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Why it is wrong to stop all prisoners from voting

February 10, 2011

Debate is currently taking place in the House of Commons on whether prisoners should be able to vote.  The debate will not lead to a decision today. That will have to wait until the government brings forward legislation later in the year.

I know that popular opinion on this issue is firmly against prisoners voting.  If you commit a crime and get locked up at Her Majesty’s pleasure, then you lose all your rights…   Well, I guess that this is what most people will read in the tabloid papers and if you stopped someone in the street and asked them the question, that would be their instant response.

But I’m afraid I don’t agree.  Making the case for rights for prisoners will not make me popular and I know I could do with doing something populist right now!  Every time I’ve spoken on education for prisoners, or job training or even for them to be able to watch TV, I”ve received hostile letters and emails.

But prisoners (with a tiny number of exceptions) are released.  And I want them to be better citizens when they come out than when they went behind bars.  The current prison regime fails miserably on this score as many ex-cons soon re-offend.  The answer is not to lock them up for longer.  It is to work constructively with them when they are in our care. Education and skills are essential.  Not just literacy and numeracy (at child levels for most prisoners) but also how to be a good citizen.  Voting is part of being a citizen.  When we lock people up they don’t stop being our fellow citizens.  They lose their liberty but they don’t have to lose all their civil rights.

The above is a mixture of principles and pragmatism.  But today’s debate is also about the rule of law.  Britain has lost a court case.  Some of my MP colleagues want our government to become a law breaker, by denying the right to vote to law breakers.  We should expect higher standards from government.  I was horrified to hear a Tory MP refer to the Strasbourg based judges as “unelected bureaucrats” at yesterdays PMQs.

In 1950 Britain was a founder member of the Council of Europe.  Nothing to do with the European Union, that comes later.  The Council of Europe was founded to promote human rights in a continent just ravaged by war, with civilians the main victims.  Britain is a signatory to the Treaty and since 1999 and the Human Rights Act our courts have had to recognise the European Convention on Human Rights.

The basic principle is that all adults should have the right to chose their law makers.  There should be no blanket rules removing that right from whole classes of people.  That does not mean that every individual must always have their full set of human rights.  In certain circumstances, those rights can be restricted.  So the court ruling does not mean all prisoners should be able to vote.

I want Parliament to make it clear that prisoners, as citizens, should have the right to vote unless their crime is of a nature that it infringed the fundamental human rights of another citizen or society.  So terrorists, murderers and rapists should be excluded.  But it should be for the judge, when passing sentence, to decide whether the right to vote should be stripped from these people and for how long.

The PM says he finds giving prisoners the vote “stomach churning” and I know many will agree with him.  But I would find giving financial compensation to convicts because our government is breaking the law even more nauseating.  That’s what will eventually happen if we fail to comply with the court’s judgement.

I doubt if many prisoners would actually use their right to vote.  But it is a right that I believe they should have.  Rehabilitation is more effective than retribution.  And human rights are too precious to be sacrificed on the altar of populism.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. Luke Shore permalink
    February 10, 2011 5:12 pm

    Absolutely! Well said. In a democracy everyone may vote, no exceptions. Their view is as good as ours and they have a right to exercise it through voting. This just demonstrates that they don’t care about democracy, only when it helps them. Human rights are universal and can never be taken away.

  2. David Gould permalink
    February 10, 2011 7:22 pm

    A couple of small points.

    1. I don’t care if prisoners vote. I don’t even care if I’m allowed to vote as long as we have a system that gets the best people running the country. Optimistic I know.
    2. These rights are law only in the sense that courts may ward damages to a single person, a case at a time. Since Blair demolished our actual legal rights, the utterly inadequate HRA is all we have to protect ourselves from the state.

  3. February 10, 2011 11:02 pm

    You make some very good points, but the idea that a Lib Dem, representing Bristol West is taking some political risk by supporting prisoner voting makes me laugh. You know, I’m sure that your views will be widely held by a large proportion of your constituents – certainly those who read your blog. It’s a clever attempt at showing you’re still ‘liberal’.

  4. hannah permalink
    February 11, 2011 11:19 am

    Well said Stephen.

  5. RobC permalink
    February 11, 2011 12:02 pm

    If the sentence is four years or less that sounds about right to me as it roughly coincides with the length of a parliamentary term. Handing out the right to vote based on the nature of the crime sounds wholly impractical to me and the cause of much potential legal wrangling – for example what about someone sentenced to 7 years for say a serious VAT carousel fraud – has he “infringed the fundamental human rights of another citizen or society”? It has to be kept simple to be workable.

  6. Paul W permalink
    February 11, 2011 12:09 pm

    I agree with you on prisoners voting but this is an issue on which reasonable people can differ. Therefore the decision should be left to elected Parliaments and not to courts.

    “Unelected bureaucrats” actually seems a good description of the Strasbourg judges. What would you call them?

    Important cases already go through three tiers of courts in the Uk, with at least nine judges considering them. Do we really need Strasbourg as well? Freeing ourselves of its jurisdiction, as suggested by former Law Lord Lenny Hoffman, would lead to a great saving in time and money with no downside.

    • February 11, 2011 8:28 pm

      Paul – I am a British Parliamentarian so will also jealously guard our role. But I also believe in building a peaceful future based on international cooperation and the rule of law. The UN, EU, NATO and the Council of Europe (who’s human rights convention we are breaking) have all contributed to peace for Western Europe in the last 60 years and there is much potential to build on this in SE Europe and further afield.

  7. February 13, 2011 7:31 pm

    Wow. That is very well said.

    By the way, as far as I’m aware, the ECHR does _not_ say that prisoners can never be denied the right to vote. They can in individual cases if the judge sees that as fitting. Election fraud is an obvious example where it is probably an appropriate part of the punishment, but judges may come up with good arguments to deny certain criminals the right to vote.

    • February 14, 2011 11:01 pm

      Martijn – yes what you say is correct. As you can see from my post, I support judges making the decision when to withhold the right to vote as part of the sentence, within parameters set by Parliament.

      • February 15, 2011 9:05 am

        Yes, sorry, didn’t mean to suggest you didn’t say that. It just shows that “EU says child murderers should be able to vote” is wrong for two reasons.

  8. Philip Morris permalink
    February 14, 2011 3:57 pm

    Like a lot of things that Judges and M.P.s state – this has not been thought through.
    For instance in which constituancy will prisoners vote – Think a bit, Darmoor does not take local prisoners, neither does Parkhurst, If a prisoner is moved from Bristol prison to Dartmoor does the prison service have to notify Bristol City Council ? Or if a prisoner goes to Birmengham then on to an open prion – who pays for all the admin in keeping tabs on which constituate is where.
    It is all very well stating that everyone has Human Rights – did the convicted person who mugged my daughter think of her human rights as he beat her up and robbed her ? Perhaps I am too close to the issue – but does the car thief think of the owner of the car, whom has no means of travel to work on the morning he/she comes out to find their car has been stolen ?
    Everyone has Human Rights but they have to be earned and respected by all of the people whom expect to fall back on them.

    • February 14, 2011 11:04 pm

      Philip. Re place of voting – prisoners would almost certainly be registered to vote at their last known fixed address, rather like overseas voters. They would obviously have postal votes.

      I would support violent assault as one of the crimes where a judge could strip someone convicted of such an offence of their vote.

  9. Philip Morris permalink
    February 15, 2011 8:29 pm

    Mr Webb
    Like all mPs I have come across, you fail to address the issue, who pays for the City Council keeps tabs on the prisoner – for instance a prisoner from your constituancy how would the Election Officer keeps tabs on the prisoner ; so to send out the postal vote ? (I assume that prisoners will not be given day release to travel to their last known fixed address to vote). I know of a prisoner from this area, whom was at Ford Prison during the Christmas riot, he is now in Manchester.
    Overseas voters are normally at a fixed abode. Prisoners move around the prison system.

    Would you not better serve the electorial service by ensuring that residents of Bristol are on the electoral role – and those that refuse to go on the register – are subject to the law, a £1,000 fine.

  10. Philip Morris permalink
    February 15, 2011 8:32 pm

    Sorry to give you more work, but perhaps you could answer the following question for me – as I am unable to find the answer on the internet.

    How many E.U. Countries allow convicted prisoner to vote in their Countries Elections ?

    • February 15, 2011 10:49 pm

      Philip – I am Stephen Williams, not Steve Webb – a common local mistake!

      The admin of prisoners voting would be much simpler than say overseas British citizens.

      This matter is absolutely nothing to do with the EU. I will try to find the info on which other countries allow prisoners to vote.

  11. Philip Morris permalink
    February 16, 2011 4:24 am

    Sorry Mr Williams
    No insult intended, I wish you luck in find out which Countries allow votes to prisoners, I even telephoned the Commission and attemted to find a telephoned number for the E.C.H.R. with no lucj.

  12. Philip Morris permalink
    March 2, 2011 5:49 pm

    Mr Williams
    Still no reply to the question I raised re ‘which europian country, at present gives convicted prisoners the right to vote in their counries elections’ ? Can I take the silence to be that NO countries within Europe allow convicted prisoners to vote ?

    • March 2, 2011 6:52 pm

      No, you shouldn’t! This is the situation in the Council of Europe:

      20 countries allow all prisoners to vote;
      12 allow a restricted number to vote
      10 (incl UK) disbar all prisoners and are therefore in breach of the convention.

  13. robbie permalink
    October 24, 2012 12:03 pm

    “That does not mean that every individual must always have their full set of human rights.” Yes it does! The agruement for removing the right to vote is that it is a civil right not a human right, Human right are inalienable.

  14. Meg permalink
    October 24, 2012 4:14 pm

    Prisoner voting rights – so does the prison population have more Labour, Tories or LibDems? There appear to be no statistics available that I can find. Just wondering.

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