n 2005 the European court of human rights ruled that the UK’s blanket ban on voting by convicted prisoners was a violation of the right to free elections. Fearful of media and parliamentary uproar, successive Labour, coalition and Conservative governments have refused to make even a partial relaxation to the ban – until now. A leaked paper suggests that some short-term prisoners may finally be permitted to vote in elections, albeit in very limited circumstances. It’s not exactly clear which prisoners will get the vote. It could be those serving sentences of less than 12 months who happen to be outside prison on day release on the date an election happens to fall. Or a more proactive scheme could be introduced for short-term prisoners who are eligible for what’s called “release on temporary licence” either to go out to a polling station or cast a vote in jail. Whichever proposal emerges from the Whitehall consultation, it’s a tiny number who will be enfranchised. The leaked paper talks of hundreds (out of 86,000 prisoners), but it could be tens. Day release is almost never used for the 6,000-odd short-term prisoners as things stand.
The idea presumably is to make a change significant enough to satisfy the Strasbourg court that their rulings have been complied with, but so insignificant that parliament and the public can swallow it. David Cameron famously said that the idea of prisoners voting made him feel sick.
Will the strategy work? Dominic Raab, now a justice minister, thought six years ago that “giving the vote to prisoners sentenced to six months or less or a year or less is not a compromise, because it is bound to be rejected by Strasbourg”. If he’s right, the apparently narrower offer now on the table – a sub-group of short-sentenced prisoners – might be more likely to fall outside the so-called margin of appreciation allowed by the court.
But since 2011, in a number of prison cases the European court of human rights has seemed to bend over backwards for the UK. It has refused to allow prisoners to be compensated for their inability to vote.