Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill

The Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Draft Bill has been published in response to the line of European Court of Human Rights case-law which concludes that the absolute ban on prisoners voting in section 3 Representation of the People Act 1983 (“RPA”) is incompatible with the right to participate in full and fair elections. A Joint Committee of both houses of Parliament has been appointed to consider the Draft Bill.

The UK is required by the European Convention on Human Rights to repeal the bar on all prisoners voting. The extended controversy over the UK’s failure to execute the judgment of the European court and the political reluctance of successive Governments to tackle this legally simple, but politically uncomfortable issue is well rehearsed.

The right to vote is the very basis of democracy, is recognised in most national constitutions and international human rights instruments and has been called the ‘right of rights’.   JUSTICE’s view is that, as a general rule, prisoners should be entitled to vote.  Any specific restriction, if justifiable, should be considered distinct from sentence.  We recognise that this is not the only option legally open to the UK.   However, we regret that the options presented in the draft Bill are disappointing and contentious.  Two of the options – do nothing or ban prisoners serving longer than 6 months from the ballot box – are unlawful and not rationally open to the UK.

The third –  disenfranchisement of all prisoners sentenced to over four years – bears the hallmarks of a general and automatic blanket rule which will require careful justification.   While we accept that this option is most likely to be considered acceptable on review by the domestic and European Courts, we stress that it is for Parliament to consider on an evidence-based analysis whether the restriction of the franchise presents a tangible benefit for civil responsibility and the prevention of crime.  We express some scepticism.

We recognise that a range of strong, sincerely held convictions about the scope of the franchise have been expressed.  We hope that the publication of these legislative proposals will lead to a resolution which recognises this spectrum of opinion and the implications for the UK’s reputation of maintaining the ban, but which respects the UK’s international obligations and maintains the rule of law.

Read JUSTICE’s submission to the Joint Committee.