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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Democracy must be allowed behind bars

Democracy must be allowed behind bars

If we want prison to work, inmates must have the vote, argues Ben Fox

by Ben Fox

Sunday, November 14th, 2010

We may have forgotten the disgraceful scenes at polling stations where hundreds of people were unable to vote at the 2010 general election. But these people were denied their votes through administrative incompetence. Some 70,000 Britons were also denied access to the democratic process because of a blanket ban on prisoners voting, which dates back to the Forfeiture Act of 1870. Following successive rulings by the European Court of Human Rights that this is illegal, British law will now have to be changed. And, despite an outpouring of fury from the Conservatives and, regrettably, some Labour MPs, this is the right course of action.

The new changes follow six years of government attempts to dodge and delay. In 2004, the court ruled that Britain was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights to disenfranchise all prisoners. In 2006, the Labour Government launched a consultation on the issue. Unfortunately, that came to nothing. Britain now stands virtually alone in the Western world in denying its prison inmates the vote.

The case against votes for prisoners is a valid one and formed the basis of the Forfeiture Act. This established the principle of “civic death” – a withdrawal of citizenship rights for those who had committed a crime serious enough to remove them from regular society. Tory MP Robert Buckland put the case eloquently when he told the House of Commons recently that: “The ultimate expression of liberty is the right to vote, and that the principle is that it should be surrendered upon conviction and imprisonment.” However, an opposing line is also legitimate: that voting is an inalienable right, not a privilege, which no one has the right to take away.

This a highly emotive issue, particularly for those who have been victims of violent crimes. However, perhaps the most convincing argument in favour of change was made by Douglas Hurd, a former Conservative Home Secretary. He said that the only pressure on him to improve prison conditions was his own conscience. “If prisoners had the vote, MPs would take a good deal more interest in prisons and making them better”. Hurd’s views are supported by the Prison Governors Association, former Chief Inspector of Prisons Lord Ramsbottom, the Prison Reform Trust and numerous other crime reduction charities.

And this is the crux of the problem. Our prisons are overcrowded, underfunded and failing. Prison should be about rehabilitation, not simply a place where offenders get angrier, more frustrated and more likely to re-offend. Figures from the Howard League for Penal Reform show that 60 per cent of prisoners re-offend within two years. There is a 74 cent rate for young men.

Prison does not work. If other public services had such an appalling record, there would be rioting in the streets. Sadly, with the “bang ’em up and throw away the key” mentality that pervades our society, many people don’t care. That is, until theirs is the house that gets burgled.

Prisons are failing because there is no political incentive to improve them. The best way to put prison conditions on the political agenda, which shouldn’t be difficult considering how the electorate focuses on law and order policies, is to give prisoners the vote.

But the debate following the latest judgement by the ECHR was the House of Commons at its worst. Tory MPs lined up to peddle the familiar line of blaming “those meddling foreigners”, ignoring the fact that Britain signed up to the European Convention of Human Rights in 1948 and has been bound by it ever since. Mark Pritchard bizarrely tried to blame the Human Rights Act, while Charles Walker seemed to think the whole thing was still negotiable. It isn’t. Besides, the ECHR has consistently said that countries can decide which offences should carry a voting ban. So there is no reason to think that convicted killer John Hirst, who took the case to the ECHR, will benefit.

But Labour’s attitude has been disappointing. Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan argued that the ECHR decision had been “forced” on Britain. Not true. We have just refused to implement the law. Admittedly, giving prisoners the vote is not likely to win votes, but we should remember Tony Blair’s famous line about being “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. The truth is that, in government, Labour did plenty of the former and took precious little action on the former.

Either way, the Government will now have to change the law. It may be that, like France and Germany, they leave the decision on the right to vote to the court. Prisoners with mental illnesses and those serving indefinite or genuine “life” sentences should still be denied the vote. But these are a tiny fraction of the country’s 70,000 inmates.

We must hope that common sense will start to emerge from Labour – the Liberal Democrats have long supported votes for inmates, and they are right. Although a minority of criminals can never be allowed back into regular society, the fundamental purpose of prison is to re-habilitate and give offenders the tools to re-integrate and start again. If we can make prison work, then crime rates will drop. Giving prisoners their right to vote is a good start.

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