Former PM David Cameron once said that the thought of giving prisoners the vote made him feel “physically sick.” It was just one comment, but it’s reflective of just how emotive the debate over prisoner voting has been.
The issue has long been seen as a battle between the Human Rights Court and the UK government. But last week, it was announced that the argument may finally be at an end.
There’s a long story to whether prisoners should have the vote, which all started in 2005, when the Human Rights Court ruled in Hirst v UK that the UK’s “blanket ban” on prisoner votes breached their human rights.
Why is it a Blanket Ban?
The Human Rights Court. Image: Dimitar Denev, Flickr
The position of the UK is seen as a blanket ban because it doesn’t matter what crime you’re sentenced for, how long you’re in prison for – your vote is taken away. This is in stark contrast to many other countries. In Ireland, for instance, all prisoners can vote. In Germany, prisoners only lose the vote for crimes that targeted the state or democratic order.
But in the UK, all prisoners have traditionally lost the vote as part and parcel of imprisonment, regardless of any other considerations.
What’s wrong with a blanket ban?
Image: Frankie Roberto, Flickr
The Court in Hirst v UK stressed that there is no question that a prisoner forfeits their rights under the Human Rights Convention purely because of their conviction. Having your liberty taken away may well restrict your ability to enjoy some human rights, but it doesn’t void them entirely. Prisoners are humans, so retain their human rights.
The position of the Human Rights Court was not that the UK had to give all prisoners the vote. It was simply that having a system in place where every prisoner automatically loses their right to vote is not consistent with human rights. It held that this violated the right to free and fair elections, which is protected under Article 3 of Protocol 1 to the Human Rights Convention.
What’s the Solution?
Image of David Lidington: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Flickr
The big news is that the Council of Europe, the organisation of which the UK is a member and the Human Rights Court is a part, has accepted a deal from the UK. Under the proposals, devised by the Justice Secretary David Lidington, prisoners on temporary release and at home under curfew would be able to vote.
The government will change its policy and guidance to make clear that prisoners can both register to vote, and vote, while released on temporary licence
This means that about 100 offenders at any one time will be able to vote, where previously they couldn’t. The total UK prison population, in contrast, is just under 86,000. Despite this, Tory MP Philip Davies has stated that “I think giving the vote to any prisoners is idiotic”.
The proposals are also a lot stricter than some previous solutions proposed to the government. At the end of 2013, a Joint Committee established to advise the government on potential solutions recommended that prisoners serving under a year should be given the vote.
And They All Lived Happily Ever After?
The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has “strongly encouraged” the UK government to implement the plans as soon as possible. By doing so, the UK will be ending its age-old position that no prisoners should have the right to vote, and moving to a new position under which about 0.11 per cent of prisoners will have the right to vote.
The controversy of the proposals is in their symbolism. Many MPs insist that no prisoners should have the vote, as a matter of principle. On the other side of the argument, many will argue that the proposals still don’t do enough.
But the impact of the changes will be that (some) prisoners will now have the right to vote.