The UK government is reportedly to scrap its blanket ban on prisoners being allowed to vote, 12 years after the European court of human rights ruled that it was unlawful.
Britain has ignored a series of judgments by European courts since 2005, maintaining that it is a matter for parliament to decide. But the government is planning to end its long-running defiance by allowing prisoners serving a sentence of less than a year who are let out on day release to be allowed to go home to vote, according to the Sunday Times. The newspaper said the decision had been made by David Lidington, the justice secretary, who circulated plans to ministers last week.
The paper said it would affect hundreds of prisoners and quoted a senior government source as saying: “This will only apply to a small number of people who remain on the electoral roll and are let out on day release. These are not murderers and rapists but prisoners who are serving less than a year who remain on the electoral roll. No one will be allowed to register to vote if they are still behind bars.”
Responding to the report, the Ministry of Justice’s statement left open the possibility of prisoners on day release being allowed to vote.
A spokeswoman said: “We do not comment on speculation. Our policy on prisoner voting is well established: it remains a matter for the UK to determine, and offenders in prison cannot vote.”
Any weakening of the blanket ban is likely to leave many MPs dismayed. When the government proposed legislation to restrict the voting ban in 2011 MPs voted overwhelmingly by 234 to 22 in favour of a cross-party motion that said parliament should decide on such an important issue.
David Cameron, who defied the European judgements as prime minister, said the idea of prisoners being given the right to vote made him feel “physically sick”.
The ban on prisoners’ voting was challenged John Hirst, who, in 2005, while serving a life sentence for manslaughter, won a case in the grand chamber of the ECHR in Strasbourg with a ruling that a blanket ban on voting was contrary to article 3, protocol 1 of the European convention on human rights, which guarantees the right to free and fair elections.
The exact parameters of what would be deemed acceptable remain unclear, but, in 2015, the European court of justice ruled that it was lawful for countries to impose a voting ban on prisoners convicted of serious crimes.
The European Union’s highest court ruled that the ban on French convicted murderer Thierry Delvigne taking part in the European elections did not represent a breach of the EU charter of fundamental rights but was proportionate “in so far as it takes into account the nature and gravity of the criminal offence committed and the duration of the penalty”.
The same year, the ECHR ruled that the blanket ban breached the rights of 1,015 Britons behind bars who had brought claims but said that they were not entitled to compensation or their legal costs.
Britain is the only western European country with a blanket ban on prisoner voting with only Armenia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary and Russia in the Council of Europe imposing similar restrictions.
Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show: “The European court of human rights has been saying for some years that we can’t stop all prisoners having the vote and the Labour Party believes that … in the end, we have to support the position of the European court of human rights.”
Source: The Guardian