1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Prisoners' rights

Ashley Byrne, Manchester / jiJanuary 24, 2013

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Britain must give prisoners the right to vote. But the idea of lifting the ban is not going down well with the British public.

A prison door; Photo:01.06.2008) +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

When you are imprisoned in Britain, you also lose your right to vote.

But the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) says that by preventing prisoners from voting, the UK is contravening Article 3 of the First Protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The British government was given a deadline of November 22 last year to come up with a legislative plan to help it comply with the court's ruling. Now lawmakers are scrutinizing that new legislation, which is entitled the Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Draft Bill.

Several measures are being considered, including granting voting rights to some prisoners and not to others, or reintroducing the right to vote to inmates who are soon to be released.

Emotive topic

It's certainly an issue that provokes strong emotions in the famously strident British tabloid press, which has recently published headlines such as "Euro judges meddle in our laws" and "Prison paedos will get the vote."

European Court of Human Rights; Photo: JOHANNA LEGUERRE/AFP/Getty Images
The ECHR says the UK must allow prisoners to voteImage: Getty Images

But those who have served time on the inside have their own story to tell.

Derek Smith was released from prison eight months ago and now spends several days a week volunteering in a café at Methodist Halls in Manchester.

"I got myself into debt last year, ended up stealing some money and got a six-month prison sentence, of which I served three months," Derek told DW.

For Derek, losing the right to vote, however briefly, was a big blow.

"I've been someone who has always voted," he explained. "So as someone on a short sentence, to have my vote taken away from me was quite a horrible thing, especially as it could affect my life for five years afterwards."

Derek favors a system in which prisoners serving short sentences will still be allowed to vote, but where more serious offenders are stripped of the right.

Cameron: 'physically sick'

But UK Prime Minister David Cameron has said he feels "physically sick" at the thought of any prisoner being able to vote. He is not alone: Opinion polls show that the vast majority of the British public are also against lifting the ban.

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron leaves the High Court in London after giving evidence at the Leveson media ethics inquiry, Thursday, June 14, 2012. Cameron on Thursday defended his ill-fated decision to make disgraced tabloid editor Andy Coulson his communications director even though Coulson had already been tarnished in the phone-hacking scandal. He also defended the conduct of Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and the decision to put him in charge of judging Rupert Murdoch’s controversial bid to take full control of the lucrative BSkyB broadcasting company. (Foto:Alastair Grant/AP/dapd)
David Cameron is abhorred by the idea of prisoners votingImage: AP

Paul Massey is trying to change their minds. Having served a long sentence for a stabbing, he feels politics could be just what inmates need.

"I think it's a good idea if they can vote because if prisoners can vote they will take an interest in politics," he said. "A big majority of prisoners now, at this moment, have never voted anyway. It's a chance to get them interested in voting."

Paul recently stood as a mayoral candidate in the city of Salford, northwest of Manchester. He thinks there's even an argument for those serving for the most serious crimes to be able to vote too.

"A lot of these people you call 'the most serious people in prison' - they are never going to get out anyway. They could use that vote for their kids and their future and that," Paul said.

Victims of crime

But what about the victims in all this? Maria and Steve Valentine used to live in the Langworthy area of Salford.

The London skyline; Photo: Martin Keene/PA dpa
Parliamentarians are discussing how to enforce the rulingImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"We've been burgled twice, we've had car crime, been assaulted, my husband's been assaulted, lots of vandalism to cars. I can't even count the amount of times I've come out on a morning and the wing mirror has been kicked off the car," says Maria. "Senseless vandalism for no reason, just thugs deciding they want to break someone's property for fun."

The violence got so bad that the couple had to move away from the area. For them, giving criminals in prison a vote would be a step too far.

"It's a symbolic thing," Steve says. "What you are actually really asking them to sacrifice is something that is not putting their own health and well-being at risk. You've sacrificed your place in the community, you've taken away someone else's rights, you've disrespected someone else in the community. Why should you have the right to vote and an equal say and share in how the country's governed?"

Compromise in the cards?

The last time the British House of Commons had a vote on the issue, parliamentarians came down by a margin of 234 to just 22 in favor of keeping the blanket ban. But that's not an option, according to judges at the ECHR.

The Liberal Democrats, who are the junior coalition partners in the British government, are the only major political party in favor of giving all prisoners the right to vote.

But compromise is in the cards. The most likely outcome is a tiered system in which some inmates with shorter sentences will be enfranchised. The government is expected to bring forward more proposals in the coming weeks.