15:47, October 31 292 0 theguardian.com

2017-10-31 15:47:03
The Guardian view on prisoner voting: a tiny concession

David Lidington, the justice secretary, appeared to confirm in the Commons on Tuesday that the government has finally climbed down over prisoner voting. It is a tiny concession, to a small group of short-term prisoners who are already allowed out on day release. The angry denunciation it met from the Tory backbenches is an indication of the struggle that even this gesture will provoke: “Following the triumph of the Conservative manifesto at the election,” jeered the MP Philip Davies, “can I congratulate you on finding another half-baked and unpopular policy to put before the electorate.” Mr Lidington must hold his nerve. This is an important move, a harbinger of better relations with the European court of human rights.

The ban on prisoners voting is an anachronistic echo of medieval times when a criminal conviction meant “civic death”, the automatic loss of civil identity. To maintain it against all prisoners, from those serving life sentences to those serving only a few months, is disproportionate, out of line with wider European practice and a breach of the Human Rights Act, passed by the Westminster parliament in 1998.

In 2005 the European court of human rights in Strasbourg upheld the appeal of a prisoner, John Hirst, against the ban. Ever since, parliament and public opinion has muddled horror at the idea of prisoners voting with outrage at the ECHR exercising its jurisdiction in UK matters. In David Cameron’s hands, the issue became a flamethrower for anti-EU sentiment. So however small Mr Lidington’s concession (probably affecting fewer than 100 prisoners), it is a huge step away from the rights-bashing tradition of his recent predecessors and many MPs. A distinguished exception is the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has always been a prominent supporter of prisoners’ right to vote. The move holds out a glimmer of hope that relations between the government and Strasbourg might be a little sweeter in the post-Brexit age, and the Tories – particularly after Theresa May – a little less relentlessly hostile to the court of human rights. With hindsight, the 2005 ruling looks like the high-water mark of Strasbourg interventionism. In UK cases relating to prisoner voting rights since then, the court has been unimpressed with, for example, appeals for compensation for not being able to vote. It has allowed a wider margin of appreciation to national courts to interpret rights law; it is also preoccupied with much bigger sinners in Russia, Turkey and parts of eastern Europe.

The domestic question that follows on from the justice secretary’s proposal is whether it indicates that, after five years, a liberal has been put in charge of the Ministry of Justice. Mr Lidington has had a largely invisible political career, a remainer on the leftish wing of the Tory party (although not on gay rights). The last time he troubled the headlines was probably back in the 1970s when he captained his college to victory in University Challenge. There are some grounds for optimism: as well as relaxing the voting ban, earlier this week he announced a review of the impact of legal aid cuts and court charges that were condemned last year by a cross-party committee as a tax on justice. But he has made little impression on the biggest challenge his department faces, the crisis in prisons caused by overcrowding and severe staff shortages. Reform in the penal system will be his real test.