Q&A: UK prisoners' right to vote

Image caption Only prisoners on remand can currently vote

The government is set to allow prisoners the vote but it wants the right limited to those sentenced to a year or less, rather than the four years previously considered.

The move comes seven years after the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that banning convicted killer John Hirst from the polls had breached his right to participate in the democratic process.

BBC News looks at the background to the case and the issues surrounding prisoner voting.

Why is the government giving some prisoners the vote?

The government has been advised that continuing to resist the European court ruling could lead to compensation payouts to prisoners costing tens of millions of pounds.

BBC political correspondent Norman Smith says Prime Minister David Cameron was "absolutely horrified" by the idea of changing the law but reluctantly accepted there was no alternative. He knew full well it was a policy almost certain to attract bruising headlines and enrage many traditional Tory supporters.

Having initially said prisoners serving up to four years would get the vote, ministers now plan to give the vote to only those prisoners sentenced to serve a year or less. However, they are aware this policy will be tested in the courts and they might lose again.

This concession may also not be enough to satisfy the MPs who want to make a stand against the European court.

MPs will have the opportunity to defy the court's ruling in a couple of weeks' time when the Commons debates a motion tabled by Conservative David Davis and Labour's Jack Straw.

What is Britain's position compared with other European countries?

Many nations, including Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland, have no form of electoral ban for imprisoned offenders. In some of them, however, severe restrictions make it very difficult in practice for offenders to vote. In Cyprus, for example, an inmate must happen to be out of prison on the day of the elections, and in Slovakia, prisoners can legally vote but no provision is made to allow them to do so.

The Republic of Ireland lifted its ban in 2006, passing legislation enabling all prisoners to vote by post in the constituency where they would ordinarily live.

In 13 European countries, electoral disqualification depends on the crime committed or the length of the sentence. Italy, Malta and Poland, for example, ban those deemed to have committed serious crimes. In Greece, anyone sentenced to life receives a permanent voting ban.

Germany's law actually urges prisons to encourage their inmates to vote, although it does ban those whose crimes undermine "democratic order", such as political insurgents.

Until 2005, Austria banned all those sentenced to more than one year. However, a convicted murderer challenged that and won, meaning that Austria now allows the vote in all cases except where the offence is particularly relevant - such as electoral fraud.

Other than the UK, the only other European countries with an outright ban on prisoners voting are Russia, Armenia, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Luxembourg and Romania.

However, until a legal challenge is brought in those countries, Europe will not seek to force a change in their domestic legislation.

What led John Hirst to begin his campaign?

"Basically I'd read books that said if you want to change something you start up a pressure group, and then you put pressure on MPs and then you get things changed in Parliament," he said.

"Well that's all right if you've got the vote and you've got some clout behind you.

"When you're a prisoner, the only thing you can do if you want to complain and no-one listens, is riot and lift the roof off - which isn't the best way of going about things.

"Because we didn't have a vote, there was no will in Parliament to change anything.

"Prison officers would talk to me and say 'Oh you're a prisoner, you're less than human', and all the rest of it, and I said 'No, I'm not, I'm a human being, I've got rights,' and they'd say 'Well, where are they? What are they?'"

Why was the case heard in the European Court of Human Rights?

Dismissing the case in April 2001, Britain's High Court ruled there was a broad spectrum of approaches to the question of prisoners voting and that Britain fell into the middle.

"In the course of time, this position may move, either by way of fine tuning, as was done recently in relation to remand prisoners and others, or more radically, but its position in the spectrum is plainly a matter for Parliament, not the courts."

Mr Hirst subsequently took the case to the European Court of Human Rights in March 2004.

It ruled the British government was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. The British government appealed to the European Court's grand chamber, but on 6 October 2005 it upheld the ruling.

Following that decision, Labour ministers launched a two-stage consultation. The first, completed in 2007, considered the principles of prisoner enfranchisement, and the second, completed in 2009, looked at the practicalities of any such move. However, by the time of the general election in May 2010, the government had not responded to the results of the consultation.

In November 2010, the Council of Europe finally demanded that the UK "put an end to the practice of delaying full implementation of Strasbourg Court judgements". The European Court gave the government six months to put its house in order.

What are the arguments against prisoners voting?

When the previous government announced it was appealing against the European Court's original ruling in 2005, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Constitutional Affairs, Lord Firkin, said: "It has been the view of successive governments, including this government, that persons who have committed crimes serious enough to warrant a custodial sentence should forfeit the right to have a say in how the country is governed while they are detained."

In the original hearing at the European Court of Human Rights, the government said the restriction on the right to vote was aimed at preventing crime, punishing offenders and enhancing civil responsibility and respect for the law.

After the grand council upheld that ruling Dominic Grieve, who was then shadow attorney general, said it would be "ludicrous" to give prisoners the right to vote.

"If convicted rapists and murderers are given the vote it will bring the law into disrepute and many people will see it as making a mockery of justice," he said.

Mr Grieve, who is now the attorney general, said at the time: "My personal view has always been that if somebody is sentenced to a period in prison that the right to vote does go for that period.

"Of course it reverts when they leave prison and I think most people would consider that's a fair approach."

What are the arguments in favour?

In its original ruling, the European Court of Human Rights said: "[The] removal of the vote... runs counter to the rehabilitation of the offender as a law-abiding member of the community and undermines the authority of the law as derived from a legislature which the community as a whole votes into power."

It said there was no evidence that disenfranchisement helped to prevent crime.

The Bishop to HM Prisons, the Right Reverend Dr Peter Selby, has also spoken in support of prisoners' right to vote.

He said not allowing them to vote states "society's belief that once convicted you are a non-person, one who should have no say in how our society is to develop, whose opinion is to count for nothing".

John Hirst said: "Every human being has rights and it is up to us all to ensure that those people get those human rights and not say 'Oh, because they're a prisoner they should be denied them.'

"What you forfeit when you go to jail is your liberty - you know, you can't pop down the pub for a pint, you can't have sex with your loved one, you know, that is what you're actually forfeiting - not the vote."

Will giving prisoners the right to vote make any difference?

Mr Hirst said if prisoners were also voters politicians would seek out their views when canvassing for votes: "What this will do is force them to go knocking on people's doors inside - knocking on cell doors, asking them what they think, offering them incentives or privileges to try to get their vote.

"What you have got there is actually a mini-community - behind prison walls, the same as outside only it's smaller - it's a microcosm of it. So politics is a very big thing in prison."

Who else is currently denied the vote in UK ?

The vote is also denied to people convicted of corrupt or illegal election practices and patients detained in psychiatric hospitals because of their crimes.

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