By Orla Ni Sheaghdha
The UK government faces lifting a 140-year old ban preventing prisoners from voting in general elections. The issue has caused much controversy in the House of Commons. Government ministers are uncomfortable in allowing those imprisoned to have a say in the running of the country.
In 2005, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that this voting ban is unlawful, violating the basic human rights of those in the prisons. The argument that certain human rights are given up when the law has been violated was not accepted by the court. The ECHR stated that the “blanket ban” placed by the UK on voting is discriminatory. This came about in the case of John Hirst, a convicted killer in Hull. He argued that it is impossible to affect change in a democratic system unless you have a vote. “All prisoners can do is riot, if they’ve got a complaint, so you’ve got to give them this legitimate channel.”
The ruling made by the ECHR in 2005 has raised strong reaction from various government ministers. The SNP, Labour and Conservatives blame the UK government for giving up the fight against the court ruling too quickly. Scottish Labour justice spokesman, Richard Baker urged those in Westminster “to do everything in their power to resist giving the vote to murderers and sex offenders.” The ruling of the ECHR allows for each country to decide which offences should carry restrictions on voting rights but it is still undecided which inmates will be effected by this in the UK. David Cameron stated that he will resist allowing serious offenders to vote.
The coalition government would be faced with a bigger problem if they resist the 2005 ruling. Government lawyers advised that failure to comply would cost the country hundreds of millions of pounds in compensation payouts. Minister Mark Harper argued this issue in the House of Commons. “The only thing worse than giving prisoners the vote would be giving them the vote and having to pay them damages.” The PM is worried that this is an issue that many people will find difficult to understand. The government has proposed a postal vote for inmates, based on their last address. This would combat the problem of an entire prison voting in one constituency.
Further developments on the lift of the ban are expected to come out later in the month.