MPs 'shameful' in opposing prisoners' voting rights

By staff writers
10 Feb 2011

Prison reformers have expressed dismay at the determination of most MPs in the Westminster parliament to defy a legal call to end the British ban on prisoners having the vote.

Today the House of Commons overwhelmingly voted (by 234 to 22) to keep the current prohibition on inmates voting, going directly against a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights.

Prime Minister David Cameron has said that the idea of people in prison getting the franchise makes him "physically sick", and parliamentarians today rushed to express their effective contempt and loathing for people in prison.

Senior Tory backbencher David Davis and former Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw tabled the 10 February 2011 motion opposing reform.

Ministers acknowledge that they have no choice but to comply with the ECHR ruling, but say they will do the "minimum necessary" under European law. This may include restricting the right to inmates serving less than four years or even shorter sentences.

However, this is unlikely to satisfy the courts, and taxpayers could also end up footing bills for millions of pounds in compensation because of MPs' intransigence.

The government have until April 2011 to say how they will respond to the European Court judgement.

But reformers say that this reaction against prisoners' enfranchisement is visceral, ill-informed, and morally as well as legally wrong.

In sentencing people to prison, courts deny people liberty as punishment, but they do not withdraw citizenship - which includes democratic rights.

Several MPs, including Labour's Jeremy Corbyn and Liberal Democrat Tom Brake, warned that the UK could not and should not "pick and choose" which parts of the European Convention of Human Rights it subscribed to.

Mr Brake said that banning prisoners from voting was "illogical", and that the right to vote was part of the process of rehabilitation.

"Release from prison is not the point at which prisoners should re-engage with society," he declared. "I do not want to shut the door on prisoners ready and willing to re-engage with society and sign up to the tenets that underpin it. As anyone who has visited a prison will know there are some prisoners seeking that engagement."

Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes MP also opposed the ban.

Dr Susan Easton, a reader in law at Brunel University and the author of Prisoners' Rights: Principles and Practice (Routledge 2011), has argued that "Just as people in jail have a fundamental right not to be tortured, so too do they have a right to take part in elections."

In a recent article for the Guardian newspaper, she wrote: "The hostility to prisoners' voting rights reflects a wider hostility to prisoners' rights, but it is already firmly established in both Strasbourg and the domestic courts, that prisoners carry their rights under the European convention with them into prison, including the right not to be subjected to torture, inhuman and degrading treatment and the right to respect for private and family life – even this latter right, while qualified by the constraints of imprisonment, is not extinguished."

She added: "Although prisoner voting is presented as alien and threatening, it is permitted in many other states and clearly the exclusion of prisoners is incompatible with the principle of universal suffrage which lies at the heart of democratic societies. To link rights with deservedness is to misunderstand the nature of a fundamental right. Moreover, votes for prisoners were granted in the Irish Republic in 2006 and many other states, including the Netherlands, permit prisoners to vote without adverse social effects."

Simon Barrow, co-director of the beliefs and values thinktank Ekklesia, which works for alternatives to prison, commented: "Today's vote is sad testimony to the popular prejudice and spite which informs reaction to the general issue of prisoners' rights and to the specific question of enfranchisement. It is also shameful that many of our parliamentarians should be so cavalier in their willingness to restrict democratic freedom and renege on treaty obligations."

He added: "Encouraging and enabling prisoners to change their ways and to become responsible citizens will not be possible if they are treated as lesser human beings or are denied basic components of citizenship, in addition to their freedom."

"What this political opposition to the European Court's rightful ruling illustrates is that the whole culture of incarcerating people generates attitudes of neglect, disregard and anger - in those who are imprisoned and also in those who uphold, legislate and entrench the current system.

"Penal reform, restorative justice programmes, community punishment, citizenship training and alternatives to prison are the route forward - in the interests of stemming crime, protecting victims and making society a healthier place, as well as acting responsibly and justly towards inmates."

[Ekk/3]

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