And here we go again, the latest episode in the prisoners’ voting rights saga. With weeks to go before the 22nd of November (the day by which the government must deliver its proposals on how it plans to implement a ban on voting rights for prisoners), six months after the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling conceding individual governments the leeway to appropriately resolve the issue, we are none the clearer as to the outcome. Last week, only hours after the Attorney General Dominic Grieve claimed there was scope for flexibility within the government vis-a-vis prisoner voting rights, David Cameron insisted “prisoners are not getting the vote under this government,” large swathes of the Commons roaring in approval.
I wrote about my fears of the UK government’s plans for eroding the powers of the Court earlier this year, and while the later content of the Brighton Declaration was substantially watered down, my frustration at the intransigence and warped attitudes shown towards the Court continues unabated. Here is a rare case of the United Kingdom being condemned (in 2011 there were only eight such instances, representing 1% of all submitted applications to the Court from the UK), emanating from the ruling in the Hirst v the United Kingdom (No2) case in 2005. The UK government was then found to have infringed upon John Hirst’s, a prisoner serving a sentence for manslaughter, right to free elections, as enshrined in Article 3 of Protocol 1 of the Convention. Ever since, the government has wrangled with the Court, trying hard to avoid relaxing its blanket ban on prisoners voting.
With a near flawless record at complying with judgements of the ECHR, the reaction to this particular ruling is striking. Funnily enough, neither have any of our legislators provided a single convincing argument for not giving prisoners the right to vote. There is loose talk of how such heinous individuals could possibly deserve the opportunity to choose their elected representatives, but nothing legally substantive. Denying any prisoners the right to vote is unlawful, in breach of Britain’s international human rights obligations and undemocratic, limiting our pretence of universal suffrage.
Besides, is giving prisoners the right to vote, at least politically, really that big of an issue? Are we any clearer as to the voting patterns of inmates, their likely turnout? Would they really constitute that large of a political constituency to sway elections in a country whose electoral results are already shamelessly distorted and disproportional? Prison deprives its inmates of liberty, not the basic tenants of citizenship, among them suffrage. Engagement in the democratic process may be considered part of an offender’s eventual rehabilitation. The Convention defends the right to deprive a person’s liberty following a fair and public hearing, but that does not mean his basic rights, as endowed in the document, can simply be overruled.
A little cynically perhaps, given the government’s austerity drive, is this also really a fight worth sustaining? Adam Wagner gave a rough estimate of the likely costs to the government on the basis of a parallel case in Italy, where a prisoner whose voting rights had been curtailed was awarded €1,500 in damages. As it stands, there are around 2,500 applications from the UK before the Court in relation to voting rights, but the ruling could extend to the over 100,000 inmates in British jails. Which means that if all those prisoners were awarded damages, the UK government would be paying out €150m (£120m), at a time when it purports to be mending the country’s finances. Not to mention future claimants if the blanket ban were to remain indefinite.
I accept that mine is a minority view. Only 9% of Britons are said to back votes for prisoners. Listening to some claimants make their case for suffrage, in light of their egregious crimes, depriving so many others of the opportunity to let alone dream of voting, is a spine-chilling moral dilemma, especially when doused by the likes of Andrew Neal. But we are signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights, perhaps the most effective and far-reaching piece of human rights legislation in use anywhere in the world. It is not an outdated relic of the Cold War, as Chris Grayling became the latest to claim, but a document consistently reinterpreted and rebranded in tune with contemporary human rights issues. It does not ignore the sovereign demands of national parliaments and courts, exclusively serving as an instance of final recourse, and consults the above when reaching its final decisions. The Court is merely a guarantor of basic precepts of human rights and the rule of law across the continent. The UK has repeatedly flouted one of them and must now rectify that.
The Court’s demands here are not extravagant, allowing the UK government the freedom to partially relax its blanket ban. Is it so much to ask for minimal offenders serving under four years, for instance, to be granted the right to vote? Are convicted shoplifters not deserving of suffrage? Or is our real beef elsewhere…with Europe and its judges?