliament rebuke the European courts for the first time.
David Cameron has given members the green light to defy unelected judges who want to give British prisoners the vote.
MPs will formally vote tonight on a motion which – if passed – will send out a clear signal that MPs are fed up with seeing their law-making powers usurped by diktats from Strasbourg. The Prime Minister yesterday made it crystal clear he expects Parliament to express its views. He pointedly cut adrift Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke – who had insisted prisoners would ‘obviously’ have to be enfranchised. Instead, he told the Commons that he had ‘every sympathy’ with Tory MPs furious at the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights. The demand by prisoners to be given the vote was flatly rejected by the British courts a decade ago. The High Court ruled the issue was a matter solely for Parliament and not for judges. This means Strasbourg’s insistence on granting inmates voting rights not only rides roughshod over Westminster but also Britain’s courts.
Mr Cameron said: ‘I don’t see any reason why prisoners should get the vote. This is not a situation I want this country to be in.’ His forthright remarks gave Tory MPs the signal to deliver an emphatic verdict in tonight’s vote.
The motion, drawn up by former shadow home secretary David Davis and former Labour cabinet minister Jack Straw, says: ‘This House is of the opinion that legislative decisions of this nature should be a matter for democratically elected lawmakers and that on the merits of the issue the current policy is confirmed.’
'I do not see any reason why prisoners should get the vote. It’s not a situation that I want this country to be in'David Cameron yesterday.
Despite the dry text, it has become a defining confrontation for many backbenchers who insist the time has come to ‘draw a line in the sand’ and stand up to increasingly bizarre human rights rulings. A senior Downing Street source said: ‘It’s in our interests for Parliament to say “No thanks”. That helps us.’ Mr Davis this morning dismissed worries that prisoners denied the vote would be awarded tens of millions of pounds in compensation from the European courts if they are denied the vote.
He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: 'There is no guarantee that the court would actually award compensation. It didn't award compensation to John Hirst, the killer who first brought this, or the rapist who followed on from that. It doesn't always award compensation.
'It can't enforce compensation and I don't believe the British courts would uphold it. If there was a suggestion they might, then I think Parliament should rule "no compensation".'
But Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake warned against a confrontation with the court: 'I think there are sufficient realists in Government to accept that rejecting a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights is not something the UK Government wants to do.
'Therefore, I think we will find a solution, but it is going to be a really tough challenge.'
Mr Cameron believes a clear view from MPs will assist ministers in their response to the European court ruling.
The Cabinet Office and Ministry of Justice are expected to produce legislation later in the year, but Government sources said it appeared unlikely that Parliament could be persuaded to back any move to enfranchise prisoners. Mr Cameron has been already been warned that the taxpayer will be hit with a bill for tens of millions of pounds in compensation if prisoners are not allowed to take part in ballots. Lawyers condemned as ‘vultures’ have been touting.
But the Daily Mail has learned that the Prime Minister is examining proposals to claw back any compensation awarded by the European Court of Human Rights to prisoners denied the vote. They would simply be charged for their bed and board in jail.
Anger is growing on the Tory benches at the handling of the issue by Mr Clarke and Attorney General Dominic Grieve, who is responsible for providing the Government with legal advice.
In 2004, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the blanket ban imposed by Britain on its prisoners’ right to vote was in breach of Britain's obligation to hold free elections. It followed a legal challenge by John Hirst, who was jailed for manslaughter for hacking his landlady to death with an axe in 1979. He argued that the ban breached his rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. Labour’s then Justice Secretary Jack Straw consulted on changing the law but dragged his feet, given the political sensitivity of the issue. But last year the Council of Europe warned the Government that its failure to act could lead to a string of compensation claims. A proposal unveiled by the Cabinet Office late last year would enfranchise prisoners sentenced to four years or less, a change in the law which would cover 28,800 inmates.
Ministers have since suggested the limit could be reduced to a year, or even six months. But Government sources doubt Parliament can be persuaded to back even the lowest threshold. Mr Clarke was adamant yesterday that the Government will have to obey the ruling made by the European courts. ‘The Government does not defy the rule of courts whose judgments it has always accepted,’ he said. Mr Clarke said the idea that murderers and rapists would be enfranchised was ‘alarmist nonsense’, adding: ‘We will do the minimum necessary to comply with the ruling of the ECHR.
‘What the court has criticised is that we have a blanket ban that no one’s considered for the best part of the century.
‘I think the Prime Minister accepts like everyone else that Government complies with its legal obligations. We lost this judgment five years ago and I can’t remember a tremendous fuss being made. We are grasping the nettle; we’re not going to give the vote to any more prisoners than is necessary. What we can’t do is to defy the law.’ The Archbishop of Canterbury backed Mr Clarke, insisting prisoners should be given the right to vote. Dr Rowan Williams said prisoners’ civic status should not be put in ‘cold storage’ while they are behind bars. But at Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Cameron said he could see no reason why prisoners should be enfranchised and urged the Commons to ‘make its views known’. Tory backbenchers have been given a free vote on the issue. Ministers, including Mr Cameron, will abstain. David Davis said: ‘I hope Parliament will give an emphatic answer, supporting our traditional justice system and making clear to the European court that it cannot simply overrule the will of our sovereign Parliament and the British people.’
MPs today have an historic opportunity to start taking back control of Britain's laws and destiny. They must seize it
Today, if MPs have the courage to grasp their destiny, could be of great significance in the history of this sovereign nation.
Indeed, it could see Britain taking the first step towards regaining control of its own laws and stopping the remorseless undermining of our Parliament and judicial system by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). At issue is the court’s insistence that prisoners in Britain must have the right to vote: a Strasbourg decision our Prime Minister has confessed made him feel physically ill. Since 1870, prisoners have quite rightly been stripped of their right to take part in the democratic process in recognition of the gravity of their crimes against society. The ECHR’s decision is the result of a test case brought by a vicious thug called John Hirst who killed his landlady with an axe before calmly making a cup of coffee, and who this week boasted that he was holding the British state ‘hostage’. Already, as the Mail revealed last week, ambulance-chasing lawyers are lining up to claim compensation for those prisoners denied their ‘right’ to vote. But at stake is much more than just prisoners’ voting rights.
The question every MP should ask themselves is this: why on earth should foreign and often ill-qualified judges sitting in Strasbourg believe they have the right to instruct our government to give prisoners the vote acting on their interpretation of the European Convention on Human Rights agreed in 1950? Time and time again over the past decade, the court’s rulings have made a mockery of decisions taken by our Parliament and courts. In the process, human rights — which this paper passionately believes in — have become synonymous with politically correct judgments that fly in the face of common sense and the British people. We have been prevented, on the most spurious grounds, from deporting evil terrorists and foreign-born criminals who have committed the most egregious crimes.
Millions of pounds have been paid in compensation to criminals over footling denials of their ‘rights’ while their victims have received nothing. Only last week, thanks to the Convention, a failed asylum seeker from Tanzania was granted her ‘human right’ to stay in Britain on the grounds that since coming here illegally, she’d given birth to two children by a married man living on disability benefits, with HIV and a drink problem. The irony is that the European ‘court’ is nothing of the sort. Incredibly, 20 of its 47 ‘representatives’ have no prior judicial experience in their homeland. The ‘one country, one judge’ rule means that Liechtenstein, San Marino, Monaco and Andorra each have a seat on the bench, despite their combined populations being smaller than the London borough of Islington. Worse, some of the judges represent undemocratic countries with appalling records on human rights.
Nine judges, including those from Azerbaijan and Russia, are from nations internationally categorised by Freedom House as ‘not free’ or only ‘partly free’. Yet they are allowed to dictate the laws of Britain — a country with 60million people, which invented the concept of human rights hundreds of years ago. It is crucial to remember that our courts considered whether the blanket ban on prisoners voting was a breach of human rights law in 2001, under the terms of Labour’s Human Rights Act, and decided it was not. Significantly, the High Court said the subject was ‘plainly a matter for Parliament, not the courts’. Thus, by persisting in its demands that inmates should vote, Strasbourg is not only attacking the sovereignty of Parliament, it is riding roughshod over our judges. And the court’s rulings have been insidious in another way. By being given the freedom to interpret Strasbourg’s rulings, too many of Britain’s own judges have begun making laws — which should be the sole prerogative of our democratically elected Parliament — rather than implementing them. Understandably, this has created bitter tensions between our politicians and judiciary — tensions deeply unhealthy for democracy. Which is why now is the time to draw a line in the sand and reassert Parliamentary sovereignty over British law. By voting against the prisoner ruling in a free vote, MPs have an opportunity to give Britain’s Prime Minister the mandate to go to Strasbourg to seek reforms in the way the Convention is implemented. That is why the Mail urges MPs of all parties to today vote against the Strasbourg court’s decision. Hopefully, the ECHR will recognise our elected Parliament has spoken. If it does not, Mr Cameron must be prepared to take decisive action. Perhaps he should take up the excellent suggestion this week by the former Law Lord Leonard Hoffmann that the Human Rights Act should be ruled upon by our own Supreme Court.
Let the Mail repeat loud and clear: we passionately believe in human rights. We, more than any other paper, have condemned the complicity in torture by our agencies — and, of course, protection from torture was one of the main reasons for post-war Britain setting up the Convention in 1950. The problem, however, is that Strasbourg seems incapable of differentiating between genuine human rights and politically correct posturing. Poll after poll has shown the overwhelming majority of the British people opposes many of the court’s findings. A nation that no longer respects its courts is a nation taking the first steps on the slippery slope to anarchy. Strasbourg has caused immeasurable harm to this country’s institutions. Enough is enough. Today’s vote could be the beginning of Britain regaining control of its own laws and destiny.