Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

Grayling defiant on prisoner votes

Chris Grayling says a committee will consider proposals for allowing convicted prisoners to take part in elections

Parliament is on a collision course with European judges after the Justice Secretary insisted it would have the final say on prisoner votes.

Chris Grayling attempted to buy the Government more time in its long-running legal battle by announcing that a joint committee of both Houses will look at the issue.

But he stressed that Parliament was "sovereign" and had the power to defy the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Even if Strasbourg tried to impose fines, MPs could choose not to pay them.

The approach was branded "inadequate" by prisoners' lawyers, who accused the Government of trying to stall until after the general election. But former policing minister Nick Herbert urged the coalition to go further by withdrawing from the ECHR's jurisdiction altogether.

Mr Grayling set out his plans to MPs on the eve of a deadline for complying with the judgment - part of a fight that has been running since 2005. He said the Government had an "obligation" under international law to bring forward proposals to obey the ruling. But he also pointed to Prime Minster David Cameron's previous comments that the idea of giving prisoners the vote made him feel "physically ill".

Mr Grayling said: "The Prime Minister has made clear on the record his personal view on this subject. I have done the same and those views have not changed. The current law passed by Parliament remains in force unless and until Parliament decides to change it...Ultimately this Parliament is sovereign, this Parliament can decide whether it will accept a ruling of the European Court - of any sort - or whether it won't."

The joint committee is being asked to examine three options. The first would allow those sentenced to less than four years to vote, while another would set the limit at six months. The third option is to re-enact the existing ban with "minor changes", so anyone serving a custodial sentence would be unable to vote.

Sean Humber, a lawyer with Leigh Day & Co representing more than 500 prisoners seeking compensation from the Government, said: "The Government is already facing claims for compensation running into the millions for refusing to allow serving prisoners the vote. Its stubborn refusal to take the necessary action is simply leaving it exposed to the cost of further claims."

He insisted the draft legislation did not comply with the ruling, adding: "The practical consequence of these proposals is that any firm legislative proposals are unlikely to be introduced into Parliament until May 2014 at the earliest.

"Given the date of the next general election in the UK has been fixed for May 7 2015, it is highly questionable whether any Bill would have completed its passage through Parliament and enacted in time for the general election."

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