What should Parliament do about Prisoners Voting?
Last week the House of Commons got angry. So far, not so unusual. Let me be a little more specific: last week the House of Commons got angry, and MPs from both sides of the house were in agreement. Now that is a distinctively more unusual event and you probably know by now what it is that I am referring to: prisoners’ right to vote and our relationship with the European Court of Human Rights. I’m not sure about you, but rarely have I seen MPs so uniform in their passionate disgust over an issue. You would have thought they what was being suggested was a law allowing bestiality (although as a side point, I think we can all by glad that Germany is outlawing this), not considering involving more individuals in the political process and improving our Human Rights record. So the question I want to answer is: what is all the kerfuffle about?
The Hon. Member for Wellingborough, claimed that this ruling is unacceptable interference by a “Mickey Mouse Court”. Is this assessment of the situation correct or can the ECHR legitimately tell our parliament what to do? To start, a (very!) brief lesson in the constitution for those of you who don’t know: the UK doesn’t have a written constitution but instead we have the principle of parliamentary sovereignty (followed by the Rule of Law) which dictates that the democratically elected parliament may pass what laws it sees fit. And herein lies the problem, and the reason why the House of Commons is kicking and screaming like a sulky child: being told by a non democratic court that they need to do something infringes on what they see as their constitutional position and right. So, like when dealing with an unhappy toddler, we need to decide if this is a tantrum worth listening to as a genuine wrong is being imposed, or whether the toddler needs to just accept that they aren’t always rights and they can’t always get their own way. Constitutional documents, Human Rights legislation, and other declarations of liberty all have the purpose of protecting the individual and minority groups, against the majority. The risk of majority rule is that there will always be a minority who did not vote for and are potentially not represented by their democratically chosen rulers. The consequences of this arise time and time again: the right to express your religion, the right for Roma people to have access to education, the right to legal protection, the right not to be detained without charge. This is why it is important that there is a check on majority rule, to ensure the minority does not get ignored and overruled. So the court so far seems quite reasonable in its position as guardian of individual rights. What about the complaints of European interference and micromanagement?
Europe is a bit of a controversial topic in Westminster at the moment, as the EU budget is negotiated and our position within that organisation is attacked. However what some of the more eurosceptic Members should probably remember, is that the ECHR is a part of the Council of Europe, not the EU and has a completely different mandate and budget. As for “interference from Europe” – this complaint somehow denies the fact that we are Europeans in addition to being British, and forgets that this is “interference” we agreed to but signing up to the Convention in the first place. So perhaps this is micromanagement going beyond the remit of the court? Well I might have slightly more sympathy with this argument if the court had declared specific policy which we have to apply. Instead, in a series of cases, the ECHR declared that the blanket ban is an infringement on the rights of prisoners, and that we need to do something else: the something else being entirely unspecified.
It seems therefore that the House of Commons does not have a genuine grievance, and should – much like a toddler – be told to stop having a tantrum and grow up.
What of the substantive issue itself? Human Rights legislation aside, are their good reasons to either grant or deny prisoners the right to vote? The most common reason cited by MPs for maintaining the blanket ban, is that by committing a crime, convicts have forfeited their right to certain civil and social rights and privileges, including the right to vote. Although I do understand the need to be tough on crime, I ask you this: do you think that most offenders treasure their right to vote prior to conviction and incarceration, and do you think that the purpose of prison is to shun people from civil society, or should it be to try and bring them back into it? In answer to the first question, it simply seems unlikely that people who are opting to break the laws of our society are going to be particularly politically involved. There was only 65 % turn out of registered voters in the last general election, suggesting that there is a significant proportion of the population who do not take the time to exercise their right to vote. That there are even enough people in prison, dealing with a number of problems already resulting from the loss of their liberty, who want to vote enough to take this legal battle as far as the European Court actually surprises me. But surely this is something that should be encouraged not spurned?
To answer then the second question, the answer has to be yes. We want to rehabilitate prisoners, to encourage them to be meaningful and active members of society, to bring down the reoffending rate, and to decrease the amount that has to be spent on prisons each year. Surely encouraging political, civil and social engagement should be a part of that, at least in the run up to a prisoner’s release. As stated earlier, the ECHR did not specify what measures the UK had to undertake, and the options of extending the vote to prisoners with either 6 months or 4 years left of their sentence are being discussed. There are other conditions that could be considered, such as requiring completion of a course in social and political society, and the inmate not being convicted of electoral offences. However for those prisoners that do qualify, surely it can only be considered beneficial, for them to feel that they have a stake in society.
So then: it might not be the end of the world to let prisoners vote, and government will probably continue even if compliance to the ECHR is necessary. We also shouldn’t forget the fact that we will be setting a rather bad example to other countries, with more questionable human rights records, if we don’t comply with the rulings of the courts. So all in all, I would beg parliament to stop acting like a toddler who is being told off, and to realise, as all children eventually do, that sometimes chastisement is for your own good, and should be accepted gracefully.