The prickly issue of prisoner voting has raised its ugly head again. Just last week the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) reaffirmed its ruling that prisoners in the UK must be given the right to vote (although ministers could still determine the inmates to which this would apply). The UK’s outright ban on prisoners voting, the ECHR ruled, is illegal. Britain now has a 6-month window in which it must bring about a policy shift.
Currently in Britain, all prisoners in custody – that is, serving a sentence in prison or in a similarly closed institution – are not allowed to vote. Prisoners on remand – awaiting trial, but who have not been convicted – have been eligible to cast their ballots since 2000. The ban on prisoners voting has been in place since Victorian times (1870). Across Europe, some fourteen countries, including Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, have no ban on prisoners voting; in Greece, only those serving life sentences are removed from the electoral roll.
The real row over prisoner voting in the UK began in 2004. In the now famous case of John Hirst, who killed his landlady with an axe, the ECHR ruled the automatic ban on prisoners voting was unlawful. The Government, then under Labour, lost a series of appeals against the ruling, and later said it would implement the court’s decision. It launched two consultation papers, but then did nothing before being voted out of office in the 2010 election. Even now it is still against giving inmates the right to cast their ballots and has said it will back the Government’s decision. In December 2010, the Government announced it would bring forward legislation allowing prisoners serving four years or less the right to vote. In February 2011, MPs voted overwhelmingly – 234 to 22 – in favour of keeping the 140-year ban on all prisoners being on the electoral roll. The idea of giving the right to vote to prisoners, David Cameron said, made him “physically ill”.
There are good arguments both for and against giving prisoners the right to vote; it is a messy issue – one in which public perceptions, principles, practicalities and politics are inextricably entangled.
In terms of perception it’s no surprise that the thought of giving the vote to violent offenders like Hirst (Hirst’s particular offence was outlined in gruesome detail in a heated debate on Andrew Neil’s popular BBC politics show) makes people feel uncomfortable. The prospect of someone like Stephen Barker casting his ballot will undoubtedly spark outrage. Past polls (at the time of writing there appears to be a dearth of more recent data) show most people are against putting prisoners on the electoral roll. As The Telegraph points out: even limiting reform to those prisoners serving less than four years would still include 1,000 sex offenders as well as several thousand violent offenders.
In principle, however, there are two very good arguments in favour of putting prisoners on the electoral roll. The first of these is citizenship. It is absolutely right that people who have committed crimes lose particular freedoms, but voting remains integral to being a British citizen. Going to prison might prevent a person from being an active member of society – and restrict their freedom of movement, for example – but it does not nullify a person’s citizenship, nor should it. According to the Prison Reform Trust, people sent to custody must lose their liberty, but not their identity. In 2005, Charles Kennedy, boldly called for prisoner enfranchisement, stating: “we believe that citizens are citizens if you take the view…that an individual citizen is an individual citizen that means you have the entitlement that goes with it in terms of voting”. As pointed out by Francis Cook, Director of penal justice charity The Howard League for Penal Reform, how the frame in which the issue is presented to the public is important. She says:
‘When you ask, “Do you think prisoners should get the vote?” there is a sense that prisoners are not us, they’re dangerous and we don’t want to give them anything. When you talk to the public in more depth and say, “Do you think prisoners ought to be encouraged to be responsible citizens, live a good and useful life afterwards?”, everyone says yes. Citizenship is part of that.’
The second is rehabilitation. It is argued that by penal justice charities and prison staff alike that having the right to vote would help inmates maintain a connection to society; it should be a key part of the resettlement process. Far from being ‘soft on crime’, putting prisoners on the electoral roll would be a good step towards recognising they still have a stake in the society and can engage with their responsibilities as citizens. Underlying this is the aim of reducing rates of reoffending and cutting down on crime over the long term – not letting them off the hook.
However strong the principles are – and these can be contested like any others – these are destabilised by practicalities. Many people in prison have been incarcerated some distance from where they once lived – often only for short periods of time (in Brixton Prison, London, this is just 35 days). The administrative burden of re-registering hundreds if not thousands of people is formidable. Second, in some jails, the voting power of the inmate population could outweigh that of the local community. This creates the potential for prisoners to swing an election. (The flip side of this is that it would create a whole new demographic that canvassing politicians would seek to engage, after they’d gone through security of course).
Even if these practicalities are resolved (no doubt they can be – 14 other countries in Europe have already done so), overriding all of the above issues is the political fallout from putting prisoners on the electoral vote. Any Member of Parliament who suggests, seriously, that prisoners should have the right to vote invites the backlash of the right-wing media – as Charles Kennedy found out. Added to this, for Cameron, the outcry from Tory backbenchers – already angered by Cameron’s push on Lords Reform.
The most important political consideration, however, is this: the judgement that prisoners should be allowed to vote has come not from a British but a European (or, as David Cameron describes it, “a foreign”) court. This is not so much an argument about prisoners’ right to vote (although penal policy has always been a key issue for Conservatives) as it is recoil from an unelected court in Strasbourg dictating law above the powers of our own politicians and policy-makers in Westminster and Whitehall. In repealing the ban, the Prime Minister would be giving into a European institution, and at a time when public attitudes are becoming more hostile to Britain’s place in the EU.
David Cameron is now faced with several options. He could do nothing (indeed it is already suggested that Ministers will be able to put off the ban). But meanwhile the list of prisoners – currently over 1000 – lining up to demand compensation from having the right to vote denied. He could be seen to do something, like Labour did, in the form of consultations and public enquiries. But this, like last time, could spark yet another backbench revolt. Or he could bow to the ECHR – a “foreign court” – and introduce a change in policy that puts prisoners on the electoral roll. This would undoubtedly risk him being portrayed in the right-wing media as impotent, unable to stand up to orders from Strasbourg. But this, if done carefully, might even play to his advantage. Anti-Europe sentiment is already high; even Labour are suggesting offering a referendum of the EU, in the hope of outflanking the Tories on one of their own bread-and-butter issues. If spun and framed the right way, the Government could concede to the ECHR, appeasing their Coalition partners – the Liberal Democrats (who have been much more quiet on the issue this time around than they were in late 2010) – while placing the majority of blame on a European institution, fuelling anti-European sentiment that could well play to their advantage in the long run. To do so would be clever, but carries enormous risk. The headline will end with “…gives murderers and rapists the vote”. Whether it starts with “Europe” or “PM” remains to be seen.
What do you think? Should prisoners be given the right to vote? Join in the debate and leave your comments below.