Convicted Prisoners Could Get Right To Vote

Convicted prisoners could be allowed to vote in UK elections for the first time under proposals outlined by the government. Ministers have begun public consultation on the plans, which could see some categories of offenders voting while in jail, despite government opposition to such a move.

Under the Representation of the People Act 1983, all prisoners are barred from voting in parliamentary and local elections unless they are held on remand.

The legelsation stems from the Forfeiture Act of 1870 and its idea of “civic death” – a punishment entailing the withdrawal of citizenship rights.

However, the government has been forced to review the arrangements after the European court of human rights last year ruled that a blanket ban breached prisoners’ human rights.

The judgment was passed in the case of inmate John Hirst, who was sentenced to life in 1980 after he admitted the manslaughter, on the grounds of diminished responsibility, of his landlady. He was released on licence in May 2005, but was barred from voting.

The constitutional affairs secretary, Lord Falconer, said the government still backed the ban, but was obliged to review it. “The right to vote in the UK is considered by many to be a privilege as well as an entitlement, and that persons who are convicted of an offence serious enough to warrant a term in prison have cast aside that privilege and entitlement for the duration of their sentence,” he said.

“Successive UK governments have held to the view that the right to vote forms part of the social contract between individuals and the state, and that loss of the right to vote, reflected in the current law, is a proper and proportionate punishment for breaches of the social contract that resulted in imprisonment.”

Lord Falconer stressed that entitling all prisoners to vote was not an option, but added: “We do need to reconsider the basic principles of our position and seek views on various possible options for change.”

The consultation paper invites views on whether to retain the ban, to allow judges to decide case by case whether an offender has the right to vote in prison, or whether this should be decided on criteria such as sentence length or type of offence.

Many European countries already give some prisoners the right to vote, but Jack Straw, the leader of the Commons, stressed the UK government’s opposition to lifting the ban.

“Speaking for myself, and I think for all my colleagues, we are wholly opposed to giving prisoners the right to vote,” he told MPs at question time.

He said the consultation arose from “interesting” decision by the European court of human rights, but emphasised that the Commons would have the final say. “When this consultation has been concluded, this House will make a decision about the way forward,” he said

The Liberal Democrats back giving prisoners the vote, but Conservatives oppose the move.

“Letting prisoners vote is not going to help the fight against crime,” Oliver Heald, the Tory shadow constitutional affairs secretary, said. “A sentence of imprisonment should mean losing your liberty, including your voting rights.”

The crime reduction charity Nacro welcomed the consultation, arguing that barring prisoners from voting was “wrong on principle”.

“Depriving prisoners of the vote contradicts the aim of rehabilitating offenders,” the chief executive, Paul Cavadino, said. “If we want prisoners to become morally responsible citizens, it makes no sense to refuse them the responsibility of exercising the vote.”