Prisoners are being unlawfully denied their right to vote

People are sent to prison to lose their liberty; not their identity.

Juliet Lyon is the director of the Prison Reform Trust

David’s Cameron’s description of today’s judgment by the Supreme Court on prisoners voting as “a great victory for common sense” is surprising given it applies and upholds the principles established in the 2005 Hirst case and subsequent judgments by the European Court of Human Rights – that the UK’s blanket ban on sentenced prisoners voting is unlawful.

The ruling makes clear that there is not a separate avenue of legal redress under EU law distinct from the process already in train under human rights law. It reinforces the fact that the UK remains in breach of its obligations under the European Convention by persisting with its outdated ban on prisoners voting.

Does the Prime Minister think it is ‘common sense’ for the UK government to flout human rights law, face substantial financial penalties, 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?

People are sent to prison to lose their liberty; not their identity. 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.

The past president of the Prison Governors’ Association said: “The blanket ban on sentenced prisoners’ voting is out of step in a modern prison service and runs counter to resettlement work which aims to ensure that prisoners lead a responsible, law-abiding life on release.”

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.

In the nine years since the ban was declared unlawful, successive UK governments have repeatedly sought to delay implementation of the ruling. This has resulted in tens of thousands of sentenced prisoners being unlawful denied their right to vote in local, national and European elections.

Following a further European Court ruling last year, which set out a clear timetable for the government to bring forward legislative proposals to overturn the ban, the Ministry of Justice has published a draft bill with options for enfranchising sentenced prisoners.

A committee of both Houses of Parliament has been established to consider the proposals. It is in the process of taking evidence and will publish its recommendations in due course.

It is hoped common sense will prevail and MPs and ministers take the opportunity to overturn this outdated and uncivilised ban.

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11 Responses to “Prisoners are being unlawfully denied their right to vote”

  1. Sparky

    Oh no, how awful. Thieves, murderers, rapists, armed robbers, conmen and hooligans can’t vote. We must right this terrible wrong immediately.

  2. swatnan

    This is another time wasting exercise like Votes at 16. Surely we have much better things to do. Villans who commit crimes forfeit their rights.

  3. JR

    Rehabilitation should be at the centre of the prison system, sentences are too harsh and the overly politicised view of crime makes change on any level difficult.

    However, despite my liberal views on the need for the causes to be treated rather than the symptoms, I don’t agree that prisoners should automatically have the right to vote.

    Prisoners have broken the social and civic contract under which they live – rehabilitation is key, but voting is a right that must be earned. This ‘nineteenth century view of civic death’ is also a just one.

    Voting is an important right taken for granted by too many – prisoners should have to re-earn the right to vote. This could be whilst they are in prison, but the starting presumption needs to be that those who break the social contract do not get to participate in the choices that affect citizens whilst they are incarcerated.

    This is a hugely complex issue, the PM’s sound bites are not helpful. But, equally it is wrong to say glib things such as “People are sent to prison to lose their liberty; not their identity” and criticise discussion of what it takes to be a citizen as ‘out of date’.

    Part of the liberty that people lose is the right to choose – it is inconsistent for those who have harmed to impact the lives of others until they are deemed fit to participate in society once more.

    The need for participation in politics is one of the most pressing challenges our society currently faces, and rehabilitation of offenders is another. Conflating the issues does little service to either cause, and the current ‘debate’ about voting rights is cheap and solves nothing for anyone.

  4. henrytinsley

    16 years olds are hardly in the same category as criminals.

  5. Alec

    If something is right or wrong, appropriate arguments will be makeable without recourse to dull appeals to authority [of an institution which was conceived at the same time and from similar justification as when tens of thousands of British soldiers were stationed in West Germany].

    British judges appointed by British systems overseen by British politicians elected by the British voters have decided that this is legal, so you’re going to need a lot more than “wait, the ECHR says otherwise!” (especially as we’re talking about people who have done truly awful things) to sway me.


  6. Alec

    I hardly think Swatnan was suggesting they were.


  7. Chris

    Would it really be so bad if voting was made compulsory in the final year or two of their sentence, encouraging them to think about the wider society. Make it compulsory for prisoners due for release and the apathy among general voters would be challenged.

  8. Forest of Dean UKIP

    Leave the EU and then our own government and law courts can make the decision – Vote UKIP

  9. endeavour2

    There are doubtless opposing points of views from different prospective
    each with valid arguments from their point of view and I accept that. Sometimes
    what we have is not so much a right and wrong point of view but two competing and
    valid points of view and thus we must decide which is the greater right but perhaps
    more importantly, who should decide that question Strasbourg or Westminster?

    This is an argument that has been argued by Lord Phillips
    (former President of the Supreme Court) and Judge Judge (Lord Chief Justice) in
    On the increasingly large role played by the European
    court of human rights in UK courts and legislation, Phillips said: “The
    role of the judiciary has changed particularly as a result of European law and
    the requirement for judges to consider … [whether] parliamentary legislation is
    compatible with the human rights convention.”
    In the end he suggested Strasbourg “is going to
    win” under the Human Rights Act, since the act was designed to comply with
    the convention. Judge Judge, however, said it was an “arguable case”
    that the UK had to take account of decisions emanating from the court in
    Starsbourg but “we are not bound by them”.

  10. kfwoops

    What about those who,like myself, were framed? It is argued that long termers, and in particular, Lifers cannot vote in Australia. A lifer in Qld voted as assisted by the National Party who fraudulently registered the prisoners address as being outside prison.Outside or in, the lifer was still a prisoner who voted. The National party rugged voting in this manner and won. This also set the precedent for Australian lifers but is being denied lifers because the pillows and corrections have forgotten it happened.

  11. kfwoops

    True force is not force? Prison is all about force, all about over powering ones will. No one need be forced to be subject to the will of the other. Rape, Bashings, etc are all prison forces.

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