A limited number of prisoners will be allowed to vote ending the UK’s total ban on prisoners voting, according to reports.
The Sunday Times revealed today that David Liddington, the Justice Secretary, has drawn up plans to end the UK’s 12-year refusal to implement a Human Rights Court judgment from 2005. The relaxation of the long-standing ban would only apply to prisoners sentenced to a year or less in prison and who are eligible for day release.
12 years and counting
The issue goes back to 2005, when the Court ruled in the case of John Hirst. Hirst successfully argued that the ban on prisoners voting violated the right to free and fair elections, which is protected under Article 3 Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Court said that the right to vote is “crucial to establishing… an effective and meaningful democracy governed by the rule of law“. The Court stated that the blanket ban on prisoner voting was an “automatic and indiscriminate restriction on a vitally important Convention right”. It declared that the UK’s ban violated prisoners’ rights to vote.
The UK has an obligation under the Human Rights Convention that it will “abide by” all judgments of the court, and generally it does so. But not in this case, where successive governments have avoided implementing the ruling.
Prime Minister David Cameron took a strong stance against the Court’s decision, saying that giving prisoners the right to vote would make him “physically sick”.
The UK’s failure to implement the Hirst ruling led to another judgment against the UK. In Greens and MT v UK, the Court said it would not tell the the UK exactly which prisoners should and should not be granted the vote. But it was unanimous that some change had to be made, and the lengthy delay meant that it had to impose a timetable for the UK to amend its voting laws.
In 2012, David Cameron promised: “Prisoners are not getting the vote under this Government”. But in November 2012 the then-Justice Secretary published the Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill, and announced the establishment of a parliamentary Joint Committee to scrutinise the proposed legislation.
End of the saga?
Almost three years ago, the Joint Committee considered the draft Bill and published a report, recommending that prisoners serving under a year be given the vote, and that the enfranchisement of a few thousand prisoners is far outweighed by the importance of the rule of law and the desirability of remaining signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights.
Two more European Court decisions (in 2014 and 2015) condemned the UK for failing to adhere to the Court’s decision, but refused to award monetary compensation to prisoners denied their right to vote.
It may be that the Joint Committee’s recommendation will finally be implemented. Today’s news may be another false dawn – this wouldn’t be the first time that a ‘breakthrough’ has been reported, leading to no change. And any change would have to get through Parliament. After years of populist posturing over the issue, this will be difficult even with a party whip.
But if it is true, then it would represent a positive development in this long-running saga, and an important demonstration that the UK still sees the rule of law and its international legal obligations, particularly to the Human Rights Convention, as important. In the context of Brexit, this would be welcome news indeed.