Let prisoners have the vote: yes or no?

By Friday 23rd November, MPs will have to decide whether the UK should be in defiance of an ECHR ruling or David Cameron.

David Cameron says:

“no-one should be in any doubt: prisoners are not getting the vote under this Government.”

Prisoners votingLord Lester of Herne Hill, a QC who sits on the Commission on a Bill of Rights, said

offering a ban was merely political posturing, and it was inevitable prisoners would get the right to vote.

Asked if the Government would have to the vote to prisoners in some form, he told The Daily Telegraph: “Of course – either that or we are in the same position as in Greece under junta. Greece had to leave the Council of Europe.

Please note that it’s not even a question that “all prisoners must have the vote” – it’s perfectly legitimate to ban some prisoners from voting. (For example, if convicted of electoral fraud you cannot vote for five years. Fair enough.) A ban on all prisoners voting effectively removes the franchise if you didn’t pay your TV licence and then couldn’t afford to pay the fine.

The UK’s current blanket ban on prisoners voting has been judged as unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and officials in Strasbourg have given the Government until Friday to comply with the ruling.

Last February, the Commons called by an overwhelming margin of 234 to 22 for the blanket ban to be maintained, while David Cameron has flatly ruled out the option of handing criminals back their democratic rights.

MPs will this week be given another chance to vote on the issue when the Government introduces a draft bill.

The draft bill is apparently to offer three options; continue the blanket ban (defy the ECHR ruling); allow prisoners who have been sentenced to four years or less to vote, allow prisoners who have been sentenced to six months or less to vote.

Here’s my fix – which no one is proposing.

If a prisoner is serving less than 12 months, they should still be registered to vote in the constituency they lived in before they were convicted: they should still have the right to vote in any election held that constituency or local government ward. No prisoner serving less than 12 months should lose their right to vote.

If a prisoner is due to be released in 12 months, in the last 12 months of their sentence, they should regain the right to vote: either in the constituency where they intend to live after their release, or in the constituency where the prison is.

If a General Election is called, any prisoner with five years or less to go on their sentence at the time of the election automatically regains their right to vote for that election: the prison must provide means by which the prisoners eligible to vote can register, receive electoral material, and to hold a hustings within the prison which all prisoners eligible to vote must be allowed to attend and any interested prisoner may attend.

Any prisoner eligible to vote in an election must be given the facilities to write to candidates and receive their replies.

All of this ought to be as definite and as clear as “if you’ve turned 18 you can vote”. It ought not to be related to the crime the prisoner has committed (except maybe for electoral fraud…) and the bias should be on letting prisoners vote rather than finding reasons to prevent them. A prisoner who will just miss voting in a general election or a by-election by a matter of weeks ought to be able to appeal – and the appeal process should be transparent, accessible, and pro-active.

In effect, any prisoner sentenced to two years or less ought to be able to vote in any election: any prisoner due for release in the term of the next Parliament should be able to vote in the election of that Parliament: prison authorities should pro-actively encourage prisoners to take part in the political process and vote.


And fairly obviously, all prisoners except those convicted of electoral fraud should have the right to vote in the independence referendum. This is much more serious a civil and human rights issue than 16-18s being denied the vote.

Depressingly, however, Labour, the SNP, and the Conservatives have all ganged up to rule out allowing prisoners the right to vote for the independence referendum. Greens and LibDems proposed changes to allow some prisoners the vote.

In making his argument for giving prisoners the vote, Patrick Harvie told the committee: “An offender in prison is still a human being, is still a part of society, is still subject to the decisions of a Scottish government.”
Continue reading the main story

Ahead of the Holyrood meeting, Alison McInnes said it “seems disproportionate to deny someone serving a short sentence a say in the future of their country”.

Agreed. Doesn’t speak well for any of the parties who voted this down

—Update, February 2015

The European Court of Human Rights ruled again that the UK government is in breach of the law in banning all prisoners from voting:

The rights of UK prisoners were breached when they were prevented from voting in elections, European judges have again ruled.

The case was brought by inmates who were in prison during various elections between 2009 and 2011.

This is the fourth time the European Court of Human Rights has ruled against the UK’s blanket ban on giving convicted prisoners the vote.

The court has called for a change in the law but this has not happened.

3 Comments

Filed under Elections, Feng Shui Kitten Fixes Stuff, Human Rights

3 responses to “Let prisoners have the vote: yes or no?

  1. diaryofafailedhuman

    This seems like a no brainer to me. If the government was in any way responsible, they would try to educate the public on why it is a good thing for *some* prisoners to get the vote, instead of this petty posturing of Cameron’s, in order to ingratiate himself with the reactionary tabloids.

    The role of prison is to rehabilitate offenders (which it fails in and I’ve been meaning to blog on that for ages as there are a plethora of reasons for this…) and preparing them to reintegrate into society. Giving prisoners the vote is one of the ways to show prisoners that they are still human and their voice still matters. The sooner the government recognises that this constant belittling of prisoners is unhelpful in trying to rehabilitate them, the better out society will be.

    • Me too, but both Labour and the Conservatives are being faux tough-on-crime over this (and obviously it doesn’t matter what the LibDems say they think).

      I was playing with the idea yesterday that removal of the franchise should be related to the kind of crime you committed (ie, crime of violence, more severe restriction than if just non-payment of a fine) but then I thought, no, that just justifies the kind of judgementalism Cameron exemplifies. The right to vote ought to be one of the means by which prisoners are rehabilitated back into society, especially a long-term prisoner.

  2. Nick Gardner

    I’ve never really understood why prisoners are not allowed to vote if they choose to. It seems to me that too many offenders are too disengaged from society, rather than the other way round.

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