No rational basis for denying all prisoners the vote, concludes joint Parliamentary Committee

18 December 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-12-18 at 07.28.46The Parliamentary Joint Committee on the Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill today published its report – you can read it in full here (PDF/HTML/conclusions). I gave evidence to the committee a few weeks ago – you can watch again here.

The report strongly recommends enacting legislation so that ” all prisoners serving sentences of 12 months or less should be entitled to vote in all UK parliamentary, local and European elections”.  The recommendation could not  be more emphatic, with the committee concluding, amongst other things:

  • “the United Kingdom is under a binding international law obligation to comply with the Hirst judgment”
  • “it would be completely unprecedented for any state that has ratified the European Convention on Human Rights to enact legislation in defiance of a binding ruling of the European Court of Human Rights”
  • “the arguments for relaxing this prohibition are, on any rational assessment, persuasive”
  • “The Government has failed to advance a plausible case for the prohibition in terms of penal policy”
  • “disenfranchisement linked to detention is an ineffective and arbitrary punishment”
  • “We acknowledge that public opinion appears at present to be against prisoners voting. However, it is difficult to judge how deep-rooted these views are, given that the debate over prisoner voting has so often been lost in the wider debate over the United Kingdom’s relationships both with the European Court of Human Rights and the European Union”
  • “The public has yet to be presented either with the clear evidence that the current prohibition is both arbitrary and ineffective”
  • only five Council of Europe states still “maintain a comprehensive prohibition on prisoner voting, the others being Armenia, Bulgaria, Estonia and Russia”
  • “we do not believe that the Government itself should be proposing to Parliament an option that it knows to be unlawful”l [i.e. a bill, as proposed by the Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling, with an option maintaining the status quo]

So, a powerful statement of the Government’s rule of law responsibilities as well as a crushing indictment of the current policy on simple grounds of rationality.

The Government should listen very carefully to this joint committee and do what is right by complying with its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. The committee has found  that “arguments for relaxing this prohibition are, on any rational assessment, persuasive“. The Government, and the Prime Minister who hitherto has found it difficult to stomach the idea of any prisoners voting, should now do what is right on this issue, not what they think is popular.

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5 comments


  1. Nathan Roberts says:

    Out of how many of these people are genuinely going to take up the offer to vote anyway. Perhaps out of those that do, there would be a positive notion that he or she is engaging with society to some extent, which is usually a good thing. I am sure some would say, it depends who they voted for; I would have to agree, maybe a vote for some ‘political’ parties is indicative of a bad thing!. If the government want to claim that Strasbourg hasn’t took away the supreme authority, perhaps they can sleep in the knowledge that they could save paper by legislating that only prisoner’s that ‘request’ to vote are sent a voting card, it would save on printing costs!.

  2. ObiterJ says:

    One would like to think that political action always had a rational basis but it can have more to do with retaining votes. If political parties perceived loss of votes on this issue then there would have been no debate because Hirst 2 would have been complied with. Regrettably and almost certainly under the influence of news media such as Daily Mail, the government does not see any loss of votes. It is rather the reverse. They see loss of votes by granting this.

    ” …. the debate over prisoner voting has so often been lost in the wider debate over the United Kingdom’s relationships both with the European Court of Human Rights and the European Union”

    I am not entirely sure of that comment. Some notable politicians have made the prisoner voting issue very central to the whole debate about the relationship with Strasbourg. Your many blogposts amply demonstrate the value of our present system of human rights protection. Prisoner voting is a mere sidewind which is being used to undermine the whole of human rights protection in this country.

  3. Tim says:

    I don’t like how some people seem to think a ‘minimalist’ approach is good.

    The most important reason is that it almost amounts to contempt of the ECtHR, but in the very least. it goes against the whole spirit of the enterprise. What is the point of having international human rights set-ups if members can be selective about what rulings they obey or even how they implement rulings. Keep the ‘subsidiarity principle’ in the EU where it belongs, please, not the ECtHR, where it does not.

    Is there a ECtHR version of the ‘Golden rule’? John Hirst brought and won his case and his sentence was far in excess of, what, 1 year. So it seems quite absurd to presume that it was the intention of the court that it is OK to blanket ban everybody who gets a long sentence.

    Just give them all the vote – that’s lawful and is what ‘universal franchise’ means.

  4. truthaholics says:

    Isn’t clinging to little island supremacism pathetic in this day and age?
    Time to put up or shut up, and embrace the future wholeheartedly, instead of recycling disingenuously racist chestnuts, given we all live treaty-bound in a post-colonial reality now.

  5. All the more extraordinary, then, that the committee was not unanimous. Three members, including the chairman, voted for giving parliament the option of passing legislation in breach of the UK’s international obligations.

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