Government Says UK Must Give Prisoners Vote. MP Huppert Responds: Great!

Friday, November 5th, 2010. 4:20am

It's great to wake up to hear that prisoners will regain the right to vote!

On the morning of Tuesday the 2nd of November 2010 the Government announced, via the news media rather than through a statement in Parliament, that they are planning to give prisoners the right to vote.

Cambridge’s MP Julian Huppert responded to the news with a tweet saying:

It’s great to wake up to hear that prisoners will regain the right to vote!

“Great” certainly wasn’t my first thought on hearing the news. Mr Huppert appeared to me to be taking an excessively extreme liberal stance.

In Parliament that afternoon the Speaker allowed an urgent question to be asked so MPs could seek an explanation from the Government of their decision. The question was directed to the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, but he didn’t turn up to answer it, leaving one of his Conservative colleagues to attempt to respond.

The Deputy Prime Minister’s deputy explained the government was responding to the October 2005 Grand Chamber judgement in the case Hirst v. the United Kingdom which ruled UK law in violation of Article 3 of Protocol No. 1 (right to free elections) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

It rapidly became clear that many MPs didn’t think giving prisoners votes was all that great, and that Mr Huppert is in a minority, perhaps of just one, in holding that view.

View whole debate (starts at 15:34:46)

Mr Huppert spoke to say:

Does the Minister share my concern that the first response of so many Members here to a court judgment going against them is to refuse to accept the verdict of the court? What does that say about the rule of law?

The people of the UK, through their representatives in the House of Commons make the laws which govern the way the country is run. I think it is entirely right and proper for MPs to say when they disagree with a court judgment and if necessary to seek to change the law as a result. I am very worried by the fact we appear to have an MP who does not agree with this, and does not think that the people of the UK, through him and his fellow MPs, ought decide how we run our society. I think Mr Huppert has made a seriously wrong judgement on this critical basic point.

My view is that the other MPs who did so were entirely right to express their opposition to acting on a court judgement. I hope MPs decide to vote in the House of Commons on the question of allowing prisoners to participate in elections and referendums. Judging by the speeches made on the matter, and the incredulous tone of MPs, it looks to me as if the idea of giving votes to prisoners would be comprehensively defeated if such a vote was held.

The following day, at Prime Minister’s questions the Prime Minster David Cameron said that to even contemplate giving the vote to people who are in prison made him physically ill. Despite this he said it was something the government had to do to avoid paying compensation to prisoners not allowed to vote.

Hearing the Prime Minister of the UK say that contemplating doing something made him feel physically ill, but that he was going to do it anyway was astonishing. Something has gone very wrong with our democracy. We need to elect MPs with more gumption, who actually believe in democracy and using their positions to act on the will of those they represent.

Confused MPs

Another astonishing aspect of the questions in Parliament on the question of prisoner votes has been the showing up of the fact that many MPs do not know the difference between the European Union, the European Court of Human Rights, The European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act. Mr Huppert drew attention to this when he asked his question. Just before he spoke I tweeted:

It’s not just science MPs need remedial lessons in; they’re confusing the EU, the ECHR, and the Human Rights Act. #live #prisionervotes

Of course persuading people elsewhere in the UK to elect people to the Commons to represent them who didn’t need remedial education in anything would be the ideal solution.

Cambridge based aspiring legal academic Kopmatt88 asked Julian Huppert how he could contact the confused MPs to send them a basic briefing on the various institutions, treaties and legislation.

Julian Huppert is one of the better MPs in Parliament and almost certainly one of the most communicative; however I think in this case he’s made the wrong call. I hope he will listen to Cambridge residents’ views on giving prisoners the vote; and will give some more thought to the relationship between his role and the role of judges. The will of the people as expressed through MPs in Parliament must be able to over-ride decisions made by unelected and unaccountable Judges.

Twitter Questions

Julian Huppert is so easily accessible a few people have been questioning him both on his view of the role of MPs and Parliament, and on prisoners getting votes.

On Tuesday Twitter user @ifonlyella asked: “@julianhuppert You think it’s a good thing for criminals to vote while they are in prison? Their liberty is meant to be being restricted.”
Mr Huppert replied: “@ifonlyella rehabilitation is important”

@ifonlyella responded: “Yes it is, but rehab should be separate from punishment. People are punished by having luxuries and liberties restricted. Certainly they should be allowed to vote after prison. But not during. They are being suspended from society.”.

Today @nicola_prigg asked: “@julianhuppert Will giving prisoners the vote change the outcome of a seat & therefore the outcome of a general election?”.
Mr Huppert responded: “@nicola_prigg I wouldn’t want it to be all prisoners, so they wouldn’t be away that long. They’d vote @home, so be unlikely to swing results”

Two notable tweets commented on Mr Huppert’s view of Parliament as an institution subservient to the European Court of Human Rights:

The only response I’ve seen from Mr Huppert explaining his support for the EHCR ruling was directed to me and Phil Rodgers; it said:

  • @PhilRodgers @RTaylorUK and bear in mind that Britain took the lead in writing the ECHR in the first place…

I think its fantastic that anyone can grill our MP on the views he expresses, directly, in public, and in a timely manner.

5 comments/updates on “Government Says UK Must Give Prisoners Vote. MP Huppert Responds: Great!

  1. Alan Pocock

    If prisoners are allowed the vote then presumably they could stand as candidates. Would they then be able to attend Council/Parliamentary meetings. Would candidates be allowed to visit prisons to canvass their constituents and deliver literature. Would prisoners be able to meet with other prisoners and hold political meetings. Where does democracy end. How does all this operate in other countries.

  2. Richard Taylor Article author

    During BBC Question Time on the 4th of November 2010 Jack Straw MP said that 600 MPs were on the record opposing votes for prisoners.

    Mr Straw pointed out that a court judgement saying the UK Parliament had got something wrong was quite different to typical court judgement.

    He claimed that the fact Parliament had not voted on the question of prisoner votes was cited as a factor in the judgement. The judgement does say (in paragraph 22) that Section 3 of the Representation of the People’s Act 1983 was introduced without debate. If laws that aren’t debated are in some way to become lesser – then that’s a very strange view given vast majority of our laws are not specifically debated and voted on; if there are no objections then motions in the commons pass without a vote, as , as far as I can see, happened in the case of the 1983 Representation of the People’s Act.

    Mr Straw said that Parliament had voted on the question of votes for prisoners when bringing in the 1867 Reform Act. Though votes for prisioners was not debated specifically either then. Debate in 1867 was on questions such as if only those who owned property, or only those who paid tax, ought be able to vote; the effect on prisoners was indirect.
    The text of the 1867 Reform Act is available via Google Books.

    In 1867 MPs debated if university staff and students in Oxford and Cambridge ought have a vote, and be able exercise undue influence over elections in their cities – a debate with some parallels to the current question on the impact of prisons on the electoral results in the constituencies in which they were situated. (Then the two universities had their own MPs elected by an electorate including all graduates of those universities wherever in the country they lived)

    Prior to the 1870 Forefiture Act prisoners sentenced to more than 12 months had their property taken away; this left them ineligible to vote.

    One interesting point I have noted from reading debates in Parliament from the 1860s on voter eligibility is that until 1867 a distinction was drawn between those who paid rates directly, and those who paid via their landlord with the former not being given a vote on the grounds they were considered “unfit”. I can see a parallel here between this, and Cambridge City Council’s, current, illegal in my view, practice of deeming landlords, not tenants, liable for council tax in some rented property in the city. While this doesn’t have the effect of denying anyone a vote, it does mean statutory communications which accompany the council tax bill are not sent to these people and information on how that taxation is distributed to various authorities and spent is not received. It appears the idea that some in society are unfit to have a role in democracy continues; and the same debates carry on over centuries.

  3. Richard Taylor Article author

    On the 10th of February 2011 Julian Huppert was one of just 22 MPs to voting for votes for prisoners.

    The motion which passed, despite Mr Huppert voting against it read:

    That this House notes the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights in Hirst v the United Kingdom in which it held that there had been no substantive debate by members of the legislature on the continued justification for maintaining a general restriction on the right of prisoners to vote; acknowledges the treaty obligations of the UK; is of the opinion that legislative decisions of this nature should be a matter for democratically-elected lawmakers; and supports the current situation in which no prisoner is able to vote except those imprisoned for contempt, default or on remand.

    The majority of MPs abstained. (The timing of the vote, number of MPs debating, and media coverage make it unlikely there were many absent rather than actively abstaining.)

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