Rt Hon David Lidington MP, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, has today delivered an Oral Statement to the House of Commons.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on sentencing and the Government’s response to the Hirst judgment.
For many years, it has been a feature of United Kingdom law that when someone commits a crime that is sufficiently serious to receive a prison sentence they are deemed to have broken their contract with society to such an extent that they should not have the right to vote until they are ready to be back in the community.
This prohibition is currently set out in the Representation of the People Act 1983 (as amended) and the principle behind this has been reaffirmed by this House, most recently in 2011.
It is in that context that successive governments have considered the implications of the Hirst judgment in 2005. Labour, Coalition and Conservative governments have all taken the view that UK laws are a matter for democratically-elected lawmakers in the UK and have not enacted any change to legislation. This Conservative Government continues to believe that convicted offenders who are detained in prison should not vote.
And unlike the Leader of the Opposition, we do not believe all prisoners should be enfranchised regardless of the length of sentence or the gravity of the crime.
The United Kingdom has a proud constitutional tradition, and it is right that we uphold our obligations: but the British public expect us to do so in our own way, consistent with British values of rights and responsibilities.
In December 2016, the Government gave a formal and public commitment to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, the body representing the national governments of its members, that we would - in time for their meeting next month - provide proposals to address the Hirst judgment.
Since then, the Government has considered this issue carefully. We have decided to propose administrative changes to address the points raised in the 2005 judgment, while maintaining the bar on convicted prisoners in custody from voting.
First, we will make it clear to criminals when they are sentenced that while they are in prison this means they will lose the right to vote. This directly addresses a specific concern of the Hirst judgment that there was not sufficient clarity in confirming to offenders that they cannot vote in prison.
Second, we will amend guidance to address an anomaly in the current system, where offenders who are released back in the community on licence using an electronic tag under the Home Detention Curfew scheme can vote, but those who are in the community on Temporary Licence, cannot.
Release on Temporary Licence is a tool typically used to allow offenders to commute to employment in the community and so prepare themselves for their return to society. Reinstating the civic right of voting at this point is consistent with this approach.
It is absolutely not an automatic entitlement and is subject to rigorous risk assessment. These measures will see no changes to the criteria for temporary release, and no offenders will be granted release in order vote.
Our estimate is that these change to temporary licence will affect up to one hundred offenders at any one time and none of them will be able to vote from prison.
This measure will require no changes to the Representation of the People Act 1983, but instead would entail a change to Prison Service guidance.
Membership of the Council of Europe is a reserved matter under the devolution settlements but we will of course work with the three devolved administrations on this issue, in particular to reflect the differences in law and practice in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and we have informed them of our plans to resolve this for the whole of the UK.
We believe these changes address the points raised in the 2005 judgment in a way that respects the clear direction of successive Parliaments and the strong views of the British public on prisoner voting. As such I commend this statement to the House.