Prisoners and their right to the vote…

October 18, 2013

Wednesday’s ruling by the UK Supreme Court about the voting entitlement of prisoners in the European Elections will be welcome.

As is well-known, the European Court of Human Rights has said that the UK is in violation of the European Convention of Human Rights by having a blanket ban on prisoners voting. Wednesday’s case was about whether EU law required that prisoners could vote in the Euro-elections and the Court said ‘No’ in a unanimous decision. This was a triumph for our Attorney General, who had argued the case personally. The Prime Minister tweeted that the Supreme Court’s decision to reject the latest legal challenge “was a victory for common sense.”

Prisoners with long sentences have never been able to vote in the UK, but until 1967 prisoners serving prison sentences for “misdemeanours” did vote. But since then, it is mainly prisoners awaiting trial who have been allowed to vote. The Supreme Court also said on Wednesday that even if a blanket ban on prisoners voting was removed, it would not be replaced by a law enabling very long-term prisoners to vote. This reflects our history and a measure currently before parliament.

There is a draft Bill with options being considered in Committee by Parliament. The three options being considered are continuing with a blanket ban, allowing voting for those sentenced to 6 months’ imprisonment or less and allowing voting for prisoners with 4 years imprisonment or less. We will have to see what are the Committee’s views in due course.

There is still a judgment to answer with Strasbourg as my colleague Dominic Raab pointed out in Wednesday’s PMQs but I think for the meantime the decision of the Supreme Court is wise and welcome. Nobody would have wanted to see lifers voting in next summer’s elections.

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Recognition For Prisoners with Mental Health Disorders

March 31, 2009

The saying goes that people in prison are mad, bad or sad. There is some truth in this. When I started work as a barrister I often visited prisons to meet defendants and some were just plain bad. But, I was struck by how many people suffered from mental ill-health, particularly after “care in the community” came in. People who had been in the sanctuary of institutions were finding it difficult to cope in a non institutional world. The other shocking aspect was how many prisoners were illiterate. The average reading age in prison is 11 years. That’s not an excuse. Terrible crimes call for tough sentences and the public need protection from such criminals, but there are vulnerable people in prison who need help to rehabilitate and it is all our interests to help them.

The Centre for Social Justice has recently published a strategy for reforming prisons and rehabilitating prisoners, called “Locked Up Potential”. It advocates policies such as giving prison governors similar budgetary freedoms to NHS Foundation Trusts and shifting the focus of the criminal offender system towards rehabilitation. Iain Duncan Smith is right to focus on this, but the part which caught my eye was the section on Improving Mental Health Care. The report recommends that much greater attention and recognition should be paid to prisoners with mental health disorders.

When I was the Party’s spokesman on mental health I went with Liam Fox to Wandsworth Prison to meet staff and prisoners on the Hospital Wing and I was convinced that good treatment for mental illness is vital in prisons. This latest report calls for early assessment of those with mental conditions and better training of prison staff to ensure “early diversion of many mentally unwell prisoners away from prison to more appropriate facilities”. Ultimately it comes down to compassion. People who suffer from mental illness are sufferers foremost and a caring, compassionate society should look after them, protect them. Some people need the sanctuary of a hospital. Some need treatment. Today that just doesn’t always happen. This report suggests a new approach under the Conservatives and I welcome that.