‘Should prisoners be allowed to vote?’ A recent Oxford applicant was asked this in a PPE interview, but it may well be one that Law or HSPS interviewees may have to deliberate come December. How would you respond? The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the UK must allow some of its prisoners the vote in what they have described as a breach of human rights. This particular ruling relates to a group of 10 prisoners held in Scotland, but has been subsumed in the on-going contestation between the European Court and the UK – with the latter repeatedly failing to end the blanket ban on prisoner voting for almost a decade now.
The European Court in Strasbourg ruled that the UK blanket vote was unlawful back in 2004. The ruling came after John Hirst, an inmate serving a sentence for murder, claimed his denial of suffrage was an attack on his human rights. The UK appealed the decision but lost its petition in 2005 – forcing pressure from Strasbourg for a change in the law. Nevertheless, ministers and lawmakers in the UK have dragged their heels over the issue, with MPs voting to continue the ban on prisoner suffrage in 2011. Despite a cross-party committee of MPs concluding that prisoners serving a jail term of a year or less should be entitled to vote, no such changes have been enacted. Prime Minister David Cameron has previously vowed to block any attempt to give inmates the right to vote under his government.
This long-standing issue not only reflects the moral opposition among circles of the British establishment, but also the wider political considerations involved in law-making – particularly when it relates to Britain’s relationship with European courts. Many politicians, ministers and British lawmakers see their refusal of the Strasbourg judgement as a means of preserving the autonomy of British law-making. In response to the recent judgement on the Scottish prisoners, a spokesman for the Ministry of Justice explained: “The Government has always been clear that it believes prisoner voting is an issue that should ultimately be decided in the UK.”