Should prisoners be free to vote?


The UK has to decide whether to give prisoners the vote or disobey law themselves.


By Lorcan Lovett

In 1979 John Hirst killed his 63-year-old landlady, Bronia Burton, with a heavy hand axe. His plea of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility was accepted by prosecution.

In 2001 he was in court again. This time it was the High Court and he was challenging the UK’s blanket ban on prisoners voting under the Representation of the People Act 1983.

His claim was dismissed by Lord Justice Kennedy but this triggered a sequence of events that led to a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg; Mr Hirst’s rights to participate in the democratic process were breached. The UK now has to decide whether it will give prisoners the vote or disobey law themselves.

It is a predicament that makes Prime Minister David Cameron “physically ill even to contemplate” and has inspired MP Zac Goldsmith to tweet “MPs almost unanimously rejected votes for prisoners. If it happens all the same, does that mean the UK Parliament officially no longer matters?”

The UK’s decision to enter the European Union in 1972 added a new element to their constitution. EU law now automatically becomes part of national law, as with the other 26 member states, therefore questioning parliament’s sovereignty as Mr Goldsmith insinuated.

It was 2004, the year that Mr Hirst was released from prison, which saw the divisive ECHR ruling. It deemed a total ban on the right to vote for prisoners was illegal but individual countries could decide which, if any, prisoners should be denied the right.

The UK government appealed to the European Court’s grand chamber but on October 6 2005 it upheld the ruling. Since then both the Labour and the coalition government have opted for delay rather than action. This is set to change on the November 22 deadline when the government are due to reveal their plans.

At the start of November the UK’s prison population stood at 86,283. Those on remand currently have the right to vote yet a total shift towards the prisoner vote would grant this segment a political audience. 

Issues currently existing in jails such as overcrowding and violence are likely to be raised on the agenda. Local governments would need to consider their new constituents in elections. This muted minority would, for the first time in this country’s history, have a voice.  

Mr Hirst has been the central vocalist. He began reading law during his 25-year stretch in prison and in turn, campaign vigorously for penal reform. He has worked towards a system where all prisoners, from petty thief to paedophile, should have the right to vote.

The former convict says the government argues prisoners lost their moral authority when they committed the offences and now the EU courts have disagreed, prisoners are actually on the moral high ground.

“They have now got to admit to people; by the way, these prisoners we have been telling you are monsters, and evil, and everything else all these years, we now have got to admit that their human beings and entitled to human rights, that’s where it sticks in their claw.

“All this talk that the public are against it – no, not really. The Sun newspaper is, the Daily Mail, The Daily Express and certain right-wing MPs,” he said.

On October 24 the prime minister, while answering questions in the House of Commons, said prisoners are not getting the vote under this government. This follows a vote in the House in February last year where 234 to 22 called in favour of maintaining the blanket ban. If the House persists the November deadline will see a major collision with the ECHR and the UK.   

Mr Hirst added: “What Cameron has done is breached the ministerial code and its a resigning matter, he has got no option but to resign.

“The other November 22 was Kennedy’s assassination, so I should imagine that it could well happen to Cameron – he may fall on his sword.”

The Conservatives and Labour say they believe those given custodial sentences should not be entitled to vote yet the Liberal Democrats are likely to take a different stance. In late October the Lib Dems revealed 85% of members in a survey supported prisoners being given the right to vote although 55% would restrict that right to certain categories of prisoner.

Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith said he voted against extending voting rights to prisoners along with a majority in Parliament.

“I think it would be perverse if Parliament’s very clear will on the issue is overruled or undermined,” he said. “I don’t expect that to happen.”

The majority of European countries allow at least a proportion of imprisoned offenders to vote. Countries with no ban at all include Ireland, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland.

Those with limited voting rights include Germany, France, Italy and Netherlands. The minority of countries with a blanket ban include Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and the UK. 

Director of the Prison Reform Trust Juliet Lyon said the government’s programme of constitutional reform can bring the UK into line with the vast majority of countries in the Council of Europe.     

She added: “People are sentenced to custody to lose their liberty, not to be stripped of other fundamental human rights.

“Now the coalition government has the opportunity to put an end to an archaic punishment of civil responsibility.”

If the government continues to protect its sovereignty in this matter it can be expected to pay compensation to prisoners as a sanction from the Strasbourg court. The attorney general, Dominic Grieve, has also recently warned that Britain’s role as an international advocate for human rights would be jeopardised.

As Mr Hirst anticipates the next verdict, this time with the law of Europe at his side, government politicians prepare to unveil actions which could lead to a new type of democracy for the UK. Or just as likely, their arguments for the next ECHR tussle.

*SWLondoner would like to apologise to John Hirst for any previous inaccuracies that appeared in this article.

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Picture courtesy of ohi007, with thanks

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