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Prisoner voting rights can make prison work

The best way to put prison conditions on the political agenda is to give prisoners the vote.

It is no surprise that the government proposal to give thousands of prisoners the vote has caused such a furore in the right-wing press. But while the Lib Dems stay silent about a policy they have supported for many years, the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, has been brave enough to take the press on.

Following David Cameron's cowardly decision to allow his MPs a free vote on the matter – making it very likely that the proposal will be rejected in the Commons next week – Clarke said that he would ask anybody who voted against the proposal to give prisoners serving sentences of under four years the vote "how they are going to explain to their constituents, at a time like this, we're spending money on compensating prisoners".

Predictably, Clarke woke up yesterday to a Sun editorial demanding his dismissal and to a series of rent-a-quote Tory MPs telling whoever would listen that giving criminals the vote is a disgraceful idea and, completely dishonestly, that the proposal was all the EU's fault. The worst offender was Dominic Raab MP, who wrote a tub-thumping article in the Telegraph in which he stated that "the government should refuse to enact EU laws that make no sense". He's factually wrong on several counts.

First, this has nothing to do with the EU. Last year's judgment that Britain is breaking the law by denying all prisoners the vote was the second such ruling made by the European Court of Human Rights, whose rulings are based on the European Convention on Human Rights, which Britain signed up to in 1947. The convention includes provisions on the "right to vote", although it gives countries some leeway on how they apply this. That is why many countries have limits on voting rights for felons or leave the decision to their courts on a case-by-case basis.

Moreover, just as flagrantly breaching EU law leads the country in question to be fined, so will ignoring the court judgment. Since the first court ruling in 2005 that Britain was acting illegally, our prisons have had over 100,000 inmates. Compensating them could cost upwards of £100m.

But more serious than Mr Raab's fabrications are the way they illustrate how debate on penal reform has plumbed the depths. Britain and the US (which, with its huge prison population and dismal record on rehabilitation and reoffending, is hardly a model to follow) are alone in the western world in denying all prisoners the vote. Figures by the Howard League for Penal Reform show that 60 per cent of British prisoners reoffend within two years, with a 74 per cent rate for young men. If other public services had such an appalling record, there would be rioting in the streets.

It is to our shame that these facts are deliberately ignored in debate, while Tory and, sadly, many Labour MPs pander to the editors of the Sun and the Daily Mail. Perhaps this is why our prisons are overcrowded, underfunded and failing? The bang 'em up brigade simply won't listen to the fact that prison doesn't work. Instead, prison is where offenders get angrier, and more likely to reoffend.

This is highly emotive. The idea of rapists, child abusers and other violent criminals enjoying democratic rights leaves a sour taste. Most of us have been victims of crime and it is particularly difficult for those who are related to or are victims of violent crimes. But we should remember the words of the former home secretary Douglas Hurd, who said that, in office, the only pressure on him to improve prison conditions was his own conscience.

In Hurd's words: "If prisoners had the vote, MPs would take a good deal more interest in prisons and making them better." His views are backed up by the Prison Governors Association, the former chief inspector of prisons Lord Ramsbotham, the Prison Reform Trust and numerous other crime reduction charities.

Prisons exist to punish, but also to rehabilitate and ensure that criminals integrate back into society and do not reoffend. They are failing because there is no political incentive to improve them. The best way to put prison conditions on the political agenda is to give prisoners the vote, regardless of how many of them actually vote.

"Votes for prisoners" is never going to be a vote-winner. But MPs should do the right thing and vote next week to give felons the franchise – not just because it's morally the right thing to do but also, to paraphrase Michael Howard's infamous statement, because it will help make prison work.