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Monday, September 20, 2010

Should prisoners have the right to vote?

Should prisoners have the right to vote?

By Philip Johnston

Nick Clegg gets all the good jobs. It falls to the Deputy Prime Minister, apparently, to explain to the country why prisoners should be given the right to vote for the first time. This is meant to be Kenneth Clarke’s task as Justice Secretary but the responsibility passed to Mr Clegg under the Coalition agreement.

However, this is not a personal hobby horse being ridden by the Lib Dem leader. It is about Britain being required to act upon a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights nearly six years ago.

The old adage held that lunatics, peers of the realm and guests of Her Majesty were not allowed to vote. Actually life peers can vote for elections to local councils, but not to the Commons. Hereditary peers can now vote in Westminster elections provided they are not also members of the House of Lords.

Laws prohibiting the rights of prisoners to vote date to the 14th century. The European Court did not rule that all prisoners should be allowed to vote, but that the blanket ban imposed by Britain was discriminatory. In other words, it opened the way for gradations of voting rights – some prisoners could be allowed to vote; the more serious serving life sentences should not.

The ruling was based on article 3 of the first protocol to the Human Rights Convention, under which European states agree to hold elections “under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people”. But the Human Rights Court accepted that national governments had a wide “margin of appreciation”, or discretion, in interpreting this undertaking.
“It should be for the legislature to decide whether any restriction on the right to vote should be tailored to particular offences, or offences of a particular gravity – or whether the sentencing court should be left with an overriding discretion to deprive a convicted person of his right to vote.”

The campaign to give prisoners the vote has won support from penal reformers and clergy. The argument goes that if there were votes to be gained MPs might start to pay more attention to the prisons system. But at the time, Dominic Grieve, now the Attorney General said it would be “ludicrous” to give prisoners the right to vote.

“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,” he said.

However, the punishment inflicted upon a prisoner is the deprivation of liberty – other rights, for example to be properly looked after, fed and given medical care, are not forfeited so why should voting rights be? If someone goes to jail for a political cause – eg refusing to pay council tax – should they then be denied a voice in the political process. On the other hand, the idea that some of our worst criminals – murderers and rapists – will be given the privilege of taking part in the democratic process will anger many people but they can be placed in a different category under the European ruling.

The last government ducked this issue and left it unresolved before the election turfed them out. Over to you, Mr Clegg.

1 comment:

phatboy said...

I think that I'm right in saying that failing to pay the poll tax/council tax is not a crime. You are sent to prison as a civil prisoner and remain eligible to vote.

I haven't looked it up and I may be wrong about that.

However, if non-tax payers are denied the right to vote then I personally don't have a problem with that. If they don't pay for the system then why should they chose the system?