Comment: Prisoners should get the vote

Before the debate on prisoners voting, the Prison Reform Trust was contacted by a wide range of people, many of whom work in the prison system. While politicians were being subjected to a self-styled whip by a few members of the unelected populist press, many of the emails we received were from prison governors or staff who see prisoners voting as a normal part of resettlement and citizenship.

By Juliet Lyon

One correspondent said: “As someone working in prison education I am appalled at the attitude shown by some MPs towards votes for prisoners. I have felt for a long time that rehabilitation is merely a buzz word and reality is that most MPs regard prison as a place to punish. Education is not given the status it should, nor is any other service which would reduce 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.”

Unfortunately these voices were not reflected in a debate too often characterised by more heat than light. In all conscience, MPs had the opportunity to stand up for the fundamental human rights and dignity of everyone, obey the law and encourage the exercise of civic responsibility. A few made powerful speeches in defence of these principles. However, in a free vote, 234 MPs chose to hang on to the nineteenth century punishment of civic death enshrined in the 1870 Forfeiture Act. Twenty two MPs voted against the motion.

Although the vote is not legally binding on the government, the message it sends to prisoners and people working in the prison service is a poor one. The outdated ban on prisoners voting has no place in a modern prison system, which is about rehabilitation and respect for the rule of law.

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. The judgment is legally binding on the government and, as the attorney general Dominic Grieve acknowledged clearly in the debate, it will have to comply. Subsequent cases have indicated that the government’s margin of appreciation for complying with the initial judgment is not wide.

The committee of ministers at the Council of Europe oversees the execution of European Court judgments by member states. Christos Pourgourides, chair of the Council of Europe’s parliamentary committee on legal affairs and human rights, said in a statement released after the Commons’ debate: “The UK government has said that it intends to implement this judgment, and I encourage it to find a way to do so that is consistent with its international legal obligations. There are different ways this can be done, as shown by the range of positions on this issue in Council of Europe member states.”

Morally, by establishing the right to vote we are recognising that people sent to custody must lose their liberty, but not their identity. The Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams spoke of the importance of regarding prisoners as citizens at a recent meeting of the all party parliamentary penal affairs group. He said: “The notion that in some sense, not the civic liberties but the civic status of a prisoner is in cold storage when custody takes over is one of the roots of a whole range of issues around the rights of prisoners.”

We are out of step with all but a handful of 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 to enable remand prisoners to vote to the rest of the sentenced prison population. 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.

The outcome of the parliamentary debate does not change the overwhelming case for reform. The blanket ban is out of place in a modern prison system and should be overturned without further delay.

Juliet Lyon CBE is director of the Prison Reform Trust

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