11:06, December 07 54 0 theguardian.com

2017-12-07 11:06:03
Council of Europe accepts UK compromise on prisoner voting rights

A small number of prisoners – probably around 100 – will be given the right to vote after a British compromise offer to marginally extend the franchise was accepted on Thursday by the Council of Europe.

The deal, crafted by the justice secretary, David Lidington, brings to an end an embittered 12-year standoff between Strasbourg and London over the enforcement of human rights judgments by the European court of human rights.

The compromise should remove one of the main sources of resentment felt by Conservative rightwingers over the Strasbourg court’s role. Prisoners on temporary release and at home under curfew will gain the right to vote.

The dispute erupted in 2005 when the ECHR ruled on a challenge over prisoner voting rights brought by John Hirst, who was serving life for manslaughter. The court declared that the blanket ban on prisoners participating in elections violated human rights and was illegal. Despite similar judgments in subsequent cases, the UK refused to enforce the ruling.

During the standoff, Strasbourg formally accepted that member states should be given a wider “margin of appreciation” in enforcing human rights according to their national justice traditions. However, the Council of Europe insisted that some identifiable categories of prisoners should be included in the extended franchise, though it did not specify how many prisoners should benefit.

The British reluctance to bring into effect the ECHR’s Hirst judgment has been cited by other Council of Europe states such as Russia and Turkey as grounds for not enforcing other critical rulings, beginning a process that threatened to unravel international respect for the court.

The prime minister, Theresa May, who in the past has called for the UK to withdraw from the European convention on human rights, overseen by the Council of Europe, appears to have adopted Lidington’s compromise.

The Ministry of Justice confirmed that the deal would not have to be voted through parliament. Under the deal, the UK has promised to make it clearer to those sentenced to prison that they will forfeit the right to vote.

“We will work with the judiciary to change the warrant of committal to prison to ensure that prisoners are individually notified of their disenfranchisement,” a UK note to Strasbourg explained.

It said the government would “change its policy and guidance to prisons to make clear that prisoners can register to vote, and vote, while released on temporary licence. Most prisoners eligible to vote under this proposal would likely be on short sentences, and will have been granted temporary release, primarily for employment-related reasons.”

The UK note said inmates entitled to vote would include those on remand, committed to prison for contempt of court or for default in paying fines, or released on temporary licence or home detention curfew.

“These proposals are an effective package to ensure compatibility with the Hirst judgment,” the UK note said. “Making voting accessible to prisoners released on temporary licence fits with our proportional system where those prisoners on home detention curfew and remand can also vote.”

The Council of Europe said it “noted with satisfaction the package of administrative measures proposed by the authorities, in particular the change in policy and guidance in relation to prisoners released on temporary licence and on home detention curfew.”