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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Votes for prisoners

Votes for prisoners

Derek Brown, Guardian Weekly, Tuesday 15 February 2011 13.59 GMT

Out for the count ... but prisoners should have a vote too, says Strasbourg. Photograph: Graham Barclay/Bloomberg

Prisoners are, by definition, among the most governed people in the country. Every waking and sleeping moment is regulated and directed by the authorities, the judiciary, and ultimately the government. Yet they are not allowed to vote in national and European elections.

Quite right, too, says Middle England. They have broken the law, so they have no right to help make the law. Wrong, says the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which ruled years ago that the blanket ban on prisoners voting, imposed in 1870, was an infringement of their rights. Now the House of Commons has voted overwhelmingly against the court, and in favour of retaining the ban.

Or has it? The vote was certainly emphatic: 234 to 22. But more than half of MPs abstained, or couldn't be bothered. And the motion came from the backbenches, which means it is not binding on the government, which has until August to comply with the court (and thus uphold our treaty obligations) by lifting the ban. Defying the Strasbourg judges could be costly: there are more than 2,500 outstanding claims for compensation for the lack of voting rights, and the potential bill could run to £70m ($112m).

The issue is further coloured by prejudice and ignorance. Eurosceptics are hollering about our sacred sovereignty, and the intolerable threat to it from Strasbourg. Many clearly do not realise that the ECHR sits under the auspices of the Council of Europe, which has nothing whatever to do with the widely loathed, derided and utterly misunderstood European Union.

n.b. Derek Brown covers other issues of the week here.

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