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Short-term prisoners should have the vote, committee says

18 December 2013

Prisoners serving 12 months or less, and all those with less than six months still to serve, should have the right to vote, a joint parliamentary committee has concluded.

A majority of the 12-strong, cross-party body charged with scrutinising the Government’s draft bill on prisoners’ voting rights, recommended that the Government bring legislation to that effect before Parliament, covering local, general and European elections.

Three dissenters said that there should also be put to Parliament the option of retaining the status quo, under which all prisoners serving custodial sentences are barred from voting.

Published today, the report follows a six month inquiry. The Government's draft bill was published as a response to rulings by the European Court of Human Rights that an indiscriminate ban is disproportionate and infringesthe European Convention. Many British politicians from the Prime Minister down are opposed to relaxing the current rule, but the Court is set to reopen claims for compensation by thousands of serving prisoners if the law is not changed. The issue threatens the UK's future within the European Convention.

The report sets out the committee's conclusions on a number of "points of basic principle" which it hopes will inform the continuing debate within and outside Parilament:

  • In a democracy the vote is a right, not a privilege: it should not be removed without good
  • The vote is a presumptive, not an absolute right: all democratic states restrict the right to
    vote in order to achieve clearly defined, legitimate objectives.
  • The vote is also a power: citizens are entrusted, in voting, with an element of power over
    their fellow-citizens. 
  • There is a legitimate expectation that those convicted of the most heinous crimes should,
    as part of their punishment, be stripped of the power embodied in the right to vote.
  • There is an element of arbitrariness in selecting the custody threshold as the unique
    indicator of the type of offence that is so serious as to justify loss of the vote.
  • There are no convincing penal policy arguments in favour of disenfranchisement; but a
    case has been made that enfranchisement might assist prisoner rehabilitation by
    providing an incentive to re-engage with society.
  • The enfranchisement of a few thousand prisoners is far outweighed by the importance of
  • the rule of law and the desirability of remaining part of the Convention system. 

The committee sees no practical difficulties to prevent prisoners from voting, recommending that they should vote by post in their place of normal residence.

Noting that its proposals would result in around 7,000 prisoners being able to vote at any given time, it concludes that prisoners’ votes are unlikely to have a bearing on the outcome of elections.

However it also notes concerns over the European Court of Human Rights’ interpretation of the Convention as a “living instrument”, and highlights the unpredictability of the court’s approach to prisoner voting.

Committee chair Nick Gibb MP, one of the dissenters, said: “In scrutinising the draft bill, the committee has been examining two separate issues: whether prisoners serving a custodial sentence should be allowed to vote; and the conflict between the European Court of Human Rights, the sovereignty of Parliament and the expressed views of the House of Commons which, in February 2011, placed itself firmly against extending the franchise to serving prisoners.

“Whether Parliament accepts the majority or minority recommendations of this committee, it will need to consider whether it is right to extend the franchise to those denied their liberty and the right to engage in society as a result of serving a custodial sentence. Parliament will also need to consider the extent to which it is content to permit the European Court of Human Rights to encroach into domestic policy areas that appear far removed from the original intentions of the drafters of the European Convention on Human Rights.”

His fellow Conservative Sir Crispin Blunt MP, one of the majority, countered: “It is of fundamental importance that the UK respects the international rule of law, which is a key part of our foreign policy promoting a British sense of fairness and playing by the rules.  We didn’t just sign up to the European Convention on Human Rights—we more or less wrote it. For us to fail to respect our international treaty obligations, over an issue as relatively minor as a few thousand prisoners having the right to vote, which the evidence suggests most of them wouldn’t exercise, would be a grossly disproportionate reaction. It would set an appalling example to other nations and undermine human rights across Europe."

He added: “So while I believe the court overreached itself in imposing this judgment on this issue on the United Kingdom, the merits of the case were on its side.... The unconsidered popular response to votes for prisoners is driven by an attitude to offenders of revenge and punishment, rather than the more constructive response of rehabilitation and restoration.  It is time for Parliament to lead public policy to that more constructive response.” 

Click here to view the report.

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