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25 January 2011

Prisoners voting update

Instead of listening to MPs who would rather stick with the punishment of civic death, dating back to the Forfeiture Act of 1870, than comply with the 2005 judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, the coalition government should listen to the advice of experienced prison governors and officials, past and present bishops to prisons and chief inspectors, electoral commissioners, legal and constitutional experts and most other European governments.

It is shaming to try and turn something that is both a right and a positive civic duty into something that is tortuous, expensive and tastes like nasty medicine. Things should have never been allowed to reach such a pitch where we risk being in direct breach of our obligations under the European Convention. This is not only bad news for prisoners – it’s an attack upon the Rule of Law that could have much wider consequences.

Editorials in the Guardian and Evening Standard  have expressed their support for overturning the blanket ban, as has David Aaronovitch [subscription] in The Times and Martin Kettle in the Guardian. A range of high profile figures from politics, human rights and justice sector signed a letter drafted by PRT and published in the Guardian on 11 January supporting government moves to begin to comply with the European Court’s judgment. They included Peter Bottomley MP, Conservative, Worthing West; Robin Corbett, Labour, House of Lords; Kate Green MP, Labour, Stretford and Urmston; Rt Rev James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool; Veronica Linklater, Liberal Democrat, House of Lords; Caroline Lucas MP, Green, Brighton Pavilion; and Eoin McLellan-Murray, President, Prison Governors Association.

There are strong legal, moral and practical reasons to enable people in prison to vote. The 2004 judgment of the European Court, which the UK government appealed and lost in 2005, clearly states that the blanket ban on sentenced prisoners voting is unlawful. Subsequent cases have indicated that the government’s margin of appreciation for complying with the initial judgment is narrow. The Frodl judgement in Austria (2010) indicates that just as you might lose your driving license if convicted of a serious driving offence, so you could legitimately be stripped of your voting rights as a proportionate additional punishment for an offence of electoral fraud. In other words, the punishment should fit the crime.

Morally, by establishing the right to vote we are recognising that people sent to custody must lose their liberty, but not their identity. 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.” Martin Kettle reflected in his column: “As human beings, prisoners are like you and me. They have inalienable human rights. And one of those rights, in the modern world, should be the right to vote.”

It is no surprise that prison governors and senior officials in the prison service see voting as an ordinary part of resettlement and rehabilitation. The Electoral Commission set out, in its response to the Ministry of Justice’s second consultation on prisoners voting in 2009, 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. As David Aaronovitch argued, “If we can see the value of prisoners having access to books, to study courses, to counselling, then why not to political discussion, hustings and, ultimately, voting? Would it not be a sign of our seriousness in helping prisoners to be useful members of society?”

Enfranchising prisoners would provide an opportunity for the coalition government to catch up with most other European countries where prisoners are able to vote. The UK’s blanket ban is out of place in a modern prison system, and should be overturned without further fuss or delay.