Evidence on prisoner voting rights for Equalities and Human Rights Committee

Evidence on prisoner voting rights for Equalities and Human Rights Committee

EVIDENCE TO THE EQUALITIES AND HUMAN RIGHTS COMMITTEE ON PRISONER VOTING RIGHTS

Howard League Scotland welcomes the opportunity to participate in the roundtable discussion about prisoner voting rights held by the Equalities and Human Rights Committee (Thursday 7 September 2017).

Howard League Scotland believes that a blanket ban on convicted prisoners voting is wrong: the right to vote should only be removed with more specific justification, if ever. We have argued against the blanket ban on both occasions relevant legislation has come before the Scottish Parliament.

We wish to highlight the following points to the Committee:

  • We believe a custodial sentence by itself sets too low a threshold for the loss of such an important right as the right to vote. It relies on imprisonment being seen as automatic “civic death” and sits at odds with the political commitment to the rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders.
  • Scotland has one the highest rates of imprisonment in western Europe. Applying a  blanket ban therefore sets a lower threshold for losing the vote here than it would in almost all other western European countries. As it is, the most recent review carried out by the UK Cabinet Office revealed that of the 47 Council of Europe countries only five European countries enforce a blanket ban: Armenia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Russia and the UK[1].
  • The blanket ban is not based on a transparent, considered debate about the nature and limits of democracy and the position of prisoners. It dates only from 1969, when it was introduced with minimal scrutiny. There was no legal ban in Scotland on prisoners voting between 1949 and 1969, and before that only one on those convicted of the most serious imprisonable crimes (“outlaws”). It reflects the earlier relationship between voting, and the ownership and confiscation of property.
  • The cross-party joint committee of the UK Houses of Parliament concluded in 2013 that all prisoners serving sentences of 12 months or less should be entitled to vote[2]. This has yet to be taken forward at Westminster.
  • Removing the vote from those serving shorter sentences has particularly arbitrary effects: actual vote loss depends on a combination of the date of sentencing diet, how long has previously been spent on remand, early release and timing of elections, rather than the sentence or offence committed. Also, cases attracting a short-term prison sentence and those receiving a community penalty may be very similar.
  • The Scotland Act compels the Scottish Parliament to ensure that all legislation must be compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The Scottish Government has previously rejected amendments to two bills that would have extended voting rights to some convicted prisoners, most recently on the basis of lack of competence. However, with competence extended, any future legislation relating to the franchise in the Scottish Parliament which seeks to continue a blanket ban on voting by convicted prisoners would be in breach of the ECHR and therefore its competence open to challenge.

Relevant links:

Howard League Scotland’s submission on the Scottish Independence Referendum (Franchise) Bill:

http://www.parliament.scot/S4_ReferendumScotlandBillCommittee/Howard_League_and_others.pdf

Howard League Scotland’s submission on the Scottish elections (Reduction of Voting Age) Bill:

http://www.parliament.scot/S4_ScotlandBillCommittee/Inquiries/Howard_League_Scotland.pdf

 

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