This morning, I took part in a debate on whether serving prisoners should have the right to vote.
A bar on serving prisoners voting was first put in place in 1870. Five years ago, the European Court of Human Rights (nothing to do with the EU) ruled that a blanket bar was contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights, to which the UK is a signatory (they did not rule that any kind of bar was contrary to the Convention, merely that a blanket bar was not proportionate).
So long as the UK remains a signatory to the Convention, we are legally obliged to implement this judgement. The previous Government said that it would do so but never did. Around 2,500 prisoners have now lodged compensation claims and in November the Court handed down another judgement against the UK, in which it set a deadline for the introduction of legislation of August 2011.
Just before Christmas, the current Government announced that it will implement the judgement in a way that meets its legal obligations but goes no further than that. It believes that this means allowing prisoners sentenced to less than four years in jail to vote in General and European elections unless the sentencing judge rules that this is not appropriate.
I appreciate that the Government is in a difficult position but I have to say I am not happy about that. The people I represent think the law is already too soft on people who commit crimes. There is also an important issue of principle at stake - decisions like this should be made by elected politicians who can be voted out of office, not unaccountable judges. Before it brings forward legislation, the Government should allow Parliament to debate the issue and if other MPs feel the same as I do that will strenghten its hands in relation to the Court.