Prisoner voting and the Rule of Law

Posted by Rachel Robinson on 22 November 2012

Today Justice Secretary Chris Grayling presented draft legislation on prisoner voting to the House of Commons. The long-running debate in Parliament rumbles on concerning a European Court of Human Rights ruling that the UK’s existing blanket ban is unlawful. The deadline for complying with the judgment passes tomorrow.

The Lord Chancellor rightly stressed the importance of the Rule of Law as he outlined alternative proposals for allowing convicts sentenced to less than four years or less than six months to vote – as well as an option for retaining the status quo. A joint committee of both Houses will now mull over the plans, after which the Government will introduce a Bill for debate and scrutiny.

Hopefully this will finally allow for a rational domestic debate about prisoner voting. What do these bans really achieve? Prisoners are rightly deprived of certain rights when convicted – to punish them and protect the public. But we don’t deny them food, or access to their family. Why stop them voting? How does that either help the victim or aid the prisoner’s rehabilitation? It surely serves to only further ostracise them from society.

But this is no longer just about prisoner voting. The fact is the UK is a member of the Council of Europe and has committed under international law to comply with the Court of Human Rights’ rulings. No-one should underestimate the importance of international law obligations and how grave the repercussions would be were we to ignore the judgment by persevering with a blanket ban.

We cannot pick and choose the verdicts we follow, and Parliament should be under no illusions about the impact such a stance would have. Not only would it signal to citizens that court rulings can simply be ignored if we don’t agree with them. It would hand other nations with poorer human rights records – Russia; Turkey – a welcome and ready excuse to flout international law.

The Court may have upheld core values against a blanket and irrational Victorian law, but the UK has a great deal of discretion about how best to apply human rights here at home. Everyone is equal before the law – even the Government – and Parliamentarians should remember that when they come to consider the Justice Secretary’s proposals.

Rachel Robinson

Rachel Robinson

Policy and Advocacy Manager