Prison Break

Labour Party

Yesterday David Cameron was given six months to honour the coalition Government’s pledge to give prisoners the vote. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) had previously ruled that a blanket ban on all serving prisoners losing voting rights is in breach of their human rights.

Voting is a basic human right, and if we agree that prisoners are entitled to other basic human rights then disenfranchisement is a contradiction of this view.

The ECHR has now twice ruled that losing voting rights is a breach of prisoners human rights and the court twice decreed the UK’s total ban to be illegal.

Despite this nothing has been done. In addition, the waters have been somewhat ‘muddied’ as a result of how the ECHR has enforced this ruling because member states have been given discretion in how they regulate any form of ban. This complicates matters and allows for avoidance of any such assurance that those incarcerated will have the right to vote.

For example the ECHR said it now accepted the UK government argument that ‘each state has a wide discretion as to how it regulates the ban, both as regards the types of offence that should result in the loss of the vote and as to whether disenfranchisement should be ordered by a judge in an individual case or should result from general application of a law.’

The problem this creates isn’t just an unecessary level of bureaucracy but also it encourages class lines to be drawn if, for example, those who commit white collar crimes and/or who have a suspended sentence are expmpt from disenfranchisement then rightly further issues arise. In addition any ruling would need to be consistently and fairly used therefore a ruling by a judge on a case by case basis will create further problems.

The right to participate in free elections, like the right to freedom from torture and degrading treatment, freedom of forced labour or the right to an education are all basic human rights exercised in the UK. If any of these rights and freedoms are breached, you have a right to an effective solution in law.

The UK was given nine months to introduce at least partial voting rights for some prisoners in November 2011, but has not done so. A new six month deadline was triggered by yesterday’s ruling- now it really is the time to get this right and allow prisoners the opportunity to exercise their basic human right.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, summed it up perfectly when she said: ‘People are sent to prison to lose their liberty, not their identity.’