Ask the majority of people whether prisoners should have the right to vote and you get an emphatic ‘No’ in response. Yet the European Court of Human Rights is forcing Britain to allow at least some prisoners to enjoy the right to vote, in defiance of the will of Parliament and laws over a century old. The government has been given six months to implement the changes or will face compensation claims from prisoners which could amount to over £150 million.
Britain’s blanket ban on prisoner voting is the central issue. Other countries such as France and Germany rescind the right to vote depending on the severity of the crime or as an extra punishment, while countries such as Denmark and Sweden have no ban at all. According to the Court, preventing certain prisoners from voting does not violate their human rights while preventing all prisoners from voting does. Ironically, the Court is sanctioning a far more discriminatory system which was rejected by Parliament last year with a majority of 234 votes to 22.
How do you decide which prisoners can be given the vote? How do you decide whose human rights can be violated? Such contentious questions are surely redundant. If you are guilty and convicted of a crime then you are punished according to the law. The right to vote is suspended as it makes no sense for those who break, ignore and abuse the law to have any influence over those who make the law. Prison is a punishment for all who are sent there and suspension of the right to vote is part of that punishment. You cannot have a system which gives the vote to some prisoners and not others it has to be either all or none.
Imposition of the requirements of the Court could see over 30,000 prisoners voting in elections. With such low turnouts this could have a significant impact in certain areas and would see politicians campaigning in prisons. Should those punished for breaking the law really be allowed influence over politics and society? Undoubtedly, rehabilitation is an important aspect of prison but having the vote should be part of the end reward rather than part of the process of rehabilitation.
Rightly, our Parliament, both Conservative and Labour MPs, support David Cameron in his resistance to the ruling of the European Court. We may not agree with every law and decision made by Parliament but at least it is elected by us and is accountable to us, unlike the European Court. Do we really want a foreign judiciary overruling British policy and interfering in national politics? While it is true that the European Court has had a positive impact such as preventing the government from keeping the DNA of innocent suspects, it has had far more dangerous and long reaching effects on our society.
The prevention of the deportation of foreign terrorists and criminals is just one example. Theresa May’s attempt to change the interpretation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which gives foreign prisoners the right to a family life in Britain, is an important step in the right direction for the government. This would stop foreign criminals avoiding deportation as they are a continual risk to public security and economic cost to society.
More importantly, the precedent set by the outcome of the hostilities between the government and the European Court, which began under Labour in 2004, could determine who has the final say over the making of British law – Parliament or a foreign court. International cooperation is one thing but being told what to do by a foreign court which has the power to bring over £150 million of compensation charges against Parliament, from all types of criminals, is unacceptable and akin to blackmail. Of course, foreign institutions such as the European Court of Human Rights should be able to comment and advise on British law and policy but the ultimate decision must be left to the national government otherwise sovereignty is threatened.
Whether or not you believe that prisoners should have the vote, the political outcome of this legal battle is far more important. The result will determine the role and power of the British Parliament and set the precedent for foreign, especially European, influence on British law and politics.