The right to vote isn’t just a ‘nice to have’

Should prisoners have the right to vote? It sounds like a simple yes-no question and most people would probably be able to give a yes or no answer, but it is giving the government no end of headaches.

In Wednesday’s prime minister’s questions, David Cameron told MPs: ‘No one should be under any doubt – prisoners are not getting the vote under this government’.  For once, the Labour opposition agrees with him, although it has managed to score a political point or two out of the government’s confusion over the issue.

Confusion because although the government opposes the idea and is supported by most MPs, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ordered Britain to give prisoners the vote within six months.  That was nearly six months ago. 

And confusion because, although the PM has made his position abundantly clear, the government’s chief law officer, Attorney General Dominic Grieve, has also said he believes the government will have to give some prisoners the vote or risk being thrown out of the Council of Europe and losing its reputation for human rights on the international stage.

This is not a new dilemma.  The initial ECHR ruling was in March 2004 but the Labour government managed to delay doing anything, even though it did quite a lot of consulting on options for a change in policy.  Cameron had intended to comply with the ruling but changed his mind when he realised the strength of opposition from his backbench MPs and in the country .

I don’t know much about these things so I am probably missing some crucial technical point, but there appears to be a fairly straightforward solution.  The ECHR ruling does not require the UK to give all prisoners the right to vote, only that an absolute ban, regardless of the crime or sentence, is untenable.  But the court seems to have overlooked that some prisoners can already vote.

Those on remand or jailed for contempt of court and fine defaulters (and offenders not given a custodial sentence) retain their right to vote.  Surely the sensible way round this would be for Parliament to debate the issue and decide that these are the categories of prisoners allowed to vote.  Simple no?

On the other hand, maybe, just maybe, MPs could take this opportunity to have a sensible debate about our attitude to prisoners and their punishment and rehabilitation.  Some hope. 

So far our ideas of what constitutes rehabilitation have been shown to be somewhat ineffective:  In 2011, a record number of offenders sentenced for serious crimes had committed offences previously, 90% had offended before.  It is quite clearly time for a radical rethink.

Cameron and his new justice secretary Chris Grayling have, just this week, announced a new ‘tough but intelligent’ approach, combining tougher sentencing with more rehabilitation.  Sounds great, but I wonder how much attention they’ve paid to the intelligent rehabilitation bit and what works.   

Crime prevention charity Nacro says it ‘always comes back to the same priorities:  working to change attitudes; improving problem solving skills; tackling alcohol and drug problems; helping offenders build a stake in their own neighbourhoods through sustainable homes and jobs; and getting them to pay back for damage caused by their crimes.’

‘Building a stake in their own neighbourhood’.  That sounds a lot to me like developing some sense of civic engagement.  To make that happen, prisoners, many of whom come from highly dysfunctional and damaged backgrounds, have to learn about their rights and responsibilities under the democratic process, including voting.

In the dim and distant past, prisoners were denied the right to vote because of the concept of ‘civic death’. Somehow the ban has stuck around for over a century, even though this isn’t now a notion we would recognise or accept.  Rather we send people to prison to deprive them of their liberty, not their identity.  Or at least we should do. 

I realise this won’t cut much ice with many, particularly those who regard the ECHR as a ‘foreign court’, but you can’t pick and choose which human rights you uphold and which you will quietly ignore.  By denying prisoners the vote, the UK is out of step with all but five of the 47 countries in the Council of Europe. 

Further afield, in South Africa, all prisoners have the right to vote following a ruling by the constitutional court, which declared:  ‘The universality of the franchise is important not only for nationhood and democracy.  The vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and personhood.  Quite literally, it says that everybody counts’.

Are we really saying prisoners don’t count?  A past president of the Prison Governors’ Association (and they should know at least something about it) has said:  ‘The blanket ban on sentenced prisoners’ voting is out of step in a modern prison service and runs counter to resettlement work, which aims to ensure that prisoners lead a responsible, law-abiding life on release’.

If prisoners do ever get the vote, politicians will have to take more notice of their rights, needs and interests.  They’d have to canvass for votes inside prisons and listen to the views of those behind bars.  It’s quite possible this prospect doesn’t fill many of them with much joy.

The right to vote has been hard won and many around the world still don’t have it.  We should think more responsibly about who should be denied that right rather than simply imposing a crude ban across the whole prison population.  It shouldn’t be beyond the wit of man to come up with a system allowing prisoners voting rights according to the nature and severity of their crime. 

Alternatively, we could just lock ‘em all up and throw away the key.

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