Robert Chesshyre: Give prisoners the right to vote, and everybody benefits

Most European countries allow some inmates to visit polling booths

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Stated baldly, the question "Should prisoners have the vote?" reads like one of those hypothetical motions beloved of sixth-form debating clubs – a lively issue to kick around, but far removed from the real world. Or at least, so the topic seems in Britain: in most other European countries, people would wonder why a matter settled long ago with the answer "Yes, of course" was still causing a fuss.

In fact the Government pledged – reluctantly and under extreme pressure from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) – to introduce votes for at least some convicted prisoners. The issue is "live" because the Committee of Ministers at the Council of Europe is fed up with British foot-dragging. A blanket ban on votes for convicted prisoners (those on remand or in jail in civil cases can vote) was declared "unlawful" by the European Court six years ago.

European ministers, tired of waiting, have warned "the substantial delay in implementing the judgment has given rise to a significant risk that the next UK general election will be performed in a way that fails to comply with the Convention on Human Rights". And the Government is facing a campaign not just finally to do something, but to do it in time for this year's election.

As with many "liberal" issues, government reluctance to do anything has more to do with the fear of wilful headlines than with the practical or moral problems. "Ian Huntley to get the vote" is the wildly misleading headline that ministers dread. The words "Murderers, rapists, child abusers will be heading for the polls this summer..." swim before their eyes.

It is, however, a boil that could be so easily lanced. True, some countries allow all, or almost all, inmates the vote. Finland even sets up polling booths in the jails. But most European countries set a threshold relating to the crime or length of sentence. Those considered particularly bad or dangerous can't vote: the rest of the prison population can.

"Consultations" have dragged on for six years here, ever since a former prisoner won the case for votes in the ECHR. By failing to take the necessary action, we finds ourself in a minority many might consider dubious company – Bulgaria, Romania and Armenia are among our fellow naysayers. Our major European partners – France, Germany and Italy – all allow some (in practice, usually most) prisoners to vote.

The arguments for prisoner votes were rehearsed this week at a House of Lords meeting organised by the Prison Reform Trust (PRT) and UNLOCK (an association of ex-offenders). The reformers – who included Lord Ramsbotham, the former prison chief inspector; Juliet Lyon, PRT director; Shami Chakrabarti, of Liberty; and James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool – pursue their goal with a determination that matches the determination of the Government to sit on its hands.

The ban on voting by prisoners is enshrined in the dusty 1870 Forfeiture Act. In the 19th century prisoners were perceived to have put themselves beyond civic society. The arguments, 140 years later, for reform are that only a handful of prisoners (Huntley among them) are never coming out, so almost all 84,000 people in jail will return to society; alienation from mainstream life and the reluctance to take responsibility are major springboards for crime, therefore, whatever can be done to encourage prisoners to become participating members of the wider society should be.

Ms Lyon said: "People are sent to prison to lose their liberty, not their identity. The Government can dispose of the antiquated punishment of civic death and make sure that prisoners can exercise their civic responsibilities." Lord Ramsbotham asked: "Why is there this continued prevarication in defiance of the rule of law, of human rights and the rehabilitation of offenders – all causes that the Government claims to champion?"

Reformers argue that the Government still has time before an election to introduce prisoner votes. Given the intransigence of the past decade, this hope is pie in the sky. But ministers will discover the issue cannot be left in the long grass. The European Committee of Ministers promises to return to the topic next month if nothing is done. This is not a sixth-form debating issue, and one day prisoners surely will have the vote. Why not now, and to hell with the headlines? Or is that asking too much of Jack Straw and company?

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