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the fact that the UK remains in breach of its obligations under the European Convention by persisting with its outdated ban on prisoners voting.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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