Prisoner voting

Ci1kFwaWUAAc4HmI took part in a panel discussion last night at a conference in London on ‘Challenges to Implementing the Judgments of the European Court of Human Rights: Dialogues on Prisoner Voting Rights’.  The panel comprised Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, former President of the Supreme Court, Baroness Hamwee, and me.  Lord Phillips and I served on the Joint Committee on the Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill and Baroness Hamwee serves on the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

The panel addressed Parliament’s role in responding to the Strasbourg judgments on prisoner voting.  I opened by pointing out that Parliament as such had not expressed a view.  The House of Commons has debated the issue of prisoner voting rights – and voted by a large majority against enfranchising any prisoners – but the House of Lords has not expressed a view, although the recent report of the EU Committee did contrast the position of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) judgment with a recent judgment of the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) that may lead to the UK having to enfranchise some prisoners in elections to the European Parliament.

The only action taken so far by Parliament has been the appointment of the Joint Committee on the Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill.   The report of the Joint Committee was published in December 2013 and still has not received a substantive response from the Government.  It constitutes in my view the most useful summary of the history of the voting rights of prisoners as well as examining the issues of principle involved in responding the judgment of the ECHR in the Hirst case.  Some MPs, as was shown in the debate in the Commons in 2011, appear to think a blanket ban on prisoner voting is longstanding.  I quoted one who said it went back centuries.  It actually dates from 1969.  Between 1967 and 1969 there was no ban and prior to 1967 prisoners serving  twelve or fewer months were entitled to vote and some did so.

The Joint Committee offered a reasoned report recommending that we revert to the position that existed at the time we signed the ECHR, namely that those serving twelve months or fewer be entitled to vote.   However, as we discussed in the panel, the practical political obstacles in achieving that are substantial.  Successive governments have been keen to lob it into the long grass, MPs have opposed it, and the issue – which at the time of the earlier changes of the law was not notably contentious – is now politically toxic.  It creates a serious situation in terms of the UK’s standing in maintaining the rule of law.  The impasse may in due course be resolved not through the ECHR route but as a result of the CJEU ruling, subject of course to what happens on 23 June…

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About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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4 Responses to Prisoner voting

  1. In our fair land having pled guilty to a felony because one is scared silly of more serious charges is usually enough to disqualify a former or prospective voter. Such disenfranchisement allows us to avoid large numbers of prisoners eligible to vote…..

  2. maude elwes says:

    I know the EU are, in practice, the rulers of much of our legislation. Well most of it really. However, I feel that regardless of that quirk in our expectations, Parliament has to decide what it feels is right for the UK and the people who voted for them. As they sure as hell didn’t vote for what we have in Europe.

    I do know this vote is not a popular subject for most people when asked, as in the main they stridently say no. But, when you ask why, they, without doubt, put it down to a bunch of foreigners housed at their expense by being incarcerated, should therefore not have had a vote in the first place. So they resent the idea of prisoners voting as they feel most are against our British way of life.

    I, however, feel differently. A prisoner remains a citizen either in or out of prison. Surely, the best idea for those who feel they have no other way to make a life than by doing whatever they did to find themselves banged up, is to broaden their horizons. A good way to do that would be some kind of discussion on democracy. How they are part of that. How our country relies on all its people to be part of its success not failure. And that no matter how they feel about the ruling class, it is their prerogative as well as duty, to throw the buggers out and that nothing upsets their standing more than to lose their seats.

    I feel it is the duty of any government to try and work on those they incarcerate to lead a more stable life and the vote which offers them a responsibility to their own situation, is good for all of us. Exclusion is ignorance for it achieves nothing.

    And lastly the large majority of prisoners are mentally ill, one way or another. Therefore, because of successive governments wanting to ignore this fact, these people are imprisoned when they should not be. Letting them know that no matter how small a part they play in the game, they can change things for themselves by first using their vote, has to be progressive.

  3. Kenneth Davies says:

    I feel that prisoners should lose their right to vote as part of their punishment. If they can not abide by our rules then they have voted to opt out of society and should have no right to determine who is elected to make decisions which affect the majority of law abiding citizens. In other words operate within the law and retain your vote. Operate outside the law and lose your vote.

    • maude elwes says:

      Surely you do realise, Kenneth Davies, that most prisoners do not vote at all and never have. So, what punishment is it to refuse them the vote whilst incarcerated. Surely the answer has to be to teach them their vote is important to them on every level. It is what they are all about. Underprivileged without a voice, their vote gives them one.

      Of course, this is assuming they are not in a safe seat.

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