Why some prisoners should have the right to vote

Giving prisoners a stake in how their society is governed will help reduce reoffending rates.

There is some confusion about exactly what the government's draft bill on prisoner voting will contain on Thursday. What there is no confusion about, however, is that our MPs are strongly opposed to any move to extend the franchise to inmates. In February last year, they voted by a majority of 212 (with only 22 against) to retain the current ban.

There are some who say it is foolish for our politicians to behave in this way as it will result in a confrontation with the European Court of Human Rights. That argument does not cut much ice with me. I don't think we should legislate on this because Europe is telling us to. We should legislate on it because we are a liberal democracy.

When people are locked up for crimes in this country they already have lots of things taken away from them. Their liberty. Their right to see their family and friends whenever they please. Usually their job and their home. Their basic choices about what to eat, when to eat, where to eat and so on. It is right to deprive those who have committed crimes serious enough to warrant a jail sentence of these things. But why should they should automatically have their right to vote removed too?

I can see the argument for not allowing long-term prisoners and those with life sentences the vote. But the majority of prisoners are serving short sentences and, at the time of any general election, most of them will be released before any subsequent election and hence will be affected as a free citizen by the government elected. In the case of referenda, which tend to come around very infrequently, those results could affect the prisoner for the rest of their life. Someone only a few months away from release in May 2011 will be now out and yet may never get the chance to vote on the electoral system used for the House of Commons.

Perhaps even more importantly, one thing that almost everyone across the political spectrum agrees on is that we need to reduce reoffending rates, which in 2011 were running at an astonishing 90 per cent for serious crime.

Giving prisoners the vote will not change this overnight. But treating them with a little bit more respect and giving them a stake in how their society is governed is likely to be one of the things that helps. If we want to reduce recidivism, we need to be willing to think outside the constricted box our politicians have placed themselves in on this issue. A good start would be for the government to acknowledge on Thursday that there is a strong, principled case for some prisoners to have their democratic rights restored.

Not because Europe has told us to, but because it is right.

Mark Thompson is a political blogger, commentator and Lib Dem activist, who edits the award winning Mark Thompson's Blog and is on Twitter @MarkReckons.

David Cameron (R) is escorted by prison governor Phil Taylor during a visit to Wormwood Scrubs Prison last month. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.