Prisoner Voting

Today the Government will set out options for giving prisoners the vote.  The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that, in the case of convicted killer John Hirst, our country's blanket ban on prisoners from voting breached his rights.

Earlier this year, the Government was given six months to ‘introduce legislative proposals to bring the disputed law/s in line with the Convention'.  That deadline expires today.

I expect that Parliament will be given three options: a limited enfranchisement of prisoners serving sentences of less than six months; a wider enfranchisement of prisoners serving up to four years, and retention of the existing ban.

There are two principal issues at stake here.  The first is the merits of the case: should prisoners be given the right to vote?

This is debatable, but I don't think they should.  We deprive criminals of their right to liberty by imprisoning them.  I don't think prisoners forfeit all their rights: they are clearly entitled to humane treatment.  But there isn't an absolute right to vote.

In any case, the argument should not be framed in terms of rights, but responsibilities.  I hear airy arguments about making prisoners good citizens.  But I think we should focus on our responsibility to rehabilitate prisoners through practical measures, for instance, getting them off drugs.

There's too much talk of rights and not enough of responsibilities.  Prisoners should take responsibility for their own actions and go straight.

And if citizens have a right to vote, don't they also have a responsibility to do so?  Nearly 85 per cent of voters in Sussex conspicuously failed to vote in last week's Police and Crime Commissioner elections.

The second issue here is: who decides whether prisoners should have the vote?

I don't think a decision should be imposed by a supra-national court when our own elected Parliament has said otherwise.  In a Commons debate last February, a motion to give prisoners the vote was defeated by 234 to 22.

Next week I will deliver a lecture entitled ‘What's gone wrong with rights?'  I will say the time has come to end the writ of the European Court of Human Rights over us.

We can and we should protect fundamental rights through our own courts - after all, we have a Supreme Court now - and make our own laws in our own Parliament.

Christopher N Howarth