Comment: We should not curtail prisoners’ human rights

Last week, MPs voted on a motion put forward by David Davis and Jack Straw, opposing the right of prisoners to take part in elections. Government and shadow cabinet frontbenchers abstained, and in the free vote backbenchers voted overwhelmingly in favour.

By Andrew Neilson

By putting forward the motion, Davis and Straw acknowledged the UK’s treaty obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, while asserting that this is an issue to be decided by parliament, not judges in Europe.

Britain now finds itself in uncharted territory. Finding a solution will be challenging and there’s only three months in which to complete it; that is how the government has until forthcoming local, Welsh and Scottish elections take place. No wonder the thought of prisoner voting makes David Cameron physically ill.

Attorney-General, Dominic Grieve, said that Britain would be acting “tyrannically” and in breach of the rule of law if it defied rulings from the European court of human rights. He said, “The rule that has been long established in this country is that once a treaty has been ratified by the United Kingdom government through that process, the United Kingdom government and ministers consider themselves to be bound by its terms.”

He finds himself in support of Ken Clarke (and a fair few government lawyers I should think), arguing that Britain must abide by the ruling. “We are going to comply with our obligations. Some of them are going to get the vote,” Clarke said. Ministers point out that if prisoners aren’t allowed the vote, they could take £160 million in compensation. Yet others are calling to defy the ruling, or pull out of the convention completely.

Human rights are universal and indivisible, and, yes, at times, they can even be unpalatable. There are governments all over the world who find excuses for curtailing the human rights of their citizens – we shouldn’t be one of them. People are sent to prison for ignoring sections of the law, our politicians shouldn’t look to do the same. The irony of William Hague, travelling across the Middle East pontificating about the introduction of human rights, while his government here is trying to circumvent them, will not escape foreign audiences.

It would have been welcome if this national and political debate had thrown the spotlight on what happens inside the prison gates. If councillors and MPs knew they would get votes by paying attention to what happens inside prisons, and most importantly what happens when people are released, they might be more likely to consider the effectiveness of this often neglected area of public policy.

On a practical level, if the government restricts the franchise to people serving less than a year, it would be difficult to see the enfranchisement as in any way meaningful, as so many short sentenced prisoners have no fixed abode and are therefore unlikely to be on the electoral register in their home constituencies. The government should rather look to our European neighbours, all of whom permit the majority of prisoners to vote. In Germany, indeed, prisoners are actively encouraged to vote as part of their resocialisation.

And with prisoners still denied the right to vote, for the next three months at least we find ourselves in a very strange position. Convicted Eric Illsley, with a jail term of less than 12 months, could theoretically have continued working as an MP from his prison cell, but he would not have been allowed to put a cross on the ballot paper while behind bars. I wonder why our politicians think that a prisoner is capable of holding elected office but not voting for one.

Andrew Neilson is assistant director of the Howard League for Penal Reform.

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