Jon Collins: Voting is a right not a privilege, even in jail

THE news that two senior backbench MPs, the former Home and Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, and the civil liberties campaigner and former Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, have succeeded in securing a vote in the House of Commons on prisoners' voting rights, has, yet again, reignited the long-running debate on this issue.

It is six years since the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK's disenfranchisement of all sentenced prisoners is illegal, yet the ban on prisoners voting remains in place.

Before Christmas, however, the Government at last took some welcome and positive steps towards addressing this, announcing that it intends to change the law to allow prisoners sentenced to less than four years, to vote, though Downing Street indicated yesterday that only individuals serving less than 12 months may be entitled to do so.

So why should prisoners get the vote? Arguably most significantly, the European Court of Human Rights has clearly stated that barring all convicted prisoners from voting is illegal, breaching the right to free elections.

The Government cannot ignore the rule of law by picking and choosing which court decisions it complies with. The message that this sends is a poor one, for people in prison and for society as a whole, and it is disgraceful that this issue has not been acted on before now.

The UK has been strongly criticised by the Council of Europe for its inaction, and any further delays are likely to lead to further sanctions.

The ban is also undemocratic. It is based on the outdated concept of "civic death", which entails the withdrawal of citizenship rights as punishment. However, people are sent to prison to lose their liberty, not their identity, and those who are sentenced to prison remain citizens.

Indeed, prisoners do not suffer "civic death" in other ways. They remain bound by the laws of the country, continue to have rights to services such as healthcare, and pay tax on their savings and any other earnings that they receive during their sentence.

In addition, the ban on prisoners voting may be damaging to efforts to rehabilitate them. Prisoners are, all too often, some of the most marginalised individuals in society, with far higher levels of physical and mental ill-health, alcohol and drug dependency, poor educational attainment, unemployment and homelessness, than the general population.

Taking away their right to vote can only exacerbate their exclusion, removing any sense of civic involvement. Conversely, allowing prisoners to vote would encourage them to act responsibly and engage with society. It is difficult to argue that this would not be beneficial, and prison governors are among those who support prisoners voting as an ordinary part of resettlement.

In purely practical terms, the Government also faces paying out significant compensation if it fails to end the ban on prisoners voting. A huge number of claims have already been made to the European Court of Human Rights following the failure of the previous Government to end the ban ahead of last year's General Election, and while these cases are currently on hold temporarily following the Government's announcement that some prisoners will get the vote, the Prime Minister has stated that failing to act now could cost the UK 160m.

At a time when public money is extremely scarce, it seems incredibly wasteful to squander it on unnecessary legal wrangling and compensation payments.

The Government should, therefore, be praised for making progress on this issue. However, its decision to limit the right to vote to those prisoners serving less than one year, is the wrong one. Not only is it unlikely to meet the requirements of the European Court of Human Rights, which has ruled in another case that an approach based on sentence-length is illegal, but it also runs contrary to the underlying principle that voting is a fundamental right in a democracy.

As the constitutional court of South Africa stated, when giving prisoners the vote: "The universality of the franchise is important not only for nationhood and democracy. The vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and personhood. Quite literally, it says that everybody counts."

As the then Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, stated in 1910: "The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country."

We can be proud of a prison service that endeavours to treat every prisoner with decency and respect, regardless of their offence or the length of their sentence. Yet denying prisoners the right to vote has no place in such a system. Voting is a right, not a privilege, and disenfranchising prisoners is both unlawful and undemocratic.

The Government should stand by its decision to take long-overdue action on the important issue of prisoners' voting rights. Indeed it should go further by giving all prisoners the vote without further delay.

Jon Collins is director of the Criminal Justice Alliance.