Three cheers for the report of the joint parlimentary committee on the Government's draft bill on prisoners' voting rights. (Click here for news report.)
What a refreshing outbreak of statements of principle from the cross-party group, allied with sound common sense behind its proposals. Those who presented the case for reform to the committe should be congratulated on a job well done.
Among the important points identified by the committee are these:
- In a democracy the vote is a right, not a privilege: it should not be removed without good reason.
- There is an element of arbitrariness in selecting the custody threshold as the unique indicator of the type of offence that is so serious as to justify loss of the vote.
- There are no convincing penal policy arguments in favour of disenfranchisement; but a case has been made that enfranchisement might assist prisoner rehabilitation by providing an incentive to re-engage with society.
- The enfranchisement of a few thousand prisoners is far outweighed by the importance of the rule of law and the desirability of remaining part of the Convention system.
And it adds that it cannot see the number of prisoners who would be entitled to vote as a result of its proposals – that those serving 12 months or less, plus anyone else within six months of release, should be enfranchised – as having a bearing on the outcome of any election.
Most or all of this would seem blindingly obvious, were it not for the fact that the Prime Minister and many others in his party (and perhaps elsewhere) seem to think it worth perilling the UK's future within the European Convention on being able to opt out of a judicial ruling with which they happen to disagree.
He, and the dissenting minority on the committee, are falling back on parliamentary sovereignty as outweighing the committee's principles. But that is a Victorian doctrine that has been out of place at least since we joined the then Common Market, and cannot stand in the modern world of the UN, the European Convention and the European Union. Its very existence is inconsistent with the whole concept of the Convention, which as committee member Sir Crispin Blunt pointed out, "We didn't just sign up... we more or less wrote it". It isn't just there to prevent any more Nazi dictatorships, though open defiance of its obligations would be the start of a very slippery slope.
Nor is it credible to argue, as some do, that the prisoner cases show the court encroaching into territory far removed from the intentions of the drafters of the Convention. As the committee recognises, the right to vote is fundamental in a democracy and should not be removed without good reason – a criterion that the arbitrary nature of being given a custodial sentence cannot meet.
What effect will the report have on the balance of opinion in the House of Commons? That is another question, but opponents of reform now have a much harder job in sounding plausible. We should keep up the pressure on them.