What’s the real issue behind the votes for prisoners debate?
Author: Alexandra Runswick
Published on Oct 30, 2012
In the last week, discussions of prisoner votes have dominated the media, as some sort of response is required to a European Court of Human Rights ruling against blanket bans on prisoners voting. There have largely been two strains to this discussion: firstly, whether or not any prisoners should have the right to vote, and secondly, about matters of sovereignty pertaining to whether the government holds any sway over the ECHR.
The power struggle between the ECHR and parliament is of particular interest as this is the crux of the matter: they are squaring up against one another to show off who is the stronger. It isn’t really about votes for prisoners, it’s a point-scoring exercise. This is unfortunate, as there’s a very real opportunity for a discussion as to how we’d like decisions to be made.
In the Netherlands, for example, the parliament receives an annual report not just on the judgments made against the Netherlands, but also judgments made against other countries that may, either directly or indirectly, affect Dutch law. This proactive approach means that parliament can take prompt action in deciding how to respond to issues as they arise and emphasises the parliament’s role as the initiator of policy and legislation. At the moment our parliament is letting us down by arguing about sovereignty rather than taking the initiative and addressing the policy issue.
There are lots of ways that parliament can comply with the ECHR ruling, as they’re not specifying how a blanket ban on prisoner votes should be lifted, merely that a blanket ban is not permissible. While there is certainly a case for all prisoners having the right to vote, it is clear that MPs would not find that an acceptable solution. That is their prerogative but it does mean that they have to engage sensibly with how to resolve this issue - not simply to say try and ignore it. Possible solutions to this problem could be to grant voting rights to prisoners serving sentences for certain crimes, or shorter sentences. It could even be allowing judges to grant voting rights to individual prisoners on a case-by-case basis.
It’s time to have this discussion, if only parliament will allow it to happen.