I got stripes

Tom Harris has been blogging about his vehement opposition to the suggestion we should give prisoners the right to vote, following a piece in the Observer that says pressure from the ECHR for the UK to act upon its 2004 ruling is growing.

This has been something of a political football in recent years, with some of my Labour colleagues putting out leaflets publicising that it is Lib Dem policy to allow prisoners to vote and focusing on the most extreme examples of who would be entitled to put their X in the box (e.g. Ian Huntley, Rosemary West and other model citizens).

I don’t like this type of campaigning, and I also don’t like the fact that Labour’s fear of being on the receiving end of such campaigning ourselves – or more likely, the fear of tabloid headlines – meant that we simply buried our heads in the sand when the ECHR passed judgment.

I’ve always supported the right of prisoners to vote. In fact I tried to get it discussed at Labour’s National Policy Forum, when I was a member (which means somewhere between 1998 and 2006… and I may have put down some PQs after the 2004 judgment. I certainly remember talking to Ministers about it, on an informal basis in the division lobby).

The right to vote needn’t apply across the board. Other political systems, as the Observer article makes clear, withdraw the right to vote from people convicted of certain offences, or serving sentences of a certain length – or even, as in France and Germany, at the discretion of the judge. (Though if you’re convicted of serial killings, I think it’s probably the least of your concerns). 

Why do I think it matters? Because I think prisoners still deserve and indeed need representation (some MPs will act on behalf of prisoners who formerly lived in their constituencies, some won’t; I do). Because I think we’d care more about conditions in prisons if prisoners were able to vote. Because I think it could play a part in rehabilitation and restoring a sense of self-worth, and a desire to be a citizen and become part of society instead of an antisocial element.

Put simply, I think prisoners surrender their liberty, but they don’t surrender their human rights. That’s what the ECHR has found, and I agree with its judgment. (I might put down some more questions on this on Tuesday. And Tom and I can have it out in the members’ tearoom!)

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  • bristolwestpaul  On May 30, 2010 at 10:46 pm

    Go on take him down

  • Garry Chick-Mackay  On May 30, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    Is there any research that backs up the idea that voting would aid rehabilitation and positive engagement in society? I’d like to believe it does but I’m not entirely convinced.

    Equally, I’d like to believe it would lead to MPs taking more of an interest in prison conditions, but I suspect that most MPs would not want to be seen to be ‘soft’ on criminals in order to win prisoners votes.

  • TheBoilingFrog  On May 30, 2010 at 11:18 pm

    Regardless of whether it’s a good or bad thing (and I agree with Tom on this) shouldn’t this be an issue decided by our own democratically elected Parliament not forced upon us by a foreign court?

  • kerrymccarthy  On May 30, 2010 at 11:51 pm

    I think a rugby tackle below the knees is my only hope. He’s at least 14″ inches taller than me.

  • kerrymccarthy  On May 31, 2010 at 12:01 am

    Perhaps I should point out my comment was in response to Bristolwestpaul.

    And where has my gravatar gone?

  • Carl Gardner  On June 1, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    Unfortunately it looks as though some of the options you’re proposing have been ruled out by the ECtHR, Kerry. See para. 28 of this judgment:


    I think the Court has got this wrong, and is applying article 3 of Protocol 1 in a way that’s far too invasive of national legal systems, but there it is.

    We will almost certainly have to give the vote to most prisoners. We won’t be able to draw clear lines based on length of sentence or type of offence (except perhaps for election offences themselves) and if discretion is given to judges it will have to be exercised rarely.

    You’re quite right about the Labour government burying its head in the sand. I suspect this was deliberately left until after the election.

    I’m in favour of the ECHR and the Human Rights Act, but I get very impatient with supporters of both who pretend they do not limit national policy action. They do, as this example shows.


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