Shine A Light

The UK should encourage prisoners to be good citizens and let them vote

The European Court of Human Rights has yet again ruled that the UK violated prisoners' rights by denying them the right to vote. Still, the Coalition government resists.

Juliet Lyon
16 February 2015

Last week’s ruling by the European Court of Human Rights on prisoners’ voting reinforces previous judgments of the Court that the UK’s blanket ban on sentenced prisoners voting is unlawful.

But with three months to go before the UK general election, it’s clear that the government would rather flout human rights law, ignore the advice of prison governors, bishops to, and inspectors of, prisons and take up Parliamentary time and taxpayers’ money in order to stop sentenced prisoners from acting responsibly by voting in democratic elections.

For ten years now successive UK governments have wasted public money resisting the European Court’s judgment. The current Prime Minister has even admitted to feeling “physically ill to even contemplate having to give the vote to anyone who is in prison”.

 Even the modest proposals for reform made by the cross-party committee set up by the government to consider the draft bill on prisoners voting have fallen on deaf ears. It recommended that those serving prison sentences of 12 months or less should maintain their voting rights and others serving longer sentences should have these re-instated six months before release.

Since the committee’s report in January 2014, there have been local and European elections in May 2014 and a referendum on Scottish independence in September 2014, all held without any moves by the government to overturn the ban. The May 2015 general election looks set to go ahead with the blanket ban still in place.

The repeated and unnecessary delay to the execution of the Hirst v UK judgement, originally made in 2004 and upheld on appeal in 2005, should be a source of shame to successive governments.  Since then, tens of thousands of people in prison have been denied the right to vote in local, national and European elections.

People are sent to prison to lose their liberty; not their identity. Prisoners are still people, albeit people behind bars. The nineteenth century punishment of civic death makes no sense in a twenty first century prison system whose focus is on rehabilitation, resettlement and the prevention of re-offending. Arguably, in the interests of proportionality in sentencing, you could retain loss of voting rights as a punishment for the crime of electoral fraud.

The UK is out of step with all but seven Council of Europe countries, as well as many developed states around the world, when it comes to prisoners voting. In South Africa, all prisoners have the right to vote. Handing down a landmark ruling in April 1999, the constitutional court of South Africa declared: “The universality of the franchise is important not only for nationhood and democracy. The vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and personhood.” Quite literally, it says that everybody counts.

Practically, there would be few difficulties in expanding the arrangements already in place enabling remand prisoners to vote to the rest of the sentenced prison population. The Electoral Commission has set out a mechanism by which prisoners could be enfranchised though a system of postal or proxy voting. Through its own audit procedures, the Ministry of Justice has been systematically seeking prisoners’ level of interest in voting and is known to have received positive responses.

The resistance the judgment has provoked in the UK is out of all proportion and at odds with the compelling legal, moral and practical arguments for overturning the ban. Politicians should feel sick about sky high reconviction rates; not about enabling prisoners to be good citizens.

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Note: A House of Commons library note (Prisoners' voting rights, by Alexander Horne and Isobel White) provides a narrative of events since the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on 6 October 2005, in the case of Hirst v United Kingdom (No 2), that the UK’s current ban on all serving prisoners from voting contravenes Article 3 of Protocol No 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Last updated 11 February 2015, can be downloaded here.)

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