The justice secretary, Chris Grayling, was accused by former justice minister Crispin Blunt of “setting up a crisis” over human rights in Europe when the two clashed in a Westminster committee over prisoners being allowed to vote. The public clash between two prominent Conservatives over enforcing the controversial ruling by Strasbourg judges that prisoners should be allowed to vote highlights mounting political tension within the party over the UK’s fraught relationship with Europe. In response to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decision, first announced in 2005, that a blanket ban on inmates being allowed to participate in elections was illegal, the government has published a multiple choice bill with three options – one of which proposes retaining the ban and defying Strasbourg. Earlier this month, Thorbjørn Jagland, secretary-general of the Council of Europe, which oversees the ECHR, warned that if the UK, a founder member of the human rights system, refused to enforce the judgment it would weaken and deprive it of any meaning.
Appearing on Wednesday before a Westminster hearing of the joint committee of MPs and peers considering the draft prisoner voting bill, the justice secretary conceded that the rights of prisoners to vote was not a fundamental political question and that there were even reasonable arguments in its favour as a means of enhancing rehabilitation of offenders.
But, he continued: “Sometimes issues of principle are not large in scale … I think this issue has been of totemic importance to this country in a debate about who governs Britain.”