The Council of Europe has urged the UK government to hurry up and change the law on prisoner voting rights. As things stand, the UK’s 84,073 strong prison population (all avowed Conservative voters, according to reports) are barred from voting in elections under section 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1983.
In March 2004, however, in the case of Hirst v. United Kingdom, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) unanimously ruled that the maintenance of an absolute bar on convicted prisoners voting was in breach of Article 3 of the First Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to free and fair elections.
The case was brought by John Hirst, a prisoner who, in 1980, had been sentenced to a term of discretionary life imprisonment after pleading guilty to manslaughter. The UK Government unsuccessfully appealed the decision before the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR.
Since the appeal was dismissed, the government has commenced two consultations over whether to give prisoners the vote. Justice Secretary Jack Straw has proposed that the right be granted to all prisoners except those convicted of serious violent and sexual offences.
A justice ministry spokesman told the Guardian: “It remains the government’s view that the right to vote goes to the essence of the offender’s relationship with democratic society, and the removal of the right to vote in the case of some convicted prisoners can be a proportionate and proper response following conviction and imprisonment. The issue of prisoner voting rights is one that the government takes very seriously and that remains under careful consideration.”
But this was not enough to satisfy the Council of Ministers. It has urged the Government “to rapidly adopt measures, of even an interim nature, to ensure the execution of the court’s judgment [in Hirst v.UK] before the forthcoming general election.
“The increasing number of persons potentially affected by the restriction could result in similar violations affecting a significant category of persons, giving rise to a substantial risk of repetitive applications to the European court.”
Chief executive of the ex-offenders’ organisation Unlock Bob Cummings added: “Giving prisoners the vote is a question of moral conscience. If prisoners are excluded from voting, then we don’t have a democratic society – we are just paying lip service to one. The government must accept that prisoners remain citizens of this country with legitimate human rights, including the right to vote.”
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