On the 23rd of June 2016, 52% of British voters elected to leave the European Union in a national referendum. Britain joined this union in 1973 when it was the European Community, under the conservative government of Edward Heath. Different political analysts will cite different reasons as ultimately causing the leave vote, from sovereignty concerns to economic judgements. Furthermore, it is unclear exactly when or how Britain will negotiate the precise terms of its exit. Yet a fact that many appear to agree on is that there is now some uncertainty over exactly what the effects on the enforcement of human rights laws in the UK will be. The fact that the Council of Europe, whose job it is to oversee the manner in which national governments enforce court rulings, is separate to the European Union and its 28 members means that some aspects of current treatment of human rights won’t change. The European Court of Justice, however, directly interprets EU law and secures consistency in the way it is applied across the EU. Now that the UK will soon no longer be classed as a member of the EU, the Court of Justice of the European Union will cease to be the deciding institution when Britain acts outside EU laws. The EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights would also be influenced, whereby UK laws will realise greater priority under Judge’s court rulings.
The European court of Human Rights, established by the European Convention on Human Rights, has supported the view that a ‘blanket ban’ on all prisoners voting constitutes a breaching of basic rights. Any Human Rights violations are significant, and a violation of a person’s right to vote matters because Government- and the laws it makes- will influence virtually every aspect of a citizen’s life. Article 3 of the First Protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights states that all individuals have the right to a free election. Britain’s ban on certain prisoners voting has already been officially identified as a violation of convicts’ fundamental rights over three times. (Although the British government has continually failed to provide financial compensation to prisoners who have won similar cases.)
In 2016 the perception of prisoners’ rights is arguably shifting towards being viewed more as earned privileges, rather than entitlements all humans inherently and indeed intrinsically deserve, regardless of convictions. The views of ex-prime ministers such as David Cameron, who has said he’s made sick by the idea of all prisoners being able to vote, and Margaret Thatcher who was famously in favour of the death penalty for violent criminals, are evidently still shared by millions of Britons today.
Despite the majority of prisoners in the UK having been convicted for non-electoral offences, many voters still appear to hold that being denied the right to vote is an appropriate punishment for offenders. Although, it is important to note that punishment is only one aspect of the job incarceration must perform, in order to improve a society. Prison needs to act as both a deterrence against crime for other citizens, and as a space in which prisoners can be rehabilitated back into society. Given that prisoners are more influenced by parliamentary decisions than people who aren’t under the direct influence of government care, some hold it is more important for this group of people to be politically active, than it is for average citizens.
Several British prisoners, including 1979 convicted killer John Hirst, have pursued their right to vote with the court of European Human Rights. A 2005 ruling entitling British prisoners to vote under the right to free elections, received what might be described as relatively moderate publicity at the time. Today, far few people seem to have been exposed to the violations committed by the British Government. Some people don’t see denying the vote to prisoners as a morally significant rights violation, and only as a decision that disagrees with human rights in the most technical of senses. The controversial cases of Timothy Evans, Derek Bentley, and Ruth Ellis arguably combined to be the straw that broke the camel’s back when it came to ceasing capital punishment, and protecting a prisoner’s right to life in the UK. However, according to recent findings by ‘Britain Thinks’, support for the death penalty has risen. White ‘leave’ voters in the Brexit referendum were significantly more likely to be in favour of traditional values, and the re-instating of capital punishment in the UK than ‘remain’ voters.
With ‘leave’ having won, the consequences of how prisoners and the significance of their rights are viewed (like the right to life and to vote), are potentially uncomfortable. If convicts are seen by voters as not even deserving of the same fundamental right to life as other humans, then it will be unlikely those voters will defend prisoners’ rights to participate in a free election. As it stands, prisoners in the UK can rely on the continued protection of their fundamental right to life, but as Theresa May leads the UK into a new conservative government, prisoners would be understandably less sure about just how secure their entitlement to voting will be.
If reading this article has made you interested in taking action, and you would like to be part of a petition to call on current justice secretary and member of parliament for South West Norfolk Elizabeth Truss to protect the human rights act, including the right of free votes for all, then please follow this link to add your name.