Tomorrow will see a debate in the house of Commons to determine whether or not UK prisoners should be allowed to vote in Westminster and European elections.
The debate has been forced following demands from the former Home Secretary Jack straw and the former shadow Home Secretary, David Davis. Both MPs are using the debate to try and force the government to re-evaluate its relationship with both the European Court and the European Convention Human Rights.
The government has already made it clear that this has been told by its own lawyers that it must allow prisoners to vote. The whole matter is causing the government a great deal of trouble as it seeks to balance the requirements of the court ruling against the possibility of a back bench rebellion.
The Liberal and Labour front benches have decided to abstain. The Liberals had said before the election that they were in favour of allowing prisoners to vote but now seem to have changed their minds – again.
When in power, the Labour government suffered from weakness in the face of tabloid opposition and declined to act on the matter, even though the ruling was passed more than five years ago.
The tabloid press has been whipping up a storm as well, trying hard to cash in on the public’s resentment of prisoners. The Murdoch press in particular is trying hard to steer the government away from cooperating with the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights.
However, the Prime Minister, David Cameron has already stated to Parliament that the government has no choice but to comply with the ruling, even though the thought of doing so makes him “physically ill”.
Only last Tuesday, the government was advised by its own legal advisors that it must comply with the court ruling. Failure to do so would result in the coalition having to pay out hundreds of millions of pounds in compensation to prisoners.
Despite these warnings, back benchers on both sides of the House are determined to force a show down with what they see as interference from Europe, even though the European Court of Human Rights has nothing to do with the European union; a fact that is as confused in the minds of MPs as much as it is in many members of the public.
Prisoners were disenfranchised – that is, they lost the right to vote – as a result of the Forfeiture Act of 1870. Successive governments since have rigidly stuck to the policy that convicted prisoners should not be allowed to vote. This is contrary to the view taken by many other European states who believe that prisoners are still citizens and therefore have a right to be heard.
This goes to the heart of the matter and why TheOpinionSite.org and many others believe that those in prison should be allowed a say in elections, even though it seems to go against the tide of popular opinion.
The simple fact is that most people in prison, even those convicted of the most serious offences, are going to be released back into the community at some time. When they are finally released, it must be better that instead of feeling bitterness towards society, they instead feel part of and acknowledge a responsibility to the community which they are rejoining.
The traditional and very British resentment of prisoners is clear for all to see; just read the Sun newspaper. Nevertheless, such feelings are soon discarded when one of our own family members or friends are arrested, convicted and jailed. Only then do most people have any contact with Her Majesty’s Prison Service and get to see just what a destructive and corrosive force it really is.
If those inside are to be even further segregated from society by being told that as they are out of sight they may as well be dead, then it is hardly surprising that when they are released, they come out full of hatred and want revenge on the society that they see as having attacked them.
TheOpinionSite.org, together with the Prison Reform Trust and other progressive organizations, believe that all prisoners must be allowed to take part in the electoral system. To deny them the vote is to invite those who should be responsible for them to ignore the very people they are allegedly seeking to rehabilitate.
Whether they like it or not – and they should remember this when they vote – MPs of all parties have a legal duty to represent those of their constituents who find themselves in jail as well as those who are still on the outside.
The Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke made the government’s view clear in a BBC interview this morning. He said, “We are actually grasping the nettle, we have to fulfil our obligations but we’re not going to give the vote to any more prisoners than is necessary to comply with the law,” he said.
“What we can’t do is just defy the law and pretend we’re going to go wandering off.
“Human rights law tends to be applied to rather unattractive and unpleasant people.
“It’s easy to give human rights or freedom of speech to people with big popular support. These issues always come up with people who are not very popular.
“Prisoners are quite rightly being punished and not popular. Some of them are going to get the vote but probably as few as we can give them consistent with our legal obligations.”
Mr Clarke said prisoners serving longer sentences would not be given the vote – but the cut-off point would be decided at a later date. This is a clear example of Cameron trying hard not to upset the tabloids or his back benchers and illustrates just what a weak prime minister he really is.
He has also made it clear that MPs will have a free vote and will not be forced to vote along party lines. That way, the government can’t be held to account if it loses.
The truth is though, that even if the government get their way, it may still not satisfy the requirements of the ECHR and ministers will find themselves back in front of a judge and faced with the prospects of paying out even greater amounts to prisoners in compensation.
TheOpinionSite.org is firmly of the view that if you want people to obey the law and truly rejoin society, you must not prevent them from taking part in the electoral process while they are in prison. To do so is to invite revenge, bitterness and resentment from those that we are paying a fortune to rehabilitate. Just let them vote for goodness sake.
After all, you or someone in your family could be put inside at some point. How would you feel then?