The Committee of Ministers at the Council of Europe has given the UK coalition government three months in which to overturn the blanket ban on sentenced prisoners voting, declared unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights in 2004.
In its decision published on Tuesday the Committee, which oversees the execution of judgements by the European Court, “expressed confidence that the new United Kingdom government will adopt general measures to implement the judgment ahead of elections scheduled for 2011 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and thereby also prevent further, repetitive applications to the European Court.”
It determined to resume consideration of the case at its next meeting in September 2010, “in light of a draft interim resolution to be prepared by the Secretariat if necessary”.
The coalition government has already committed to a detailed programme of constitutional reform, presenting it with an opportunity to comply with the judgement of the European Court.
A cross-party committee of MPs and peers has been charged with producing a draft bill on an elected second chamber, and a political reform bill has also been proposed, along with a promised referendum on the Alternative Vote for electing MPs. The Prison Reform Trust says it will be pressing for the 'unlawful and outdated' blanket ban on sentenced prisoners voting to be overturned as part of this drive for wider constitutional reform.
In the decision adopted after its meeting last week the Committee expressed “profound regret” that despite their repeated calls, the United Kingdom general election was held on 6 May 2010 with the blanket ban on the right of convicted prisoners in custody to vote still in place.
In December 2009, the Committee adopted Interim Resolution CM/ResDH(2009)160, in which it expressed “serious concern that the substantial delay in implementing the judgment had given rise to a significant risk that the United Kingdom general election in 2010 would be performed in a way that fails to comply with the Convention”, and urged the government to “rapidly adopt measures” to implement the judgment.
At its meeting in March 2010, the Committee reiterated its serious concern that “a failure to implement the Court's judgment before the general election and the increasing number of persons potentially affected by the restriction could result in similar violations affecting a significant category of persons, giving rise to a substantial risk of repetitive applications to the European Court”.
The Prison Reform Trust understands that the news has been welcomed by the Association of Prisoners, who regret that the change has not come in time to benefit people in prison in England, many of whom plan to seek compensation, but will enable people in custody in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to exercise their right to vote.
Commenting on the Committee's decision Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “The Committee of Ministers has given the coalition government a valuable opportunity to overturn this outdated and unlawful ban. Prison governors see voting as an ordinary part of rehabilitation.
"The Electoral Commission sees no practical difficulty in enabling prisoners to vote. The former Home Secretary Douglas Hurd believes that giving people in custody the vote would encourage elected representatives to take a more active interest in what goes on behind bars. The ban should be swept away as part of the government’s drive for wider constitutional reform and its commitment to a ‘rehabilitation revolution’.”