Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill - Joint Committee on the Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill Contents

8  The way forward

The views of the Committee

229. We accept, on the basis of the evidence we have heard in the course of this inquiry, that the United Kingdom is under a binding international law obligation to comply with the Hirst judgment. We also understand that it would be completely unprecedented for any state that has ratified the European Convention on Human Rights to enact legislation in defiance of a binding ruling of the European Court of Human Rights. Under domestic law Parliament can of course legislate as it sees fit; but if it wishes to uphold the United Kingdom's long tradition of respect for and attachment to the rule of law, Parliament should either enact legislation complying with the Hirst judgment or take steps to denounce the Convention, of which the United Kingdom itself, in the years following the Second World War, was the prime mover. The latter outcome is not one that we could countenance in respect of an issue of modest practical importance.

230. We note the recent and continuing reform of the Court, and, while it falls outside the scope of our inquiry, we also recognise the need for further reform of the Court and in particular of its relationship to democratically elected national legislatures. We also note the concern of the Secretary General of the Council of Europe to help the United Kingdom find a way out of the current crisis, which threatens the entire Convention system.

231. We understand the symbolic force of the current prohibition on convicted prisoners voting, but the arguments for relaxing this prohibition are, on any rational assessment, persuasive. The Government has failed to advance a plausible case for the prohibition in terms of penal policy—disenfranchisement linked to detention is an ineffective and arbitrary punishment, particularly for the tens of thousands of prisoners serving short sentences who pass through the prison system each year. There is no evidence that disenfranchisement plays any part in deterring crime. Insofar as penal policy has a bearing on prisoner voting, the strongest argument we have heard is that there could be potentially a mild rehabilitative effect if some prisoners were to be enfranchised.

232. We acknowledge that public opinion appears at present to be against prisoners voting. However, it is difficult to judge how deep-rooted these views are, given that the debate over prisoner voting has so often been lost in the wider debate over the United Kingdom's relationships both with the European Court of Human Rights and the European Union. The public has yet to be presented either with the clear evidence that the current prohibition is both arbitrary and ineffective, or with the arguments in favour of granting some prisoners the vote. We note that of the 47 Council of Europe member states, the United Kingdom is one of only five that maintain a comprehensive prohibition on prisoner voting, the others being Armenia, Bulgaria, Estonia and Russia.

233. The Lord Chancellor invited us to recommend a Bill containing both compliant and non-compliant options. He suggested that "it [is] better—in order to promote a sensible debate in this matter—to lay the options on the table before it, rather than wait for the inevitable Back-Bench amendment that would do the same job anyway."[237]

234. We agree with the Lord Chancellor that if the Government were to introduce a Bill enfranchising any or all prisoners, there would almost certainly be amendments reasserting the current complete prohibition. But we do not believe that the Government itself should be proposing to Parliament an option that it knows to be unlawful. Ministers of the Crown are under a clear duty to present a Bill to Parliament that fulfils the United Kingdom's international law obligation under Article 46 of the Convention.

235. Once such a Bill has been introduced, it is of course likely that amendments re-stating the existing prohibition on prisoner voting will be tabled and debated in both Houses. We also note that there is no procedural bar to introducing the same Bill to both Houses simultaneously. Members of the two Houses will then examine their own consciences before deciding how to vote. This Committee considers that it would be wholly disproportionate for Parliament to take the grave step of undermining the international rule of law, which the United Kingdom has worked for so many decades to defend and promote, for the sake of a small modification of domestic law.

236. The Committee therefore recommend that Parliament should comply with the Court's judgment in Hirst by enacting legislation that would confer voting rights on some convicted prisoners. Having considered the options in the draft Bill, and others that were placed before us, we have found that the most persuasive argument was that those sentenced to a term of imprisonment of 12 months or less should retain the right to vote. Twelve months is the maximum period of imprisonment that a magistrates' court can impose for multiple offences, and setting the threshold at this level would mean that only those sentenced in the Crown Court to a longer term of imprisonment would lose the right to vote. The 12-month threshold also has historical justification, corresponding broadly to the position that pertained at the time the UK ratified the Convention and the First Protocol.

237. We also support enfranchising prisoners in the period leading up to release; this should be linked to a programme of civic education, to help prisoners prepare for their return to the community. We therefore recommend that prisoners should be entitled to apply, six months before their scheduled release date, to be registered to vote in the constituency into which they are due to be released.

238. In reaching these conclusions, we have proposed a statutory framework which we believe to be proportionate, but which retains a prohibition on those convicted of particularly serious crimes voting.


239. We recommend that the Government bring forward a Bill, at the start of the 2014 -15 session of Parliament, to give legislative effect to the following conclusions:

  • That all prisoners serving sentences of 12 months or less should be entitled to vote in all UK parliamentary, local and European elections;
  • That such prisoners should be registered to vote in the constituency where they were registered prior to sentencing; and that, where there is no identified prior residence, they should be able to register by means of a declaration of local connection;
  • That prisoners should be entitled to apply, 6 months before their scheduled release date, to be registered to vote in the constituency into which they are due to be released.

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Prepared 18 December 2013