Policy & Research - Voting for Prisoners
On this page:
- Our Argument
- The Prisoner Voting Consultation
- Current situation
- Latest News & Media
- Useful Documents
1. Summary Back to top
In 2004 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK’s blanket ban on prisoners’ voting is unlawful. Since then the government has failed to implement the ruling by dragging its heels through a protracted two-stage consultation process making it clear that it does not support the notion of prisoners being enfranchised. It is apparent that, as with any issue whereby prisoners are perceived to benefit from government intervention, the government wishes to avoid enacting the necessary legislation which would be attributable to its tenure. Rather it would prefer to kick the matter into the long grass and escape the negative media attention it fears would reduce its chances of re-election.
Prior to the ECHR ruling, UNLOCK joined with the Prison Reform Trust to launch the Barred from Voting Campaign, bringing together a coalition of senior cross-party politicians, church and faith leaders, former offenders, human rights charities and prison reformers to call for sentenced prisoners to be given the vote. Notable supporters of the campaign include former Conservative Home Secretary Lord Douglas Hurd, Liberal Democrat president Simon Hughes, Labour peer Baroness Kennedy QC, Conservative MP Peter Bottomley and Lord David Ramsbotham, Former Chief Inspector of Prisons.
Arguments supporting this position are many. As the ECHR noted, barring prisoners from voting may actually harm rehabilitation work, since participating in elections is likely to encourage them to become responsible, law-abiding citizens. As Bobby Cummines states, "It would make more sense to encourage them [prisoners] to engage with social issues through the ballot box rather than continue to reinforce their exclusion from society which often causes them to commit crime in the first place."
The government’s lack of response to the ECHR ruling has elicited much criticism not least from the Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights which deplored the undue delay and calling on the government to introduce an urgent remedial order as a solution in resolving the matter. In 2008 the Committee warned in its annual report that "there is a significant risk that the next general election will take place in a way that fails to comply with the convention". With an election due in 2010 this is a very real prospect.
2. Background Back to top
The disenfranchisement of prisoners in Great Britain dates back to the 19th century. Linked to the notion of ‘civic death,’ the Forfeiture Act of 1870 denied offenders their rights of citizenship. The current blanket electoral ban on sentenced prisoners voting is contained in the Representation of the People Act 1983 (amended 1985, 2000).
In 1998 the Prison Reform Trust (PRT) published Prisoners and the Democratic Process arguing that voting rights helped to develop a sense of social responsibility and should be extended to all UK prisoners. It also presented evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee report Electoral Law and Procedure.
In 1999 the Home Office Working Party on Electoral Procedures identified the disenfranchisement of convicted but unsentenced and remand prisoners, as caused by electoral criteria which prevented the acceptance of penal institutions as places of residence (White & Rees, 2006). They concluded that preventing remand prisoners from voting was accidental with no argument of principle and recommended they be recorded without a fixed address. The amendment of 2000 saw this implemented but no recommendations or changes were made with respect to the enfranchisement of convicted prisoners.
3. Our Argument Back to top
- The right to vote is an inalienable human right enshrined in Article Three of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
- The ban is not an effective deterrent and does not protect public safety. It is an unjust additional punishment imposed, but not articulated, by the courts.
- It contributes to the failure of imprisonment to rehabilitate six out of ten offenders. Giving prisoners the vote would encourage them to become responsible, law abiding citizens.
- If sentenced prisoners had the vote politicians would have to take more of an interest in prisons and the issues raised by prisoners.
- Denying sentenced prisoners the vote perpetuates social exclusion and undermines the Government's civic renewal and active citizenship agenda by legitimizing the civic death of thousands of people who are sentenced to prison.
- Minority ethnic groups are disproportionately affected. Due to their over-representation in the prison population, black men are eight times as likely to be barred from voting as their white counterparts.
- The UK is one of only eight European countries automatically to disenfranchise sentenced prisoners.
4. The Prisoner Voting Consultation Back to top
The Ministry of Justice Second-stage consultation was launched on the 9th April 2009. Although for the first time it acknowledges that some sentenced prisoners will eventually be allowed to vote, UNLOCK have two main concerns:
- The reforms look unlikely to be implemented until after the next general election
- The government have only given the option in the consultation to allow a small number of prisoners to vote, despite the responses from the first-stage consultation showing the majority of support was for full enfranchisement
UNLOCK's response to the Second-stage consultation can be downloaded by clicking here.
5. Current Situation Back to top
6 September - More delaying tactics: UK Government granted an extension to Court deadline:
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally) has made a statement announcing that the UK has been granted an extension to the October 2011 deadline to comply with the ruling in Hirst House of Lords / 6 Sep 2011 : Column WS22.
According to the Ministry of Justice’s recently published annual report to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Responding to human rights judgments: "In July, the Grand Chamber accepted a referral in the case of Scoppola v Italy. A hearing before the Grand Chamber has been scheduled for 2 November 2011. The legal issues which arise in Scoppola under Article 3 of Protocol 1 are analogous to those which arose in Hirst and in Greens and MT, and the Second Section referred in its judgment to Hirst, as did the Italian Government in its referral request".
Link: UK Human Rights Blog
19 July - Judgements issued by the European Court cannot be ignored. Whilst the Europe Committee of Ministers supervises the execution of the Court’s judgments, it is the states which are responsible for ensuring implementation of the Convention at the national level. Amidst criticism by the Parliamentary Assembly that decisions are not being implemented (and here we include prisoner voting), the Committee of Ministers have proposed to member states that a national co-ordinator be appointed to follow the execution process and to keep national parliaments informed of the execution situation and the measures being taken to implement judgements [Recommendation (2008)2].
See the Council of Europe’s Commissioner, Thomas Hammarberg's human rights comment post for full details.
1 July - Vote against enfranchising prisoners proves it is needeed By Bobby Cummines, taken from Issue 2 (July 2011) of The Record
Since the last meeting of the Committee of Ministers on 8 March, Jack Straw MP (a former Secretary of State for Justice) and David Davis MP secured a debate and free vote in the House of Commons to retain the blanket ban on prisoner voting. The vote was in favour of the ban, though only a minority of the House chose to attend and vote.
Following this debate, an appeal by the UK government was dismissed by the European Court of Human Rights, who gave the government 6 months to introduce the necessary legislative proposals and to enact it within a time frame decided by the Committee of Ministers.
The vote in Parliament is actually the perfect demonstration of why it is critical that the government is forced to comply with the Human Rights Convention. By using the ‘democratic’ process of a Parliamentary debate featuring politicians in whom citizens in prison have had no hand in electing, they have highlighted the importance of giving prisoners the vote.
The UK agreed to abide by the Convention and enshrined it in its own law. The Court has made its decision and as a country we have been given six months to comply with that. As people who have been convicted by the State, once routes of appeal are exhausted, we are required to carry out the sentence we are given.
If the government does not act as it expects others to act, the UK will essentially become a criminal state. It will be seen as neglecters and non-respecters of human rights. This will knock us off the moral high ground, preventing us from condemning others for human rights abuses.
The case is closed. Individuals such as John Hirst and their legal teams have brought successful cases. Civic organisations in the UK have made clear that the governments delay and dissembling are playing politics with human rights. The Court has ruled and has dismissed all appeals. The UK government must simply comply.
The above extract is taken from a letter sent to the Committee of Ministers on the 26th May. Click to view the letter in full.
26 May - UNLOCK make a Rule 9 submission to the Committee of Ministers in advance of their meeting on the 7th June.
13th April - The government has lost its final appeal against giving prisoners the right to vote following a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR); the UK must now draw up proposals within six months to end the blanket ban on prisoners voting. Jean-Paul Costa, president of the ECHR warned David Cameron against challenging the court's decision on prisoner votes stating that Britain would be behaving like a dictatorship if it refuses to comply. Useful resources include a Guardian piece, the ECHR Press release, a Guardian report and a Human Rights Europe report.
Barred from voting update (with the Prison Reform Trust and others, February 2011) is published.
13 January - Since the governments announcement, there has been a lot of media coverage of this issue, with speculation that the plans with change to only allow prisoners serving up to 12 months the ability to vote. On the 2nd February, there is due to be a discussion in the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (Oral Evidence Session) where the issue will be discussed.
11th January - UNLOCK sign a joint letter, published in the Guardian, titled Outdated approach to votes for prisoners.
20 December - The Government announced details of how it plans to comply with the ECHR Hirst ruling to enfranchise serving prisoners.
The plans, due to be put to the vote in Parliament next year, will allow prisoners on short sentences (up to four years) to vote, though a sentencing judge will have discretion to remove that right. For those sentenced to four years or over, the ban will remain in place. Prisoners will vote on the basis of their address prior to entering prison and votes can be cast either by post or by proxy. Under these plans, the right to vote will only extend as far as Westminster and European elections.
In the Government’s view, these plans will ensure compliance with its obligations, though it falls short of ECHR judgement in the Austrian case of Frodl, which held that all prisoners should be able to vote unless a sentencing judge removed that right as part of the sentence. It seems inevitable therefore that in the future yet another case will be brought to Europe by a serving prisoner still banned from voting in the UK.
2 December - At a meeting of the Committee of Ministers in Europe, the UK Government confirmed it would present draft legislation to enfranchise sentenced prisoners in the near future. The Committee called for an Action plan for implementation of the Hirst judgment to be presented without further delay which should include “a clear timetable for the adoption of the measures envisaged”. The Committee meets again in March 2011. Download the document here.
22 November - UNLOCK make a submission to the Committee of Ministers, under Rule 9, for their meeting on the 30th November 2010. This raised, among other things, the following points:
"Following the welcome announcement by the UK Government on 2 November 2010 that it intended to comply with the ruling, the Prime Minister was questioned in Parliament the following day and stated, “…it makes me physically ill to contemplate giving the vote to prisoners. They should lose some rights including the right to vote." However he acknowledged that “We are in a situation we have to deal with”, indicating that the government did in fact intend to act in the near future to meet its obligations.
Nevertheless, on 16 November, the Rt Hon Kenneth Clarke, Secretary of State for Justice, gave evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights and was asked what action the government proposed to take on the matter. Mr Clarke’s response was, “The extent of the legal obligation [is] a little confused. Two European judgements aren’t really consistent with each other. It’s the ban on all prisoners not having the vote that was upheld by the European Court”. He was clearly referring to the judgements in both Hirst v UK (2004) and Frodl v Austria (2010) appearing not to know whether the UK government must apply the more detailed ruling of the later as well as the former.
UNLOCK is dismayed at the UK Government’s apparent confusion and is concerned that that this will provide yet another excuse for further delay. Moreover, we are concerned that the Government is minded to enact legislation eventually automatically limiting prisoner enfranchisement to categories of prisoners according to sentence length in accordance with two previous public consultations on the matter (the results of which remain unpublished). Such limitation would be incompatible with the 2010 Frodl judgement and, we suggest, would inevitably give rise to further prisoner litigation at the ECHR in the future. There are already cases pending at both European and domestic courts brought by prisoners disenfranchised at the General Election last May."
Shortly after making our submission, the ECHR ruled on another case [Greens & MT v UK], giving the UK Government six months to introduce legislative proposals to bring UK law in line with the Convention. The Government is further required to enact the relevant legislation within any time frame decided by the Committee of Ministers.
2 November - The government have announced (see various media reporting this announcement here) that they will be giving some prisoners the right to vote. UNLOCK's Julie Harmsworth took part in a live ITN Webchat on the 2nd November. You can view to transcript of the discussion here.
18 October - Debate in the House of Lords started by a question by Lord Ramsbotham. Read it here. An interesting article by Joshua Rozenberg examines the response by Lord McNally.
16 October - There are three cases before the European Court where they have invited the UK Government to put in its response – Greens, M.t., and Toner v United Kingdom. They expect to get a judgement in those cases some time in 2011 and they say that all other cases will be suspended until those cases conclude. Bearing in mind that there is a 6-month time limit for lodging proceedings at the European Court, people in prison should ensure that their case is lodged as soon as possible.
15 September - UK Prisoners must be allowed to vote next year, says Europe. The UK coalition government failed to inform the Committee of Ministers at the Council of Europe how it intended to abide by the 2005 European Court of Human Rights ruling (Hirst No. 2) to allow sentenced prisoners to vote in time for next year’s Scottish, Welsh, Northern Ireland and local elections. At its meeting on 15 September 2010, the Committee said it “regretted” that “no tangible and concrete information was presented to the Committee on how the United Kingdom now intends to abide by the judgment”. Click here to read the decision. Justice minister Lord McNally had promised during a debate in the House of Lords on 10 June that the government was “considering afresh the best way forward on the issue of prisoner voting rights” and to “fully update” the Committee on the government’s intentions in time for the meeting in September. As part our shared campaign, “Barred from Voting”, UNLOCK and the Prison Reform Trust made submissions to the Committee ahead of its meeting, asking the Committee to consider serving the UK government with formal notice of its intention under Protocol No. 14 to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, to refer to the Court the question of whether the UK government had failed to fulfil its obligation. The Committee didn’t do this but did instruct the Secretariat, in the absence of any concrete developments, to prepare a draft second interim resolution, and would resume consideration of the issue at its 1100th meeting in November – December 2010. It called upon the United Kingdom to “prioritise implementation of this judgment without any further delay and to inform the Committee of Ministers on the substantive steps taken in this respect”.
2 September - UNLOCK write to Committee of Ministers, asking the Committee to take all actions possible to ensure that legislation is brought forward in giving prisoners the right to vote. Download the letter here. Also this month, Elkan Abrahamson wrote in insidetime to inform readers that he had heard from the European Court that there were processing 3 lead cases which they hope to have heard next year and are meanwhile logging all other applications and 'staying' them until the lead cases are heard. He also stated that he had received contact from over 2,000 prisoners, but as he is doing this work for free he cannot go on working on this case indefinitely and so has asked prisoners to stop writing to him on this for the time being.
1 July - People who wish to claim compensation for the failure of the government to allow serving prisoners to vote in the recent Election can obtain a pro forma claim form from Elkan Abrahamson, Jackson & Canter LLP, 32 Princes Road, Liverpool, L8 1YH. A stamped addressed envelope is required. Elkam Abrahamson and Flo Krause (UNLOCK Patron) are pursuing claims for damages for all those prisoners who wish to seek at least £1,000 each in compensation.
3 June - At its latest meeting on 3 June, the Committee of Ministers Deputies adopted an interim resolution which gives the UK Government three months to implement the European Court (Hirst No. 2) judgement that banning all serving prisoners from voting the Government is in breach of human rights. The Committee expressed “profound regret” that “despite the repeated calls of the Committee, the UK general election was held on 6 May 2010 with the blanket ban... still in place”. It further “expressed confidence that the new UK government will adopt general measures to implement the judgement ahead of the elections scheduled for 2011 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland”. Lord Dubs once again raised the issue for debate in the House of Lords on 8 June, and was assured by the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally) that the Government would “look afresh” at the issue. He then defined “afresh” as meaning “"with a greater sense of urgency than Ministers in the last Government approached the issue". Given that the last Government took seven years to come up with nothing, that won’t be too difficult to achieve! After some extremely lively debate, L McNally then went to assure the House that the Government would present its conclusions to the Council in September and take into account the ECHR most recent decision on 8 April in the case of Frodl v Austria which found that a presumption that prisoners retained the right to vote with few exceptions and in such instances removal of the right should be determined by a judge. The Frodle case renders the last UK Government’s protracted consultation exercise redundant since all of the options presented as to which group of prisoners might be entitled to vote were based on sentence length. It’s back to the drawing board for the new Government – and fast.
8 April - The European Court of Human Rights handed down its judgment in the CASE OF FRODL v. AUSTRIA (Application no. 20201/04).
Basically, the Court has re-emphasised the ruling in Hirst v UK(No2) and highlighted the only examples when the franchise can be removed. Disenfranchisement must be limited to offences related to the electoral process. Therefore, it is irrelevant whether a prisoner is serving a sentence for murder, rape, or paedophilia; or whether the sentence is one year, 4 years, or even life.
The important paragraphs are 28, 34 and 35:
- Disenfranchisement may only be envisaged for a rather narrowly defined group of offenders serving a lengthy term of imprisonment; there should be a direct link between the facts on which a conviction is based and the sanction of disenfranchisement; and such a measure should preferably be imposed not by operation of a law but by the decision of a judge following judicial proceedings
- There must be a link between the offence committed and issues relating to elections and democratic institutions
- The essential purpose of these criteria is to establish disenfranchisement as an exception even in the case of convicted prisoners
26 March - In an attempt to overturn the ban on all serving prisoners from voting, and in accordance with the ECHR ruling that such a ban is unlawful, Lord Ramsbotham (UNLOCK’s President) has put down an amendment to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill [HL], which is now at Committee stage in the House of Lords. His amendment is to remove Section 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 which is the section that makes prisoner voting unlawful. This was debated in the House of Lords on the 7th April 2010, where Lord Ramsbotham had to withdraw the amendment.
3 December - The European Council of Ministers has taken action against the UK Government after its continued failure to implement the European Court of Human Rights judgement which ruled that the existing blanket ban on prisoner voting is unlawful. In an Interim Resolution adopted on 3rd December, the Council stated that unless measures were taken quickly, the next General Election, which must take place by June 2010, may fail to comply with the European Convention. The Government has failed to respond to enquiries from UNLOCK asking for both results of its Consultation which closed in September this year, and what plans it has made to act upon it.
Committee of Ministers Press Release
6. Latest News & Media Back to top
Read here the latest news links on Prisoner Voting on our delicious account.
7. Useful Documents Back to top
To view a full list of our publications, click here.
Response of UNLOCK to the consultation Voting rights of convicted prisoners detained within the United Kingdom (March 2007)
UNLOCK response to Voting rights of convicted prisoners detained within the United Kingdom (July 2009)
Working in Partnership
Barred from voting - The right to vote for sentenced prisoners (with the Prison Reform Trust, January 2004)
Barred from voting update (with the Prison Reform Trust, January 2005)
Barred from voting update (with the Prison Reform Trust, February 2010)
Barred from voting update (with the Prison Reform Trust and others, February 2011)
European Court of Human Rights documents
Joint Committee on Human Rights documents
Committee of Ministers documents
Former prisoners Danny Afzal, Bobby Cummines & Charlie Ryder stand in front of Nelson Mandela's statue opposite Parliament. Enabling prisoners to vote was one of Mandela's first acts as South Africa's new leader.
A recent marketing campaign by The Economist picked up on the debate around Prisoner Voting as ones of the contentious issues that they have covered in their publication.
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