Give prisoners the right to voteSeptember 19, 2008 at 2:02 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour, Prison Reform | 5 Comments
Tags: Prison Reform, UN
For anyone keeping score, there are nine European countries which ban all prisoners from voting in elections. These are: Armenia, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Luxembourg, Romania, Russia and the United Kingdom. For those of us who believe this to be a pretty embarrassing deficit in our democracy, being in the company of seven countries whose democratic processes are younger than I am really drives the point home.
For many years prison reform charities campaigned, with little success, for this law to be overturned, until the court in Strasbourg finally ruled that it was against a prisoner’s human rights to deny them the vote. Trouble is, that ruling was over four years ago, and since then the franchise hasn’t been extended to a single inmate. In fact, the only concrete step the government has taken to meet their legal obligation was the launch of a ‘consultation process’ in 2006, but this was apparently so insufficient that Jack Straw’s still insisting they need a “more detailed public consultation on how voting rights might be granted to serving prisoners”. No date for this ‘second consultation’ has been set, of course. Anyone would think they were dragging their feet.
So the recent call by the UN to extend the vote to prisoners is a very welcome intervention. In their report on the state of British civil liberties, the UNHCR states that “the general deprivation of the right to vote for convicted prisoners may not meet the requirements” of the UN’s own human rights covenant. But whilst the UN’s statement is useful for being another source of pressure for the government to act, the reason to give inmates the vote isn’t because of any wooly-minded abstraction about human rights. No, for the prisoners themselves, the reasons are all too practical.
As I’ve detailed over & over & over again, the prisons service is in a grim place right now. Jails are at record capacity. Inmates are killing themselves, self-harming or becoming hooked on drugs, and our efforts towards reducing reoffending have stalled. With the proposed new ‘Titan Prisons’ having been roundly condemned by penal reform advocates, there’s really no knowing when the situation will improve, nor how many lives will have been ruined before it does.
There is so much that is badly broken with our prison system, but because prisoners don’t have a vote, they don’t have a voice. If it wasn’t for groups like the Prison Reform Trust and a handful of MPs of good conscience, there wouldn’t be anyone to publicise the need for penal reform at all, let alone do something about it. By extending the franchise you have the potential to turn inmates into active constituents, and become a voting block that MPs and Parliamentary candidates would be forced to sit up and listen to. As John Hirst, the ex-inmate who brought the landmark case against the government, said in 2004: “Until now there have been no votes in jails and so MPs did nothing about penal reform.”
But four years have passed and time is quickly running out. By most objective estimates, we’ll be under a Tory government within two years at the latest, and if you think Labour’s been bad on this issue, just wait until you hear how Dominic Greive, the then Shadow Attorney General, reacted to the idea back in 05:
“Giving prisoners the vote would be ludicrous. If convicted rapists and murderers are given the vote it will bring the law into disrepute and many people will see it as making a mockery of justice.”
We can’t let this window of opportunity pass; by giving prisoners the vote, Labour could begin to make amends for the mess it’s made, but it if it doesn’t move quickly, it could all be too late.