David Cameron has told parliament "no one should be under any doubt – prisoners are not getting the vote under this Government". He did however offer a further Commons debate to "help put the legal position".
It is believed that the Attorney General Dominic Grieve warned that Britain's reputation would be damaged if it continued to flout the European Court ruling. The government is believed to be negotiating with the court but Mr Grieve said that in his view there needed to be "flexibility".
The European Court of Human Rights ruled the blanket ban on voting for anybody in prison is illegal and the Government has until the end of November 2012 to decide what course to take. The majority of MP's are opposed to giving serving prisoners the vote. The 'stand off' between the UK and the European Court has been developing since a ruling in 2005 that it was a breach of a prisoner's human rights to deny them the vote. The European Court ruled that it was for each individual country to decide which of its serving prisoners should be denied the vote.
The Attorney General has told MP's on the Commons Justice Committee that the UK has a legal duty to implement the judgements of any international bodies that it is a member of. However, he said that there was "flexibility" in the European ruling and change could only be implemented by the agreement of Parliament as it would require a vote in favour of amendment to the Representation of the People Act.
If Parliament does vote to keep a blanket ban on the ability of prisoners to vote it would put the Government potentially in a situation where it would have to pay damages to prisoners affected. Mr Grieve said "that would be costly to the UK, unless it chose not to pay…[which] would be a further breach of the obligations". He went onto say "the issue is whether the UK wishes to be in breach of its international obligations and what that does to the representation of the UK". If the UK maintains its position it is possible that it could be expelled from the European Council. Mr Grieve admitted that this was possible adding that the UK could withdraw itself. However, he said "the UK has an enviable reputation in relation to human rights standards and adherence. I have no doubt that it would be seen by other countries as a move away from our strict adherence to human rights laws".
Many MP's from both sides of the Commons have expressed concerns at the possibility that serving prisoners would be allowed the vote. Liberal Democrat back bencher Stephen Williams, a member of the Constitutional Reform Select Committee has proposed that prisoners serving short sentences should be allowed the vote as part of their rehabilitation.
At present the only prisoners allowed to vote in the UK are those who are on remand and therefore 'unconvicted'.
The above is not legal advice, it is intended to provide information of general interest in current legal issues.