Debate over prisoners’ vote was about principle

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Last week in Parliament we had to address the fascinating question of prisoners’ entitlement to vote. This followed the European Court’s ruling that if Britain’s blanket ban on the prisoner franchise continued, then prisoners would be entitled to apply for compensation for a breach of their human rights.

Arguments were polarised between the 10 per cent of the Commons who agreed with the court and the remainder – which included me – who saw no problem with denying them the franchise as well as their liberty as punishment for their crime. For this we were accused being uncompassionate and inhumane.

I believe that often prisoners do get a raw deal from us legislators, whether it is before they commit a crime, having been failed by aspects of our education system, or once incarcerated. This can be through poor healthcare services which neglect long-term conditions, cause them to see out their last days without palliative care or force them to live in environments which fuel their addictions.

Given this, campaigning for the franchise to be extended to the prison population would not be top of my ‘to do’ list for offenders. However, it would be wrong to assume that this debate was purely an argument about prisoners’ rights or, for that matter, Euro-creep. It was about democratic accountability, a test of who makes the law in our country.

It is a point of principle that legislators legislate and the judiciary interprets. It is not for unelected officials to extend the law farther than those who were elected intended it to go.

This is particularly true of the European Court, set up post-war by the allies in an attempt to create a framework that encapsulated the hard-won principles of freedom for future reference. Included in this process were a number of caveats and in Britain’s case, the voting franchise was tempered with three specific exceptions: the insane, peers (including the monarchy) and prisoners. I believe these exceptions should remain.