Prisoner vote ban is not a human rights issue

The UK is coming under pressure to allow prison inmates to vote in elections, because according to campaign groups and the European Court of Human Rights, the human rights of prisoners denied a vote are being infringed.  Lord Ramsbotham, a former Chief Inspector of prisons is leading the charge, along with the activists from the Prison Reform Trust, Unlock and Barred from Voting.

Ramsbotham is lockstep with bureaucrats and those who are opposed to the concept of prison generally in believing it is a great injustice that the government has not allowed prisoners to vote, especially after the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights decided it was unlawful to deny all sentenced prisoners voting rights in UK elections.  Today he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

‘The Grand Chamber of the European Court, in rejecting the government’s appeal against its ruling, said that there is no place under the convention system for automatic disfranchisement based purely on what might offend public opinion.’

Ramsbotham and the European Court are wrong.  This is another example of entitlements being wrongly defined as human rights.  Voting is not a human right, it is an entitlement granted to those in society who respect its laws.  People are not born with the right to vote, otherwise we would be carted off the polling station straight from the maternity wing.  So this should not be a matter for the European Court in the first place.  But as is the way with supranational bureacuracy, mission creep is seeing an increasing labelling of entitlements as rights, bringing control of certain matters under legal jurisdiction and the result is a perverse undermining the rule of law and ability of the state to impose appropriate sanctions on offenders.

Men and women who have been handed custodial sentences are not in prision because they have ‘offended public opinion’ as Ramsbotham ludicrously stated on the Today programme.  Such an assertion is idiotic in the extreme.  They are there because they have broken the law of the land by committing criminal offences that have caused harm or loss to other members of society.  After trial by a jury of their peers and being found guilty of a crime, inmates have been subsequently denied their liberty and ability to participate in society in order to protect the public, punish them for their offence and, if prison actually worked properly, rehabilitate them so they do not offend again.

Why should people who have broken the law and are serving a custodial sentence be allowed to vote for those representatives who we ask in principle to make that law?  The removal of voting entitlements from offenders whose crimes were so serious it warranted imprisonment is proportional and entirely appropriate.  Many people rightly argue that rights should never be separated from responsibilities and that society has to be able to impose consequences on those whose actions harm society.  But that argument confuses the matter at hand because as I said above this issue of votes for prisoners is not one of human rights, it is about the removal of an entitlement granted by the law of the land.  Remember, the state cannot grant us rights, they are ours by default.  Don’t be confused by it.  Prisoners should not be entitled to vote.

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17 Responses to “Prisoner vote ban is not a human rights issue”


  1. 1 John C 08/02/2010 at 6:58 pm

    Prisoners should be allowed to vote in principle, that they can’t make it to the polling booths is a circumstantial matter, not a righteous one. ;)

  2. 2 Ross 08/02/2010 at 7:45 pm

    I almost want them to allow prisoners to vote, perhaps as one super constituency, just to see who they vote for.

  3. 3 Mike Spilligan 08/02/2010 at 8:06 pm

    I agree completely and could even envisage that allowing voting coul be the thin end of a very long wedge – culminating in imprisonment itself being against their human rights.

  4. 4 C 09/02/2010 at 12:13 am

    Elliot Morley, MP for prisons…

  5. 5 John Hirst 09/02/2010 at 12:57 am

    “Voting is not a human right”, the highest court in Europe has said it is and that is good enough for me. The UK cannot sign up to abide by the Court decision, then lose the case, and then decide to ignore its decision. If this was allowed then Eddie Eagle would have won the Olympics!

  6. 6 Autonomous Mind 09/02/2010 at 11:51 am

    You are quite right John that the UK should not sign up to abide by decisions then ignore them. But then, perhaps when the UK did sign up there was no anticipation of activist judges redefining entitlements as rights and seeking to mitigate society’s punishments on offenders.

    However John, voting is not by any definition, a human right. The judges could rule that a mongrel is the equal of a greyhound, but it just ain’t so. Many prisoners say the law and its justices get things wrong, so it’s a surprise that on this issue a number of them suddenly argue the system is wise and all knowing.

    While recognising you personally have served your debt to society and are devoting time to this matter with what you consider to be the best of intentions, most people feel that anyone who is imprisoned should lose their entitlement to participate in the electoral process.

    Many prisoners may find this frustrating. But the lesson here is simple. If you don’t break the law, you don’t lose your entitlements. If you go to prison, you have no part to play in society’s affairs until your sentence has been served.

  7. 7 John Hirst 09/02/2010 at 6:06 pm

    It is said that the law is a living instrument, not static, therefore I am in favour of judicial activism. It is worth reading the Court’s judgment for the history, and the reasoning of the judges for arriving at their decision. It is almost flawless.

    I researched my subject before bringing the action. I discovered that it had never been debated in Parliament before the law was passed to disenfranchise prisoners. Therefore, it cannot be claimed to be a legitimate law. Whereas Guy Fawkes failed to blow up Parliament, I claim to have succeeded. I made history, leaving my graffiti in law books. It was the Individual v The State.

    I believe in reform simply because I reformed myself with the help of others. From law-breaker to a law maker. In the process I have turned Jack Straw from law maker to law-breaker. Empowerment.

    When I started studying law, we had already joined the Council of Europe and EU and therefore my study took in the international law and European law perspectives. When Charles Falconer read law at Cambridge we were not in Europe and therefore he only studied English law. It put him at a disadvantage from a fresher and perhaps sharper mind.

    If you accept that human beings are entitled to human rights, and that prisoners because they are human are entitled to human rights, and that it is a human right to vote (Article 3 of the First Protocol), it follows that prisoners are entitled to the vote. This is the default position, Universal Suffrage, then there is scope for disenfranchisement when the punishment fits the crime, say, electoral fraud. There is no link between burglary and the franchise. The vote is so precious in a democracy it cannot be removed just on a whim.

    Whilst we are signed up to the Convention and surrendered jurisdiction to the Court, that position governs our conduct. The Court is upholding the rule of law. Jack Straw is not, he is breaking it. In March my submission to the Committee of Ministers in the Council of Europe is that my case progresses to the final resolution stage and is returned to the Court for a judgment on the systemic violation. The Court will then lay down the active steps the UK must take to remedy the situation, and the time frame for compliance. If the UK fails to comply fully with the judgment, then the Court will suspend the UK from the Council of Europe. And, because all Member States who sign up to the EU have to abide by both the Convention and Court decisions, the UK will be suspended from the EU as a rogue State. This would be a shame as I believe the UK is in the sink or swim position and needs Europe to survive.

    The law is a double-edged sword. If it can punish you it can also protect you. Prisoners are merely asserting that they want the law’s protection against the State for this gross breach of their human rights. What message does it send to prisoners that it is alright to break the law? The government must set a good example. The UK har argued that prisoners by committing their crimes have lost the moral authority to vote. However, moral qualification is not one of the criteria for the franchise. Lord Carey has opined that Parliament has lost the moral authority to govern since the expenses scandal.

    A civilised society cannot any longer sacrifice human beings to a civic death, it is primitive and barbaric and serves society no good at all and is a very expensive waste of time and money. If prisoners had the vote, they would have a voice in Parliament and then lobby for reforms which would benefit themselves and society in general.

  8. 8 Autonomous Mind 09/02/2010 at 9:02 pm

    Your whole argument is predicated on the reliance that a court decided this was a human rights issue. I disagree with the court. It has become fashionable for judges to claim that entitlements are rights. No one who is born today has the human right to vote.

    Nowhere in your argument is there any recognition that imprisoning people is not done on a whim. It is done because of a serious offence against society. In your case, multiple offences against society, compounded by still further offences while serving your sentence.

    If someone refuses to be bound by the laws of a society they forfeit inclusion in society’s election of its political representatives. Why should society have to endure this one way street where law breakers are given increasing normality, undermining their punishment, and the law abiding are increasingly the only ones who suffer?

    The moral authority argument is a red herring. The issue is the withdrawal of an entitlement. Entitlements are granted and can be taken away. Voting is not a moral issue.

    In a democracy the law is supposed to be made by accountable representatives. Judges are not accountable to voters or representative of anyone but their own legal interpretations. Judges may have decided that inmates should be allowed to vote, but that flies in the face of the democracy you claims prisoners should be able to participate in. You may style yourself as a law maker, but you’re not, you’re an activist just like the judges who agreed with your argument.

    Prisoners are not considered to have been reformed before their sentence is served. Your campaign is all about rebelling against the rule of law and degrading the consequences experienced by people whose actions result in the loss of their liberty. Although I do find it surprising that you place the franchise above the liberty of a prisoner. Or is the plan to move the campaign on to abolition of prisons because they infringe the rights of those imprisoned in them?

    I have seen the destruction wreaked on others by criminals. People that can so grievously offend against society are not fit to vote and have no place determining the rules society’s law abiding people live by.

  9. 9 John C 09/02/2010 at 9:12 pm

    Mr Hirst.

    In true criminal fashion I removed the word ‘law’ from your posts and now they don’t make any sense whatsoever.

    J

  10. 10 John Hirst 10/02/2010 at 1:30 am

    Good attention grabbing headline. However, what lets it down is that the post supposedly supporting it is riddled with so many holes that it fails to stand up and is easily knocked down. Actually, the charge is being led by myself and supported by the others. Unlike this statement which is not supported by cited examples: “are opposed to the concept of prison generally”. In other words, it is an unfair attack.

    “Ramsbotham and the European Court are wrong”. Again strong words. However, they are followed by unsupporting reasons with no foundation in law or fact. “This is another example of entitlements being wrongly defined as human rights”. The author has failed to cite a prior example or examples for comparison. Quite apart from it being nonsensensical in itself. The legal maxim “ignorance of the law is no excuse” applies, and the author is blissfully ignorant of the subject. Wikipedia provides: “Entitlement is a guarantee of access to benefits because of rights or by agreement through law. It also refers, in a more casual sense, to someone’s belief that one is deserving of some particular reward or benefit. It is often used pejoratively in common parlance (e.g. a “sense of entitlement”)”. Article 3 of the First Protocol of the Convention is the highest legal authority in Europe for the proposition that voting is a human right. “Voting is not a human right, it is an entitlement granted to those in society who respect its laws”. As said, voting is a human right. And human rights are not dependent upon a human being respecting a State’s laws. The author has attempted to insert a morality clause in place of the absolute right in an attempt to limit its scope.

    “People are not born with the right to vote, otherwise we would be carted off the polling station straight from the maternity wing”. All humans are born with the rights under the Convention, although a State has a margin of appreciation to the extent, for example, by a requirement that the voter reach the age of 18 years old. “So this should not be a matter for the European Court in the first place”. This is correct to the extent that s.3 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 should have been made compatible with Article 3 of the First Protocol when the Human Rights Act 1998 was passed. So, Parliament failed in the first place to address this anomaly. In the second place, the High Court failed to do the right thing and give a declaration of incompatibly. It was only in the last resort that the jurisdiction of the ECtHR was sought to find the UK guilty of a human rights violation and informed to rectify this breach of human rights or else. The author claims that the Court’s decision “is a perverse undermining the rule of law and ability of the state to impose appropriate sanctions on offenders”. The Court applied the rule of law to the situation because it was the State which was undermining it with an illegitimate sanction. The State may impose appropriate sanctions, but not inappropriate ones. The Court is the final arbitrator of whether a citizen is a victim of State abuse of his or her human rights.
    “Men and women who have been handed custodial sentences are not in prision because they have ‘offended public opinion’ as Ramsbotham ludicrously stated on the Today programme”. No, he did not say this. He was quoting from the Court judgment where the Court stated that it rejected the UK’s claim that the disenfranchisement could be justified because enfranchisement of prisoners might offend public opinion. The Court placed the prisoners human right above any actual or believed public opinion which stated that prisoners are not worthy of the vote. Yes, “Such an assertion is idiotic in the extreme”, and I wonder why the author made it?

    “After trial by a jury of their peers and being found guilty of a crime, inmates have been subsequently denied their liberty and ability to participate in society in order to protect the public, punish them for their offence and, if prison actually worked properly, rehabilitate them so they do not offend again”. Prisoners are members of the public, as such they are part of society. The sentence of the court is the punishment, and imprisonment ensures that the sentence is carried out. This is justice being seen to be done. Reading comments on blogs and forums on this subject, sadly far too many people labour under the false belief that prisoners go to prison for punishment and not as a punishment. The Court stated that prisoners only lose their liberty and not their human rights. By obtaining the vote for prisoners, prisons would get the reforms necessary to assist in prisoners rehabilitation. It is a sad state of affairs when MPs are so frightened of losing votes themselves that they try to ignore their guilt in conspiring to deny prisoner their human right to the vote.

    “Why should people who have broken the law and are serving a custodial sentence be allowed to vote for those representatives who we ask in principle to make that law?”. It is for the electorate to choose who represents them, and not for the MPs to choose the electorate. This is what democracy is all about. Democracy is weakened when a section of the public is disenfranchised. And, because the highest legal authority in Europe has decided the issue. The rule of law is weakened when the Minister legally responsible for ensuring the human rights of all UK citizens, including prisoners, fails to do his duty and implement the Court judgment. The author is claiming that prisoners unlawfulness is unacceptable conduct, by the same token Jack Straw’s conduct is unacceptable. He must rectify the situation, or resign and allow somebody else with more responsibility to do the job. An irresponsible Minister of Justice is justice denied.

    The author’s conclusion fails to deliver the goods. “The removal of voting entitlements from offenders whose crimes were so serious it warranted imprisonment is proportional and entirely appropriate. Many people rightly argue that rights should never be separated from responsibilities and that society has to be able to impose consequences on those whose actions harm society. But that argument confuses the matter at hand because as I said above this issue of votes for prisoners is not one of human rights, it is about the removal of an entitlement granted by the law of the land. Remember, the state cannot grant us rights, they are ours by default. Don’t be confused by it. Prisoners should not be entitled to vote”. It is said that writers should only write about subjects that they are familiar with. “The removal of voting entitlements from offenders whose crimes were so serious it warranted imprisonment is proportional and entirely appropriate”. A reading of the Hirst v UK(No2) judgment will show that the UK argued these proportional and appropriate elements but the Court judged them to be neither proportional nor appropriate in a democracy applying the rule of law. The author is obviously confused by the subject, and I hope that this fisking teaches him a lesson, and that he will now concede that his previously held views have been shown to be in error, and that he would rather not share in the government’s humiliation any further.

  11. 11 Ellie 10/02/2010 at 6:28 am

    @John C.

    Congratulations on raising the level of debate. It makes my heart sing when people such as yourself weigh in on such weighty topics. Incidentally, there is such a thing as a postal vote; prisoners should be entitled to it.

    I removed the word “sense” from your comments, it didn’t appear to make a difference.

    @Autonomous mind

    To me, your argument that voting is an entitlement not a right just shows that you have not understood what human rights are, nor how artificial and arbitrary the concept is. In fact, the definition of “human rights” is “the basic rights and freedoms to which all all humans are entitled”. If anything, arguing that voting is an entitlement strengthens the case.

    You discard voting on the basis that we are not born able to do it; by that benchmark we should also withdraw the right to life from all babies born too sick to survive without medical intervention. It is a non-argument.

    The decision as to what is and is not included on the list of human rights is an entirely arbitrary one drawn up over decades (maybe centuries) of discussion and constantly under review in the courts as issues such as this one are tested. The final list can’t possibly please everyone and may never be entirely finished, but at some point we have to stop waiting for a conclusion that may never come and move on. Whether you agree that voting belongs on that list or not, it is on it. With that in mind, the government’s stance is illegal and prisoners must be given the vote.

    There are a large number of reasons why that isn’t only good for the prisoners, but is also likely to be good for society as a whole. We won’t know until we try, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that bringing cons back into the fold in this small but significant way reduces recidivism.

    I enjoyed reading your post, you seem to be someone who is at least partially willing to engage in meaningful debate. However, your post and replies to the comments are showing some of the same old tired fallacies and misunderstandings that pervade every aspect of debates surrounding prisons and prisoners.

    I read some interesting psychological research the other day (backed up by my own experience) that showed people who have stated a viewpoint publicly are not only unmoved by evidence to the contrary, their original view is actually strengthened by it. This is opposite to all logic and is just one of the many factors that make good evidence-based policy setting so difficult.

    I would ask you to question whether you fall into that category (occupied by the vast majority of people) and whether you would be prepared to try and think outside of that particular box? If so, and if you take some time to really try and get to grips with the subject you will find that a lot of what you state has already been shown to be wrong. This isn’t opinion, this is good solid evidence based research.

    Your first mistake is believing imprisonment isn’t done on a whim. Spend more than 5 minutes really getting to know our criminal justice system and you will find that it is utterly unreliable. What happens to one particular person caught up in it is almost entirely decided by the whim of a number of people in positions of power; with no real checks and balances to ensure they don’t abuse their position. The degree to which the public are unaware of that stagers me.

    I could go on but this comment is already far to long and I’ve drifted off topic. Really, I’m asking you to continue down the path you have already made a few tentative steps along and take the time to get to grips with the subject; bearing in mind another proven psychological tendency of humans: to ignore evidence that doesn’t back up their own position.

    When you have done that, go and learn about human rights, because that is an even more complex and difficult subject.

    As for what John will tackle next, I for one would like to see him take on Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 4 tackles slavery and I know I’m not alone in believing the so called “work” that prisoners are forced to do in many countries as well as our own is in contravention of that law.

  12. 12 Autonomous Mind 10/02/2010 at 8:39 am

    John and Ellie, you are entitled to your opinions and you make well structured arguments. However, for me, they do not change my opinion on this subject or my interpretation of what constitutes a human right. After long consideration, voting is not a human right, regardless of the work that has been done by activisits to persuade a court that it should be considered such.

    While I respect your views and I’m delighted you have chosen to debate me about them in such a constructive way, I do not like the patronising tone of the comments have to them.

    Law is about interpretation and despite John’s argument, he does not convince me, did not convince the UK government – who should have primacy in these matters – and will not convince law abiding citizens who, like me, believe firmly that the entitlement to vote should be withdrawn from people sentenced to custodial sentences.

    We are in very entrenched positions and I don’t think anything any of us now say will move us from them. In any case, best wishes and I hope you’ll continue visiting and commenting.

  13. 13 John C 10/02/2010 at 8:56 am

    @Ellie. Hahaha touche.

    I was alluding to the paradox of using the law to give rights to those who disregard it. Something John Hirst is blissfully unaware of.

    I’ve known several people incarcerated in the uk, including two relatives. The idea that they even want the vote when they still yearn for decent food and privacy is laughable. There are far more pressing rights being ignored. Mr Hirst clearly has no idea about the life and needs of an inmate or he’d be focusing on basic comforts instead of the right to tick a box every few years.

    Secondly, votes would just be traded like any other commodity in prison, and the prison vote could be collectively bought with ease. I doubt this has been considered either.

    The postal vote – would make vote trading easier by a 100 times, and given that prisoners’ mail is reviewed before delivery for purposes of police intelligence, wouldn’t even be considered an option. Ellie, you haven’t thought this through, have you?

    I think it’s time someone incarcerated give their opinions.. You have mobile phones smuggled in so you can intimidate your victims from prison, reading and posting to a blog should be quite feasable.

  14. 14 David 05/03/2010 at 10:20 pm

    How did you read PROTOCOL 1 – ARTICLE 3 to relate to voting

    “No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” is the text.

    Unless you are saying that the deprivation of your vote is a punishment – and that denial of this right is cruel and unusual. On both these assertations, you would be wrong.

    Your inability to cast a vote is merely a CONSEQUENCE of your incarceration and it is your incarceration that is the punishment.

    Even if it were so, in what way is it cruel or unusual? certainly not cruel, that by definition would cause some kind of degradation, mental or physical pain. Which is just not the case. Unusual? No. It is common practice in most areas of the world.

    Whichever way you look at it, there is no case to answer and testing your assertation in court is an abuse of the judicial system. Pay for it yourself should you wish to proceed.

    I know you have served your time but you lost your liberty because you killed Mrs Burton and while you are serving your punishment you may not vote. When a prisoner is released, having served their time, they may vote again. That is sensible policy and it is good policy.

    If by some chance you succeed, I would like to execise my right to a vote – IN A EUROPEAN REFERENDUM so that we can go back to sensible rules for law abiding citizens.

  15. 15 Alex 14/02/2011 at 4:30 pm

    Sooner or later someone is going to say that it’s against human rights to be locked in a cell behind bars.


  1. 1 Voting entitlement for prison inmates « Autonomous Mind Trackback on 27/02/2010 at 1:59 pm
  2. 2 Britain caves in to European Court of Human Rights « Autonomous Mind Trackback on 02/11/2010 at 11:53 am
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