Voting villains and sovereignty stand off

A divided House of Commons has debated giving prisoners the vote. The European court has forced their hand. Fears for national sovereignty expressed.

What makes David Cameron 'physically sick'? The prospect of prisoners in the UK having the right to vote.

Currently, prisoners are banned from voting in this country. But a European court says that's illegal under international law and insists the British government must change its ways.

Amid a maelstrom of mixed feelings, two issues are stirring people's minds. The first is whether prisoners have the moral right to vote in an election. The second is whether an unelected body based outside this country – the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) – has the right itself to make laws for the UK.

The prisoner's cause has been led by ex-offender, John Hirst. He once killed a woman with an axe, but now campaigns for prisoners' rights.

'What you forfeit when you go to jail is your liberty,' he says, 'You know, you can't pop down the pub for a pint, you can't have sex with your loved one, that is what you're actually forfeiting - not the vote.'

The Archbishop of Canterbury agrees, saying prisoners' civic status should not be put in 'cold storage' while inside. But David Cameron is adamant: 'I don't see any reason why prisoners should get the vote.'

In the meantime, this issue has raised another. It is the ECHR telling Britain what to do concerning the prisoners and many question their right to do this.

They believe that Britain's sovereignty is threatened, for surely only parliament writes the laws of this land?

Both issues divide the political parties, which is why a free vote was granted. This means backbenchers can vote in whatever way they wish, without party orders.

So while the Prime Minister is against the motion, his Justice secretary, Ken Clarke, is for it. 'What we can't do,' he says, 'is just defy the law and pretend we are going to go wandering off.'

And the government fears that if they continue to deny prisoners the vote, the inmates will be able to sue for compensation from the British courts which could cost milllions of pounds.

I've got my rights
Some believe Britain is almost being blackmailed: either it surrenders its sovereignty to an unelected body, or it has to 'write out cheques of compensation to killers, rapists and thieves.'

David Hirst, however, says 'I'm a human being, I've got rights,' and the ECHR says those rights include voting at elections.

'When you're a prisoner,' says Hirst, 'the only thing you can do if you want to complain and no one listens is riot, which isn't the best way of going about things.'

You Decide

  1. Should prisoners - even rapists and murderers - be allowed to vote?
  2. Does an outside body, unelected by us, have a right to make laws for us?


  1. It's likely there will be a compromise solution whereby certain prisoners are allowed to vote. So get in a group and come up with a list of prisoners who should be allowed to vote – if any. Burglars? Fraudsters? Murderers? Drink drivers? Child molesters? Vandals? Arsonists? Drug dealers?
  2. Research the UK prison population. (Some links in 'Become an expert') How many are there? What are their crimes? Do they all deserve to be there, or should we only imprison the most dangerous people? Write a short piece called 'The future of prisons in the UK' .

Some People Say...

“Bankers are criminals and they're allowed to vote.”

What do you think?

Q & A

When did this all start?
Mr Hirst first took his case to the ECHR in 2004, but the British government held things up. So last November the Council of Europe demanded the UK 'put an end to the practice of delaying.' So here we are, voting on it now.
And other countries?
All prisoners can vote in Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland. Other countries say certain prisoners can vote, depending on the crime.
Does anyone else ban it?
Yes, there are nine countries that have a blanket ban on prisoners voting. While other nations give prisoners the right to vote – like Cyprus and Slovakia - but don't actually let them out of prison to do it! That's one way round it.
But prisoners in the UK can vote when they leave prison?
Oh yes, full voting rights return when they've done their time.


PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.