Update | The Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Draft Bill has been released. It will not be put straight before Parliament for a vote; rather, it will be put to a Committee of both Houses for full Parliamentary scrutiny which could propose amendments, then back to the Government which will “reflect on its recommendations” and subsequently introduce a bill. There is no timetable set out for this process, but I imagine the Council of Europe may want a timetable imposed.
The bill sets out three options:
- A ban for prisoners sentenced to 4 years or more.
- A ban for prisoners sentenced to more than 6 months.
- A ban for all convicted prisoners – a restatement of the existing ban.
One interesting point on a quick read through is that option three “would re-enact the current general ban on prisoner voting, with some minor changes.” The language is indeed different to that used to enact the current ban, which is contained in section 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1983.
What, if anything, is the effect of this change of wording? [Update: See Carl Gardner's post and Joshua Rozenberg's article - the explanatory notes state that the new wording intends to make clear "that a prisoner remains disqualified from voting when on temporary release from prison."]
Today, the Government is to outline its legislative proposals on prisoner votes to Parliament. MPs are apparently to get three options to choose from, including removing the ban for prisoners serving six months or less and those serving four years or less. A third option will be to maintain the status quo, with no convicted prisoners being able to vote.
The timing is no coincidence; today is the Council of Europe’s (CoE) deadline for the UK to “bring forward legislative proposals” – see this press release. My view is that if Parliament ultimately chooses the status quo, i.e. that no additional prisoners will get the vote, this is unlikely to be enough to satisfy the CoE. After all, the Hirst No. 2 judgment was that the indiscriminate and blanket ban on convicted prisoners was unlawful. Therefore, to comply with the judgment, the UK must remove that indiscriminate ban. That said, as the court has also made clear, the UK is to be given a wide space within which to end the ban, which means it could comply by only giving a very limited number of prisoners the vote – my full thoughts are set out here.
One additional thought. I have already said that this could be very expensive for the UK. It could be that each prisoner, historically affected by the ban, could receive around £1,000 damages. But what about future prisoners? Taking this unfortunate impasse to its logical conclusion, many or all future prisoners will be affected by the ongoing breach. Unless I am missing something, they could, in principle, also be entitled to £1,000 each. A nice signing-on bonus for UK prisoners, although probably one that the public would object to.
All of this could be solved by giving a very limited number of prisoners the vote.
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- “No-one should be under any doubt – prisoners are not getting the vote under this government”
- More shenanigans on prisoner votes
- European Court of Human Rights retreats but doesn’t surrender on prisoner votes
- Prisoner votes and the democratic deficit
- Prisoner votes: a ping pong ball in a wind tunnel