Debate is currently taking place in the House of Commons on whether prisoners should be able to vote. The debate will not lead to a decision today. That will have to wait until the government brings forward legislation later in the year.
I know that popular opinion on this issue is firmly against prisoners voting. If you commit a crime and get locked up at Her Majesty’s pleasure, then you lose all your rights… Well, I guess that this is what most people will read in the tabloid papers and if you stopped someone in the street and asked them the question, that would be their instant response.
But I’m afraid I don’t agree. Making the case for rights for prisoners will not make me popular and I know I could do with doing something populist right now! Every time I’ve spoken on education for prisoners, or job training or even for them to be able to watch TV, I”ve received hostile letters and emails.
But prisoners (with a tiny number of exceptions) are released. And I want them to be better citizens when they come out than when they went behind bars. The current prison regime fails miserably on this score as many ex-cons soon re-offend. The answer is not to lock them up for longer. It is to work constructively with them when they are in our care. Education and skills are essential. Not just literacy and numeracy (at child levels for most prisoners) but also how to be a good citizen. Voting is part of being a citizen. When we lock people up they don’t stop being our fellow citizens. They lose their liberty but they don’t have to lose all their civil rights.
The above is a mixture of principles and pragmatism. But today’s debate is also about the rule of law. Britain has lost a court case. Some of my MP colleagues want our government to become a law breaker, by denying the right to vote to law breakers. We should expect higher standards from government. I was horrified to hear a Tory MP refer to the Strasbourg based judges as “unelected bureaucrats” at yesterdays PMQs.
In 1950 Britain was a founder member of the Council of Europe. Nothing to do with the European Union, that comes later. The Council of Europe was founded to promote human rights in a continent just ravaged by war, with civilians the main victims. Britain is a signatory to the Treaty and since 1999 and the Human Rights Act our courts have had to recognise the European Convention on Human Rights.
The basic principle is that all adults should have the right to chose their law makers. There should be no blanket rules removing that right from whole classes of people. That does not mean that every individual must always have their full set of human rights. In certain circumstances, those rights can be restricted. So the court ruling does not mean all prisoners should be able to vote.
I want Parliament to make it clear that prisoners, as citizens, should have the right to vote unless their crime is of a nature that it infringed the fundamental human rights of another citizen or society. So terrorists, murderers and rapists should be excluded. But it should be for the judge, when passing sentence, to decide whether the right to vote should be stripped from these people and for how long.
The PM says he finds giving prisoners the vote “stomach churning” and I know many will agree with him. But I would find giving financial compensation to convicts because our government is breaking the law even more nauseating. That’s what will eventually happen if we fail to comply with the court’s judgement.
I doubt if many prisoners would actually use their right to vote. But it is a right that I believe they should have. Rehabilitation is more effective than retribution. And human rights are too precious to be sacrificed on the altar of populism.