The Justice Secretary’s Commons statement on prisoners’ votes today was interesting in more ways than one.
First, he’s chosen to put forward a draft bill for pre-legislative scrutiny – rather than a fully-fledged bill. I’m not sure why that’s necessary: when the government proposed in late 2010 to legislate for prison votes, it seemed to be planning simply to table a bill. The main advantage of pre-legislative scrutiny by a joint committee of both Houses is, of course, that it will prolong the process of compliance with Strasbourg (or not). The government’s playing for yet more time, in other words.
Interestingly, Chris Grayling at one point, in response to a question from James Clappison, rehearsed the government’s arguments in favour of pre-legislative scrutiny – which he said was an established part of the legislative process, which had often been used on controversial matters, and which was appropriate because of the practical complexity of giving prisoners the vote. It’s obvious that the government has thought hard about how to defend its decision to take this slower legislative route.
The government must think publishing a draft bill is enough to satisfy the first requirement in the key “pilot” judgment against the UK, Greens & MT, to
bring forward … legislative proposals
with a view to compliance. You might argue this means actually introducing a bill. But Strasbourg must be desperate to get the outstanding British prison votes cases off its list, since it’s already drowning in cases. Grayling must reckon the Court will accept his arguments that his draft bill complies with the first part of Greens & MT, and go ahead and strike them out.
Second, twice in the debate Grayling referred to possibility that the joint committee could recommend, and the House could choose, to limit prisoners votes in some respects even more than existing law does. This is the “red meat” I was talking about in an earlier post. Currently, British prisoners regain the vote once they leave prison; but strangely (it seems hard to square this with the logic of its judgments against the UK) the European Court recently approved of Italy’s system, which bans many prisoners from voting even beyond the terms of their sentence, and in some cases for life.
Finally, Grayling mentioned “indications” from the European Court that removing the ban for prisoners serving up to six months would be needed in order to comply. I’m not sure where he gets that from; I don’t see this in any of the judgments. So perhaps there’s been an informal dialogue between the government and the Court about these issues that Grayling’s remark only hints at.