David Ruffley MP speaks out in House of Commons about giving prisoners the vote: "The law is an ass"

Thursday, 10 February, 2011

David Ruffley, MP for Bury St Edmunds, spoke in the House of Commons on the 10th of February about the proposed plan to give prisoners the right to vote.

The text of Mr Ruffley's full speech is below, and a video of his speech can be found here http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=7548 at four hours twenty six minutes. The full text of the debate can be found here http://tinyurl.com/68cgx3b

' The right to life; the right to freedom of expression; the right to assembly; the right not to be tortured; the right not to be treated inhumanely-all English rights for which generations have fought against both tyrants at home and foes abroad. No one in this country, past, present or, I trust, future, has ever voted for prisoners' right to vote. No one has ever voted for article 3 of protocol 1 of the European convention on human rights or the judgment in the Hirst case on giving prisoners that right.

If that so-called right is passed into English law, I believe it will have a profoundly damaging effect on public confidence in the English judicial system, which is meant to be in tune and in sympathy with the instincts of the British people, not an affront to those instincts. If the law is passed, the public will say that giving prisoners the right to vote is nonsense. They will say that the law is an ass, and an ass it is when it so flagrantly and brazenly violates the principles of rationality, decency, fairness and common sense.

It is completely unacceptable to my constituents, and I am sure to the constituents of all Members here today, that a criminal who has violated law to such an extent that he or she is incarcerated and has their freedom withdrawn for a period of time should be given the right to vote in a democratic election. It would give the British public the impression that the system has more respect for the criminal than for the sensitivities and interests of the victim, which are far too often overlooked. That is what the public think, and it is what I think. It would also give the impression of a Parliament out of touch at best, and at worst the poodle of a European court. I do not consider that defensible.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr Walter), who is no longer in his place, said that no one elects judges. That is true, but at least in the case of English judges, British public opinion can be, and often is, brought to bear on them when they take decisions that are completely out of tune with it. Take the case of Lord Denning, who in effect was told to resign and retire early when he made what were judged inappropriate comments. Pressure is brought to bear on British judges. [Interruption.] If the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) wants to intervene, he can do so. Is he saying that British public opinion does not weigh on British judges?'

Simon Hughes: 'I cannot remember the exact details, but to my recollection, Lord Denning served as a judge in the highest courts of the land until he was over 80. He was one of the best-regarded judges of the last century, particularly because he was a judge in tune with the common person, not distant from him'

Mr Ruffley: 'The right hon. Gentleman really does not know his history. If he reads the Denning autobiography, he will discover that Lord Denning was forced out early because he said that the composition of jury trials in south London led to perverse judgments'

Simon Hughes indicated dissent .

Mr Ruffley: 'There is no point in the right hon. Gentleman shaking his head-he should read the history. I am sure the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) agrees with me.

The fact is that European judges have no accountability to the British public in the way that English judges do, and nor do Strasbourg judges have any accountability to the House. I suggest that the Strasbourg Court is the difficulty. Lord Hoffman-a liberal by any definition-said something very important on that. He said:

"In practice, the Court has not taken the doctrine of the margin of appreciation nearly far enough. It has been unable to resist the temptation to aggrandise its jurisdiction and to impose uniform rules on Member States. It considers itself the equivalent of the Supreme Court of the United States, laying down a federal law of Europe."

He concluded, and I agree:

"The problem is the Court; and the right of individual petition, which enables the Court to intervene in the details and nuances of the domestic laws of Member States."

In November, I asked the Justice Secretary about the possibility of withdrawing from the European convention on human rights, so that we do repeat these ridiculous exercises in which we are asked, for example, to consider whether prisoners should have the right to vote. He responded by saying that a proposal to withdraw was not in the coalition agreement-it was settled Conservative party policy for most of the previous Parliament to withdraw from the convention-but he also promised me that a commission would consider drawing up a Bill of Rights and the thorny question of the convention.

I should therefore like to ask the Attorney-General a specific question. Will he give an undertaking that the commission referred to in the coalition agreement will be set up by the end of this year? Will he consider reforms-if not full withdrawal from the convention-to the Court to improve its personnel and the competence of its judges, which is seriously in question? Will such reforms ensure that those judges are told to give wider discretion to English courts when decisions are made on matters affecting English people?'