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Monday, May 31, 2010

Government surrenders on prisoners’ votes

Government surrenders on prisoners’ votes

Sunday, May 30th, 2010

IAIN Dale called me this afternoon to invite me to contribute to a discussion on his LBC Radio show. The subject was whether prisoners should have the vote. Iain knew my views on this were robust. I agreed to appear.

I confess I didn’t know what had prompted the inclusion of the topic in the programme until I got back home and read the Observer’s report about general unhappiness and impatience that the UK government still hasn’t obeyed orders from the European Court of Human Rights that some prisoners should be allowed to vote.

What is particularly interesting about the report is this quote in the Observer’s online edition from a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Justice:

The government is considering the best way forward on the issue of prisoner voting rights. Until the approach is settled, it would not be appropriate to make further comments.

But in the actual print edition, the spokeswoman does indeed make further comment. In fact she is reported to have added:

Disenfranchisement is an outdated, disproportionate punishment which has no place in a modern prison system with a renewed emphasis on rehabilitation and resettlement.

Pardon me? A spokeswoman for the government said that? So it’s already been decided by ministers – including, I assume, our new Home Secretary – that not allowing prisoners the vote is “outdated, disproportionate” and “has no place in a modern prison system”? When was that decided? When did parliament have the opportunity to come to a decision?

The faultline in all of this, of course, is the LibDems; they generally support giving prisoners the vote and Tories, despite their many faults, don’t. The logic seems to be that allowing criminals to vote while they’re incarcerated will be an incentive to reform themselves, to connect with society and help them feel they have a stake in it. Once allowed the right to have a say in who forms the government at either local or national level, then all that resentment at missing their families and friends, at losing their very freedom, their right to associate with whoever they want, the resentment at having to share a cell with a large, scary-looking bloke with a scar and disrespect for your personal space… all of this will be more than outweighed by the prospect of placing that cross on the ballot paper.

You’ll have gathered by now that I’m unconvinced. I would be interested in seeing some research into how many of our current prison population have actually voted before and who desperately miss the opportunity. It’s hard enough persuading ordinary citizens to cast their vote without worrying about those who chosen a course of action which they know will deprive them of that particular right. If increasing numbers of citizens are placing less value on their vote – for whatever reason – what makes campaigners think that giving it to prisoners will make the slightest bit of difference to their eventual rehabilitation?

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