The right to vote is considered a human right, included in article three of the first protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The right to vote in the UK has existed since King Henry VI of England established that male property owners worth over forty shillings were entitled to vote in a county back in 1432.
Since then the right of suffrage (right to vote) has been extended, most notably in 1918 when women who helped in the war effort were added to the franchise, and again in 1928 when women's right to vote was made equal to those of men, and property restrictions were removed.
Suffrage was extended to those over the age of 18 back in 1969, but for those under the age of 18 and convicted prisoners the right to vote in the UK has long been denied.
The inconsistency of UK law, which bans all prisoners from voting, with the European Convention on Human Rights to which the UK is a signatory has been the subject of considerable recent discussion and several legal challenges.
The European Court of Human Rights has been asked to consider the question of banning prisoners from voting several times. In 2005 John Hirst, a UK prisoner serving a sentence for manslaughter, appealed to the European Courts on the basis that he believed that the UK's blanket ban on prisoners' voting rights was against EU law.
In the Hirst case the European Court ruled that the UK's policy banning prisoner's from voting did contravene his rights under article three of the first protocol. The UK Government's appeal was rejected, and in 2010 the Government announced that it would implement a change in the law. However, they were able to secure a stay of execution, whilst waiting for the results of a similar case, this time brought from Italy.
The Scoppola Case
The question of bans on voting for prisoners was then raised by an Italian murderer, Franco Scoppola. He asked the European Courts to review Italy's laws, which prevent him from voting because he is serving a long sentence.
The ECHR ruled back in May this year that Italy's laws were not in contravention of Mr Scoppola's human rights, because in allowing prisoners serving short sentences the right the vote they were not 'automatic and indiscriminate'.
The ECHR ruled that countries such as Britain, which exercises a blanket ban on voting for prisoners, would need to remedy their laws within six months. It is this deadline that is looming for the UK Government at the end of November.
Last year Prime Minister David Cameron famously told the media that the thought of prisoners voting made him feel 'physically sick' and vowed that the UK would not bend to pressure from Europe on this policy.
Yesterday in parliament Mr Cameron announced that the UK will not legislate on the matter in time for the deadline and will instead take the matter to another Commons vote.
"No one should be under any doubt: prisoners are not getting the vote under this government," he told the Commons.
MPs last voted on the idea 18 months ago, deciding by a large majority to keep the laws as they are.
Ways around the legislation
The Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, is keen for the UK Government to come up with a solution to avoid a clash with the European Courts in Strasbourg.
Mr Grieve believes that a solution could be found that keeps the EU happy and still denies prisoners the right to vote. One idea would be to impose a restriction on anyone serving a sentence handed down by a judge, effectively encompassing all prisoners without referencing them as a group.
"I'm simply stressing that there are numerous ways a government or parliament could approach the issue of change to the blanket ban," he told a committee of MPs.
The issue is politically sensitive, as a previous suggestion that would allow prisoners serving sentences of four years or less would see some 30,000 offenders given the vote. This number would include a large number of violent criminals and more than 1,000 sex offenders.
David Cameron to defy Europe on prisoner voting (The Telegraph)