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10 February 2011updated 17 Jan 2012 5:00am

Prisoner votes and the dishonesty of MPs

Those opposed to prisoner votes are misleading the public.

By David Allen Green

Today the House of Commons is debating prisoner votes. However, many of the MPs opposing votes for prisoners are misleading the public, and perhaps even themselves, about the issue.

The European Court of Human Rights has held that a blanket ban is unlawful. The Court has not held that all prisoners should have the vote, but that there should be regard to the circumstances of the prisoner when imposing or maintaining a ban.

There is an analogy here with bail. There is no general ban on an arrested or convicted person applying for bail. It may well be refused, and it usually is in respect of serious offences, but there is no blanket prohibition. But to apply the logic of some of those MPs opposed to the UK complying with its obligations under the European Convention, the fact that bail is discretionary and decided on the merits of each case means that all arrested and convicted persons can and do get bail. Of course, this is nonsense.

The blanket ban could easily be replaced. Serving prisoners could apply for the ability to vote, and their cases dealt with according to strict criteria. A newly convicted person could be told whether their punishment includes the loss of the vote while they are in prison. Such a framework would not be expensive and would be cheaper than compensation claims. All the European Court of Human Rights requires is that each case should be considered, not that each prisoner should have the vote.

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If one is cynical, however, it is plausible that some of the opposing MPs know this, as do the government. The prisoner votes issue could be a sop to the illiberal MPs for them to vent over, just as the last Labour government always used a vote to ban foxhunting as a ploy to distract MPs.

There is no need for huge compensation payments; there is no need to withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights; and there is certainly no need to give all or most of serving prisoners the vote. There simply needs to be an end to a blanket ban, and that could be easily done.

But instead, as the legal blogger @benjaminfgray pointed out on Twitter, we have the ridiculous spectacle of MPs who supposedly believe so strongly that law-breakers should not vote that they are going to vote to break the law themselves.


David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman.