12:19, October 30 65 0 theguardian.com

2017-10-30 12:19:04
The great revolution in prisoner voting will affect … a few dozen people

In 2005 the European court of human rights ruled that the UK’s blanket ban on voting by convicted prisoners was a violation of the right to free elections. Fearful of media and parliamentary uproar, successive Labour, coalition and Conservative governments have refused to make even a partial relaxation to the ban – until now. A leaked paper suggests that some short-term prisoners may finally be permitted to vote in elections, albeit in very limited circumstances.

It’s not exactly clear which prisoners will get the vote. It could be those serving sentences of less than 12 months who happen to be outside prison on day release on the date an election happens to fall. Or a more proactive scheme could be introduced for short-term prisoners who are eligible for what’s called “release on temporary licence” either to go out to a polling station or cast a vote in jail.  Whichever proposal emerges from the Whitehall consultation, it’s a tiny number who will be enfranchised. The leaked paper talks of hundreds (out of 86,000 prisoners), but it could be tens. Day release is almost never used for the 6,000-odd short-term prisoners as things stand.

The idea presumably is to make a change significant enough to satisfy the Strasbourg court that their rulings have been complied with, but so insignificant that parliament and the public can swallow it. David Cameron famously said that the idea of prisoners voting made him feel sick.

Will the strategy work? Dominic Raab, now a justice minister, thought six years ago that “giving the vote to prisoners sentenced to six months or less or a year or less is not a compromise, because it is bound to be rejected by Strasbourg”. If he’s right, the apparently narrower offer now on the table – a sub-group of short-sentenced prisoners – might be more likely to fall outside the so-called margin of appreciation allowed by the court.

But since 2011, in a number of prison cases the European court of human rights has seemed to bend over backwards for the UK. It has refused to allow prisoners to be compensated for their inability to vote. It found the regime for whole-life tariffs for murderers in England and Wales compatible with the European convention on human rights, in spite of its very limited scope for review offering negligible prospects of release. The court has also allowed extradition to a Colorado supermax prison described by a former warden as “a clean version of hell”. Conscious that the human rights convention is seen by critics as a criminals charter, sadly the court may well be satisfied in the prisoner voting case with at least some move towards compliance, however token in practice. 

What about domestic reaction? In 2011 an overwhelming majority of MPs supported the current position in which no prisoner is able to vote except those imprisoned for contempt, default or on remand. Those who voted for the status quo included Raab and his current colleagues in the Ministry of Justice, Phillip Lee and prisons minister Sam Gyimah. The current home secretary and solicitor general also backed the motion put forward by David Davis and Jack Straw as did three other (now) cabinet ministers.

Of course, if a new line is agreed by the government, they would need to either support it or resign. Culture minister Karen Bradley said in the 2011 debate that she “was elected to be the voice of my constituents in this place, and many of them have contacted me to express their concern about the matter. They are firmly, to a man and a woman, against any move to give votes to prisoners, and I am wholeheartedly in agreement with them.” Much may depend on the media’s response, which is unlikely to be supportive of any change which benefits prisoners.

While many Labour MPs supported the continued ban in the 2011 debate, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn argued: “If we as a country are signed up to the European convention on human rights, we are bound by that judgment, by treaty and by law.” Strasbourg has indicated that compliance doesn’t require every prisoner to be allowed to vote. But if the government is serious about prison reform, it should extend the franchise to many more than would benefit from the pitiable offer currently doing the rounds. And if it doesn’t do so, Strasbourg should make them think again.

Rob Allen is an independent researcher and consultant working on probation and prison issues