The government’s chief law officer has given his strongest warning yet to MPs that refusing to comply with European human rights rulings on prisoner voting rights risks “a degree of anarchy”. The attorney general, Dominic Grieve, said the issue of giving convicted prisoners the vote was profoundly symbolic in the British debate on European human rights laws, but that it was no slight matter for Britain to be in breach of its international obligations. He made his remarks during a Westminster hearing of a joint committee of MPs and peers who were considering a draft prisoner voting bill. The meeting also heard a strong warning from Thorbjørn Jagland, secretary-general of the Council of Europe, which oversees the European human rights court at Strasbourg.
Jagland said it would be unprecedented for Britain to refuse to implement the European court ruling. He said that defying the ruling or even taking the “nuclear option” of withdrawing from the European human rights convention would be inconceivable given Britain’s role as a “founding father” of the convention and the court after the second world war.
“If we start to pick and choose the judgments from the court, then the court will be weakened and have no meaning,” Jagland declared. “Europe cannot afford to let the UK leave the whole convention system which is so important from a pan-European perspective … the UK is the best pupil in the class. It has always been seen as the leading nation on human rights.”
The Council of Europe secretary-general said that such a decision would not only weaken the convention system but harm the human rights of millions of citizens across Europe.
He said he hoped that, if the current parliament did not feel able to vote to lift the ban on convicted prisoners voting in Britain, the next parliament might, following the general election.
He said it was not possible for Britain to continue indefinitely its eight-year defiance of the European human rights court on the issue.
He also dismissed the possibility of a British renegotiation or a Council of Europe opt-out that would exclude the right of individual petition to Strasbourg. “I don’t foresee that sufficient consensus would emerge on such an option,” he said.