Tuesday, 28 September 2010

A prisoner's right to vote

Having found myself in agreement with Peter Hain over a question of arithmetic (see previous posting), I must protest at his gratuitous & illiberal attack on Nick Clegg (which is remarkably similar to that by David Cameron before the general election) for advocating that the UK should finally legislate to give all but the worst offenders the vote.

In fact, as Robert Chesshyre pointed out in an article in the Independent in February of this year, "the Government pledged – reluctantly and under extreme pressure from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) – to introduce votes for at least some convicted prisoners". So Nick was only stating the policy of the last Labour government.

Chesshyre goes on: "the Committee of Ministers at the Council of Europe is fed up with British foot-dragging. A blanket ban on votes for convicted prisoners (those on remand or in jail in civil cases can vote) was declared 'unlawful' by the European Court six years ago." (It should be noted that the Council of Europe goes back further than the EU, and that the UK was a member from the start,) "European ministers, tired of waiting, have warned 'the substantial delay in implementing the judgment has given rise to a significant risk that the next UK general election will be performed in a way that fails to comply with the Convention on Human Rights'." So far nobody has demanded that the election be declared null and void on these grounds, much to the relief of Returning Officers up and down the land. 

Chesshyre believes that the foot-dragging had more to do with the fear of screaming headlines than with the practical or moral problems. I had the sneaking suspicion that Labour may also have been influenced by the fairly well-established fact that most habitual criminals would vote Conservative, given the chance. 

It is not as if the proposal is to allow Ian Huntley and his ilk the vote. "Most European countries set a threshold relating to the crime or length of sentence," writes Chesshyre,. "Those considered particularly bad or dangerous can't vote: the rest of the prison population can. By failing to take the necessary action, we [find ourselves] in a minority many might consider dubious company – Bulgaria, Romania and Armenia are among our fellow naysayers. Our major European partners – France, Germany and Italy – all allow some (in practice, usually most) prisoners to vote."

We are often told that voting is not just a right, but also a responsibility. If we are to reintegrate prisoners into society,  the ability to vote is as important as visitation rights.


Anonymous said...

If you've done anything over 3 months in one of her majesties hotels, you will automatically be barred from holding a local authority position (i.e. Councillor) however, you can do bird, come out, and the following day stand for MP if an election takes place....doesn't seem right somehow.

Frank H Little said...

You're right, councillors & MPs should be treated the same.

Another unfairness is that a speeding motorist, who could be putting lives in danger, can get away with a fine and thus be free to vote, while someone who is on a short sentence for something really trivial would not be.