UK Politics

Prisoners serving less than a year 'should get the vote'

A prison officer locks the gates at Maidstone jail
Image caption About 7,000 prisoners would get the vote immediately under the committee's recommendations

Prisoners serving jail terms of a year or less and those coming to the end of their sentences should be entitled to vote, a cross-party committee of MPs and peers has recommended.

The government is considering its options after the European Court of Human Rights ruled the UK's current ban on prisoner voting is unlawful.

The committee said the vote should "not be removed without good reason".

But it said those guilty of "heinous crimes" should be disenfranchised.

Committee member Conservative MP Crispin Blunt said policy on the issue should not be driven "by an attitude of revenge and punishment" towards offenders but a "more constructive response of rehabilitation and restoration".

However, three members of the 12-strong Parliamentary Joint Committee on the Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill said retaining the current blanket ban should be considered as well as the 12-month threshold.

MPs voted to keep the blanket ban on prisoner voting - excluding those on remand - in 2011 in the face of the European Court of Human Rights' repeated calls for the UK to comply with its 2004 ruling.

Sovereignty

Conservative backbenchers, in particular, have urged Parliament to assert its sovereignty against what they say is the growing encroachment of the Court into what they argue are domestic matters.

Image caption The European Court of Human Rights has said the UK must reconsider its position

Ministers have suggested they will do the minimum required to comply with the ruling in order to fulfil the UK's obligations as a signatory to the European Convention of Human Rights.

Last year, they published draft legislation setting out three options: maintaining the status quo, giving the vote to those serving custodial sentences of six months or less and enfranchising all prisoners sentenced to four years or less.

A joint committee set up to scrutinise the government's proposals said setting any "custody threshold" for getting the vote may look arbitrary but it believed that sentences of 12-months or less was the right level.

It estimates about 7,000 prisoners in the UK would get the right to vote as a result and that this would have no bearing on the outcome of future elections.

It also recommends that prisoners serving longer sentences should be entitled to apply, up to six months before their scheduled release date, to vote in local, general and European elections.

'Rule of law'

The committee said voting was not an "absolute right" and that there is a "legitimate expectation those convicted of the most heinous crimes should, as part of their punishment, be stripped of the power embodied in the right to vote".

However, it said there were no convincing penal arguments, in terms of deterrence or crime reduction, for withholding the vote.

It also warned the UK would set a damaging precedent if it chose to ignore the rulings of the European Court - by potentially giving other countries the green light to flout the rule of law.

"The enfranchisement of a few thousand prisoners is far outweighed by the importance of the rule of law and the desirability of remaining part of the Convention system," it said.

Mr Blunt, a former prisons minister, said claims that the UK was being pressurised into "enfranchising axe murderers" was simply wrong and the UK must set an example to other nations in not seeking a confrontation.

"While I believe the Court overreached itself in imposing this judgement on this issue on the UK, the merits of the case were on its side," he said.

"The decision about which offenders to enfranchise, particularly those on the cusp of a custodial or community sentence, should follow reflective judgement rather than an immediate splenetic response."

But former schools minister Nick Gibb, one of the committee members to dissent from its main recommendation, said the Commons had already expressed its views "firmly" on the issue.

"Parliament will need to consider whether it is right to extend the franchise to those denied their liberty and the right to engage in society as a result of serving a custodial sentence," he said.

"Parliament will also need to consider the extent to which it is content to permit the European Court of Human Rights to encroach on domestic policy areas that appear far removed from the original intentions of the drafters of the European Convention on Human Rights."

The Ministry of Justice said Parliament should have the final decision on the issue.

"This is an issue on which Parliament has expressed strong views," a spokesman said. "The government will consider the report carefully and will respond early next year, setting out how Parliament will be given its say."

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