A small number of prisoners – probably around 100 – will be given the right to vote after a British compromise offer to marginally extend the franchise was accepted on Thursday by the Council of Europe. The deal, crafted by the justice secretary, David Lidington, brings to an end an embittered 12-year standoff between Strasbourg and London over the enforcement of judgments by the European court of human rights. The compromise should remove one of the main sources of resentment felt by Conservative rightwingers over the Strasbourg court’s role. Prisoners on temporary release and at home under curfew will gain the right to vote. The dispute erupted in 2005 when the ECHR ruled on a challenge over prisoner voting rights brought by John Hirst, who was serving life for manslaughter. The court declared that the blanket ban on prisoners participating in elections violated human rights and was illegal. Despite similar judgments in subsequent cases, the UK refused to enforce the ruling.
During the standoff, Strasbourg formally accepted that member states should be given a wider “margin of appreciation” in enforcing human rights according to their national justice traditions. However, the Council of Europe insisted that some identifiable categories of prisoners should be included in the extended franchise, though it did not specify how many prisoners should benefit.
The British reluctance to bring into effect the ECHR’s Hirst judgment has been cited by other Council of Europe states such as Russia and Turkey as grounds for not enforcing other critical rulings, beginning a process that threatened to unravel international respect for the court.
The prime minister, Theresa May, who in the past has called for the UK to withdraw from the European convention on human rights, overseen by the Council of Europe, appears to have adopted Lidington’s compromise.