Why on earth shouldn’t prisoners vote?
It’s sad to have to record that on 10 February 2011 the house of commons debated and passed a motion that asserted two indefensible propositions: that we should continue to deprive almost all prisoners of their right to vote, and that the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) was trespassing on parliament’s territory in ruling that the UK’s blanket ban, hitherto imposed without parliamentary debate, contravened prisoners’ fundamental rights under the Convention. It’s almost sadder to record that this scurrilous and retrograde motion was co-sponsored by Jack Straw, veteran Labour MP and former Labour home secretary, foreign secretary, “Lord” Chancellor and “Justice” Secretary, as well as just about everything else. The motion was carried by 234 votes to a measly 22 , plus two tellers for each side, with nearly two-thirds of MPs absent or abstaining.
For nearly five and a half hours MP after MP – the vast majority of them Tories — rose to announce that anyone who has been sent to prison for committing a crime forfeits the right to vote, as if this were an argument and not merely a statement of current fact. Most added a thunderous denunciation of the European Court for daring to challenge a mythical but much cherished treasure called ‘parliamentary sovereignty’. I watched much of the debate, with mounting gloom. The intellectual and even the ethical calibre of the vast majority who spoke was frankly lamentable. Even reading the full record of the debate in Hansard I could detect not a single valid argument for depriving people in prison of their vote as well as their liberty. Bad-mouthing the European Court because of disagreement with a specific ruling in a single case smelled in many cases like threatening the referee, with a generous helping of gut Europhobia thrown in (how many of the red-faced blusterers understood that the Court has nothing to do with the EU and that Britain had been largely instrumental in setting it up after the second world war, and accepting its jurisdiction?).
I longed to shout at the screen that the question is not whether we should give prisoners the right to vote, but rather what possible purpose is served by depriving them of it? There are positive grounds for encouraging prisoners to exercise their right to vote, as part of the rehabilitation effort to help them to see themselves as members of society with both rights and duties — an effort which, if successful, could only help towards a reduction in the rates of reoffending. Depriving them of the vote has the directly opposite effect: it sends a signal that they are to be treated as pariahs, unpersons, excluded from society, deprived not only of their liberty but also of the most basic right of a citizen, the right to vote: and if they are treated as being excluded from society, there’s an unmistakable implication that their duty to society has disappeared with their rights.
Many MPs who spoke carried on about “murderers and rapists”, as if that had anything to do with it. Some fundamental rights are obviously enjoyed by our fellow-citizens even after they have gone to prison, regardless of the gravity of their offence – the right to life and the right not to “be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment“, are two obvious examples. Only vindictiveness and a morbid attachment to the idea of punishment argue for a maximum deprivation of rights rather than the minimum, namely that which flows logically from the basic deprivation of liberty which imprisonment entails. If anyone can point to a single rational purpose served by taking away this basic voting right from prisoners, I shall be very glad to know what it is. But I have yet to hear or read a single one.
There’s one category of prisoner for whom the deprivation of voting rights is especially and most obviously indefensible: namely, those serving IPPs (indeterminate sentences for public protection) who have served their tariffs and thereby completed the punishment deemed appropriate for their offences, but who are still in prison indefinitely, not any more as a punishment but in preventive detention, because a group of men in suits is frightened that they might reoffend if released. Some of these have now been in prison for several years beyond their tariffs and have virtually no hope of ever being released, because they can’t satisfy the parole boards that they won’t reoffend if released, and often can’t get places on the courses which parole boards in practice regard as a necessary (but by no means sufficient) condition for release. (More on this, if you’re interested, at http://www.barder.com/3013 and http://www.labourlist.org/ken-clarkes-proposals-on-ipps-deserve-a-heartfelt-welcome.) There’s no possible justification for punishing these people in their private Kafkaesque hell, and least of all for depriving them of the right to vote on top of all the other unjust deprivations that they suffer.
It’s profoundly depressing that Ed Miliband’s New Generation Labour seems to be about to try to out-do the Tories on this issue by being even more hard-line than the baying Tory blimps, reportedly preparing to demand that if the coalition plans to confine the voting ban to those serving sentences of more than four years (to avoid having to pay out millions of pounds in compensation for failure to act on the European Court’s ruling), that cut-off should be reduced to one year. I wonder what happened to Ed Miliband’s promises that under his leadership Labour would regain the ownership of the title of principal defender of human rights? It’s a relief of sorts to see that none of the principal members of Labour’s front bench voted for Straw’s miserable motion (nor did the coalition front bench); but sad that no Labour front bench stalwarts voted against it, either. All honour, then, to the gallant 22 plus two tellers who braved the scorn of the hangers and floggers to record their opposition to this grossly misconceived text (which appears below, along with the names of those who bravely stuck their heads above the parapet).
 The motion read: Resolved, That this House notes the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights in Hirst v . the United Kingdom in which it held that there had been no substantive debate by members of the legislature on the continued justification for maintaining a general restriction on the right of prisoners to vote; acknowledges the treaty obligations of the UK; is of the opinion that legislative decisions of this nature should be a matter for democratically-elected lawmakers; and supports the current situation in which no prisoner is able to vote except those imprisoned for contempt, default or on remand.
 The roll of honour: those who voted against the motion were:
Beith, the Rt Hon Sir Alan; Bottomley, Sir Peter; Brake, Tom; Edwards, Jonathan; Foster, the Rt Hon Mr Don; Gardiner, Barry; Green, Kate; Hames, Duncan; Hermon, Lady; Hughes, the Rt Hon Simon; Huppert, Dr Julian; Jackson, Glenda; Llwyd, the Rt Hon Mr Elfyn; Love, Mr Andrew; Lucas, Caroline; McCarthy, Kerry; McDonnell, John; Munt, Tessa; Qureshi, Yasmin; Reid, Mr Alan; Williams, Hywel; Williams, Stephen; plus the tellers for the Noes, Jeremy Corbyn and Lorely Burt. Bravo!
Update (13 February 2011): The likely implications for Britain’s membership of the EU and the Council of Europe of a decision, unthinkable until now, to withdraw from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights and/or from the European Human Rights Convention itself are discussed in an informative and thoughtful blog post by the BBC’s Gavin Hewitt, here. (Hat-tip: Peter Harvey, once again.)