Votes for prisoners: Is it one rule for governments and nations and another for businesses?

By | February 22, 2011

political-prisonerMPs have voted overwhelmingly to continue denying prisoners the right to vote.

Apparently, prisoners have ‘broken their contact with society’ and this entitles society to further isolate prisoners, most of whom would probably not seek to exercise a right to vote even if they had it.  Most will also be released back into the community in due course, so disenfranchisement may seem a step too far.

1. What rights are prisoners entitled to?

Imprisonment and its consequent deprivation of liberty is supposed to be the penalty for transgressing state regulation, not a situation in which to punish inmates further.  Numerous decisions of the UK’s domestic court over recent years confirm that, as long as it is consistent with their deprivation of liberty, prisoners are still entitled to the rights everyone else enjoys.

2. Why has the issue of prisoners’ right to vote been raised?

The issue over votes for prisoners has come about of course because of a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on the application of former prisoner John Hirst.  The ruling in 2005 was at least in part made because there had been no recent substantive debate in Parliament about the issue – the law banning convicted prisoners from voting dates from 1870.

3. What are the consequences of continuing to deny prisoners the right to vote?

It may be that the message from the recent vote in the House of Commons will soften the ECtHR’s stance, but the present position is that, unless votes are given to prisoners by August this year, the UK will be in breach of the court’s ruling. Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General (the government’s chief law officer) has said in Parliament that is worth bearing in mind that the government would be in rather serious breach of the principles of the rule of law and behaving, in fact, ‘tyranically’ if the ruling were overlooked.  There is not an enforcement mechanism as such but tradition has been that, as a member of the Council of Europe, the UK does what is necessary to comply with EctHR rulings.

Claims are made that the UK Parliament’s sovereignty is being ‘stolen’ by institutions such as the Council of Europe and the European Union. These are disingenuous – we have willingly entered into membership of these ‘clubs’ and could withdraw.  It seems that, while members, we should abide by all the rules rather than just those we prefer. It is really a matter of governance – would not the consequence of a business not abiding by the rules be enforcement and approbation? Why should it be different for governments and nations?

About Chris Gale

Chris graduated from University College Cardiff in 1977 and qualified as a solicitor in 1980. He moved to academia in 1990 with an appointment at the Polytechnic of North London and joined Leeds Metropolitan University (Leeds Law School) in 1994, becoming head of undergraduate studies and being responsible for profiling, timetabling and staff development across the School. He joined Bradford University Law School as the inaugural Director of Legal Studies in July 2005.

Specialties: Human rights, Sport and the Law, Public Confidence in the Legal System