Democracy and penal reform campaigners have warmly welcomed the news that thousands of prisoners in the UK are to get the right to vote after a European ruling found the present 140-year-old ban breaches human rights.
On the advice of their lawyers, the Coalition Government is set to confirm tomorrow that it is at last ready to change the law to comply with a 2004 European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling - after delaying tactics by the previous Labour government and implacable opposition from most Conservatives.
Since 1870, sentenced prisoners have not been allowed to vote in the UK. Reformers say that excluding them from civil society and democracy is not an acceptable part of punishment, but a denial of basic dignity and rights.
Prime Minister David Cameron is said to be "exasperated and furious" at the development.
Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Frances Crook, said: "We welcome the government's decision to acknowledge this longstanding judgment from the European courts.
"One of the hallmarks of citizenship is the right to vote. At the same time, voting is both a right and a responsibility. If we want prisoners to return safely to the community, feeling they have a stake in society, then the right to vote is a good means of engaging individuals with the responsibilities of citizenship.
“We understand the government is still looking at excluding some prisoners from voting, in particular prisoners serving sentences of four years or more. One way the government could enfranchise this group would be to link their plans to make long sentenced prisoners work and pay tax to voting rights, as taxation and representation should ideally go hand in hand.”
Director of Unlock Democracy, Peter Facey commented: "Unlock Democracy believe voting is a fundamental human right and that despite being incarcerated prisoners remain members of society."
He continued: "As well as punishing those convicted of crimes, prison should also offer scope for rehabilitation. Prisoners should lose their liberty, not their rights. If you deny prisoners their democratic voice you will only succeed in further alienating them from the very society you want to reintegrate them into."
"There have been a long line of changes to electoral law over the years, such as granting the vote to Roman Catholics, woman, the poor and those under 18. These were immensely controversial reforms at the time that have all now become embedded in our political culture. We believe a change of this nature will also," said Facey.
Simon Barrow, co-direct of the beliefs and values think-tank Ekklesia, which has long advocated enfranchising people in prison said: "Today's news that prisoners will be given the right to vote at last is very welcome, though we have yet to see how the government may seek to hedge in that right. A move from retributive to restorative justice, as well as a concern for human dignity, suggests that it is morally wrong and socially damaging to deny people in prison any stake in the democratic process."
Barrow added: "Other issues about who gets to participate and what weight is given to their voice follow from this decision. Our argument is that the case for a proportional voting system is also at root a moral one about participation and equal political worth.
"Similarly, the case for changing the voting age also needs to be reconsidered. The enthusiasm of many young people and children for having a say in how their society is run - through school elections, civic initiatives and the annual Youth Parliament, for example - shows how important this could be for us all. As disillusion continues among large sections of the adult population, reform and renewal of our political institutions and procedures remains vital."