MPs last night backed a motion in favour of continuing a blanket ban on prisoners being allowed to vote, in defiance of the European Court of Human Rights.
The House of Commons’ decision, which is advisory only and not binding on the government, was passed overwhelmingly on a vote of 234 to 22. The motion was presented by senior Tory backbencher David Davis and Labour’s former Home Secretary Jack Straw.
The government says it has no choice but to end the ban on inmates voting, as otherwise it could face being sued for tens of millions of pounds for breaching prisoners’ human rights.
At present in the UK only prisoners on remand or imprisoned for contempt or default are allowed to vote. All other convicted criminals are barred from taking part in elections – including several former parliamentarians who have fallen foul of the law.
In 2005, the European Court of Human Rights ruled this blanket ban to be unlawful, and in June 2010, the Council of Europe, which enforces the court’s decrees, urged the UK government to rectify the situation.
For the government, the Attorney General Dominic Grieve said he was “frustrated” by the current situation, but argued the judgement was an “international obligation” as the UK is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights.
It is likely that a compromise will be reached and legislation brought in front of the House of Commons in time. While a blanket ban has been ruled illegal, a more selective one would be perfectly acceptable.
I would expect the government to do the minimum necessary under European law, which would be to restrict the right to vote to inmates serving sentences of four years or less.
The matter raises issues regarding the role of prisoners in society. Many would argue that those who commit crimes forfeit their rights to take part in civic society. Others believe that giving prisoners rights is a part of the rehabilitation process.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter, it seems certain that at least some prisoners will have the right to vote in the future. How many will choose to use it is perhaps another matter that will prove interesting.
But I love the notion of prospective MSPs trooping around Barlinnie to canvas potential voters.