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Thursday, November 04, 2010

Prisoners should be given right to vote

Prisoners should be given right to vote

Published on 3 Nov 2010

Herald Scotland

There is a traditional view that the disenfranchisement of convicted prisoners is an apposite way to demonstrate that disobeying the laws of a society renders a person unfit to participate fully in that society.

That was the intention of the Forfeiture Act of 1870. The deliberate withdrawal of citizenship rights was a form of intentional dehumanisation, a Victorian version of civic death. That thinking was perpetuated in the 1983 Representation of the People Act.

In 2004, the British Government lost a test case at the European Court of Human Rights. In essence, the judgment supported the view that imprisonment is intended to deprive individuals of their liberty but not strip them of their identity. Today, after six years of Government procrastination, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg will tell the Court of Appeal that the UK Government is throwing in the towel. As a result, more than 70,000 inmates in British jails will be allowed to vote. With Holyrood elections due next May, Scotland’s 7800 prisoners could be among the first to exercise the franchise from behind bars.

There are no votes in prison reform, at least not until now. With the honourable exception of the Liberal Democrats, all parties fear the fury of the right-inclined tabloids if they appear to have any truck with “lags’ rights”. That is why David Cameron was so quick to use Mr Clegg as his human shield in this matter. And that is why Alex Salmond is so relieved that, as a matter reserved to Westminster, voting has nothing to do with his Government. So it will be Westminster, not Holyrood, that picks up the tab if further foot-dragging results in compensation claims.

After the embarrassment and expense of failing to put an end to slopping out in prisons and the threat of more taxpayers’ money going on claims resulting from the Cadder judgment last week, the cost to the taxpayer is the most obvious reason to act quickly on prisoners’ voting rights. It will unleash another wave of whingeing about the European Convention on Human Rights. However, in general, the ECHR serves Britain well and dispensing with it because of this judgment would be totally disproportionate.

On balance, though the idea may be repellent to their victims, prisoners should be allowed to vote. Disenfranchisement is hardly a potent disincentive to commit crime. And, if prisoners are to be rehabilitated effectively, it is important that they feel they have a stake in society. And the vote would give prisoners a legitimate channel for airing grievances, removing the pretext for messy or dangerous protests.

Prisoners are drawn disproportionately from the poorest in society – from those who grew up in care, from those with educational needs and mental health problems, all groups already under-represented among voters. When certain groups are disenfranchised, democracy itself is damaged. That was the rationale for coalition forces allowing prisoners to vote in Iraq. Why not here, too?

There must be provisos. As individual prisons could swing marginal constituencies, prisoners must receive postal votes for their last known postal address, as is the case for remand prisoners. There is scope for excluding certain categories of prisoner but little rationale, with the possible exception of those convicted of electoral fraud.

Human rights are, by definition, for everyone. We cannot pick and choose the ones we like or who should receive them. Voting is not a privilege. It is a responsibility and a right.

1 comment:

James Higham said...

What do you mean "should be" given the right to vote? You won your highly publicized victory, John [did that room look familiar to me?] and Cameron acknowledges he can't stand in your way.