As the BBC’s Home Affairs Correspondent, Dominic Casciani, has pointed out in a helpful feature article online, it has been nearly nine years since the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) handed down a judgement that the UK had a legal obligation to extend the vote to some prisoners at least. In effect, the current total blanket ban on voting by convicted inmates is unlawful. Needless to say, no British government wants to be the one that defies widespread public opinion by putting such a bill through Parliament.
Now Westminster has been given a reprieve since no further action will be taken until September 2015 – effectively kicking the issue into the long grass again until after the next general election. That will come as a relief to the Coalition, no doubt.
Yesterday, the Council of Europe issued a rather terse statement, more in sorrow than anger, that made clear its irritation that Britain is continuing to flaunt its legal obligations. The statement “noted with profound concern and disappointment that the United Kingdom authorities did not introduce a bill to parliament at the start of its 2014-2015 session as recommended by the competent parliamentary committee; urged the United Kingdom authorities to introduce such a bill as soon as possible and to inform them as soon as this has been done.” I wouldn’t hold your breath.
|Name and number?|
One of the arguments that never seems to get aired is that prisoners who serve sentences in between general elections are unaffected by the present ban. This means that as long as they are back in the community (even if on licence) in time to re-register then they can vote like anyone else. Therefore, it seems that you only get disenfranchised if you happen to be inside jail around the time of an election. I’m not sure that this makes much sense.
I could understand it if we had a system (as exists in some other countries) where convicts lose civil rights, including the vote, for a set period of time after conviction regardless of whether they are in prison or not. However, as things stand it’s the actual timing of a prison sentence that deprives a con of his or her vote, not the fact of a criminal conviction.
Another anomaly is that if someone has been convicted, but is then granted bail ahead of sentencing, he or she can still vote if there is an election before the sentencing hearing. Someone who is sent straight down loses the right to vote. It does seem to me that the present system is a bit of a 'lottery’.
|Not on prison wings anytime soon|
Ten days ago, when I posted the comment above, I observed: “my best guess is that nothing will change any time soon”. In fact, it seems that I was right and we’ll have to wait until after the next election to see how whichever government is then in power deals with this tricky – and deeply unpopular – legal conundrum.