x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

British MPs reject plan to let convicts vote

If the UK does not let prisoners vote, it faces being sued by thousands of inmates, leaving the taxpayer to foot a compensation bill for convicted criminals estimated at more than Dh940 million.

London // The British government was stuck between a political rock and a European hard place yesterday after MPs overwhelmingly rejected a plan to give convicts the right to vote.

Although Prime Minister David Cameron says that the thought of allowing prisoners to vote in general elections makes him "physically ill", his government has been ordered to do just that by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

If it does not, it faces being sued by thousands of inmates, leaving the taxpayer to foot a compensation bill for convicted criminals estimated at more than £160 million (Dh940m).

The problem following the House of Commons vote on Thursday night - when just 22 out of the 650 MPs supported ending the 140-year ban on allowing prisoners the vote - is whether the government can push through the legislation necessary to appease the ECHR.

The attorney general, Dominic Grieve, said yesterday that, whatever legislation the government eventually proposes, it would reflect the concern shown in the Commons vote.

He said there would be "a drawn-out dialogue" with the ECHR over the issue, seen as an indication that the government might try to delay any decision indefinitely.

But the ECHR made it clear last autumn that it was growing impatient with the UK's prevarication over the issue, pointing out that its original ruling on the right of inmates to vote was made in 2005 - a decision that the previous Labour government ignored by embarking on a perfunctory "consultation" process.

Most other European governments allow prisoners to vote, though there are varying restrictions from country to country.

The current coalition government in Britain originally came up with a plan to appease both critics and the ECHR alike by = allowing only prisoners sentenced to fewer than four years to vote - approximately 28,000 of the 80,000 prison population.

However, there were signs yesterday that, in the wake of Thursday night's vote, ministers were cooling on that idea.

David Davis, a senior Conservative MP and one of the two sponsors of Thursday's parliamentary motion, called on the Conservative-led coalition to tell the ECHR that it could not supplant the role of parliament.

He described the Commons vote as "a brilliant result", adding that he believed the "99 per cent majority reflects the view in the country that prisoners should not be given the vote".

Sadiq Khan, the Labour Party's "shadow" justice secretary, said: "Despite several attempts to glean information from the Tory-led government by me, and the lively debate in the House, they have yet to explain how they intend to satisfy the European Court of Human Right's ruling.

"The government must, as a matter of urgency, bring forward their draft legislation so parliament and the public are clear about where they stand on this important issue."

That looks unlikely to happen in a hurry, though. Instead, a Downing Street spokesman said that a review of how human rights law could be enshrined in the UK would begin "shortly".

Mr Cameron made his dilemma clear to reporters during a factory visit yesterday. While he said he did not see why Britain should have to change its policy, he added: "But I'm the prime minister: we're in a situation where the courts are telling us we are going to be fined unless we change this.

"I find it thoroughly unsatisfactory. In my view, prisoners should not get the vote, and that's that. But we are going to have to sort this out one way or the other."

dsapsted@thenational.ae