TOPIC GUIDE: G4S: Votes for prisoners

"No prisoner should have the vote"

PUBLISHED: 05 Aug 2016

AUTHOR: Justine Brian

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“The question ‘should prisoners have the vote?’ reads like one of those hypothetical motions beloved of sixth form debating clubs – a lively issue to kick around, but far removed from the real world”, said journalist Robert Chesshyre [Ref: Independent]. But in 2011 the issue became more than just an academic one when after several years of legal wrangling the UK government lost its final appeal against giving prisoners the right to vote, following a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) [Ref: Guardian]. The case had been brought to the court by convicted murderer John Hirst, with the support of the Prison Reform Trust and other campaign groups, after he had previously failed in his challenge to the ‘blanket ban’ on prisoner votes at the UK High Court [Ref: National Archives]. The UK government has since continued to reject the verdict of the ECHR, and in a surprise ruling last year the European court of justice ruled that a voting ban on certain categories of prisoner is justified [Ref: Guardian], reopening the debate about the rights and wrongs of current UK law. Beyond the legal debate about who makes the law on this issue - British courts or the ECHR - there lies a more profound debate about the purpose of prisons, the standing of prisoners within society, and how we balance punishment with rehabilitation. Advocates of allowing prisoners the vote, such as the Prison Reform Trust, argue “the vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and personhood”, quoting a South Africa’s Constitutional Court ruling [Ref: The Free Library]. A blanket ban on prisoner votes, they contend, not only undermines fundamental human rights, but also denies the ideal of universal suffrage, upon which democracy is predicated [Ref: Prison Reform Trust]. But critics of proposed changes to the law argue that a simple moral idea is at stake: “If you break the law, should you be allowed to make the law? My answer to that is simply no” argues David Davis MP [Ref: BBC Radio 5]. So does the denial of the right to vote for prisoners demonstrate that the UK “has hardly emerged from the Jurassic period” [Ref: Guardian]? Or are there deeper moral principles associated with democracy and punishment that mean prison, “as a concept…means both loss of liberty and loss of certain liberties” [Ref: Spectator]?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

‘If you break the law, you should not be allowed to make the law’
A former government spokesman, speaking about the clash between UK and EHCR law, remarked: “It has been the view of successive governments… that persons who have committed crimes serious enough to warrant a custodial sentence should forfeit the right to have a say in how the country is governed while they are detained.” [Ref: BBC News] Supporters of this view underline that the denial of the right to vote remains an important punishment, because it tells those who break the law that they have lost their right to participate in society whilst incarcerated. “Purposeful prisons where offenders are given an opportunity to reform is a noble ambition” it is argued, but there is “no empirical evidence that prisoners are less likely to reoffend if they have had the opportunity to vote.” [Ref: Spectator] Despite this, campaigners for prisoner votes suggest that the arguments used by their opponents represent an “archaic punishment” [Ref: Prison Reform Trust], and that moral thinking today supports the idea that: “Convicts are human beings, with human rights.” [Ref: Guardian] From this perspective, the right to vote is therefore an indivisible one, and whilst as writer Afua Hirsch observes, imprisonment deprives inmates of their liberty while facilitating their rehabilitation, “it does not strip them of their citizenship rights.” [Ref: Guardian]

The Forfeiture Act of 1870 enshrined the principle of ‘civic death’ in law, a punishment that involves the withdrawal of citizenship rights, and deems those serving a prison term, “incapable … of exercising any right of suffrage” [Ref:]. Having broken their obligations to keep to the laws of society, it is argued that society is then entitled to impose a penalty on lawbreakers that withdraws not only their freedom, but also one of the most important privileges of freedom — the right to vote and participate in the democratic process. Former government minister and convict Jonathan Aitken argues: “One of the terms for criminal is an ‘outlaw’, someone who puts themselves outside the law. You might say people who commit crimes serious enough to go to prison put themselves outside the law-making process” [Ref: Guardian]. However, those pressing for prisoner votes argue that such a notion is an outdated and uncivilised understanding of punishment. Paul Tidball, former president of the Prison Governors Association, argued that the ban is “out of step in a modern prison service and runs counter to resettlement work” [Ref: Prison Reform Trust], whilst others say that prisoner voting “goes to the heart of what it takes it rehabilitate someone.” [Ref:] A modern prison system, they maintain, needs to embrace the idea of civic responsibility and rehabilitation, and by lifting the voting ban, the government would be engaging prisoners in civilising patterns of behaviour [Ref: Guardian]. Supporters of the right of prisoners to vote also point to the fact that in 2015 only, “47 people in UK prisons…are serving whole life sentences, meaning that the remaining 85,301 prisoners will be released into society at some point in the future. Surely, knowing this, society would want to ensure that everyone is doing everything they can to ease the reintegration of prisoners back into society, by encouraging prisoners to be good citizens” [Ref: Inside Time].

Degrading the vote and democracy
For some critics, talk of rehabilitation and the rhetoric of rights for prisoners, masks the fact that there is little of democratic substance to the discussion on prisoner votes. Writer Tim Black asserts that the idea of the vote in this debate becomes debased, as its foundation - liberty, is degraded because historically, “the vote meant something: it promised self-rule; it promised sovereignty; it promised, to quote Leveller Richard Overton, freedom from ‘[dependence] upon the will of arbitrary powers’” [Ref: spiked]. From this perspective, prisoner votes make no sense, precisely because those that are detained lack the ability to exercise the freedom that voting represents, as their lives are completely controlled by arbitrary powers while incarcerated. Furthermore, others argue that we should be suspicious of those pushing for reform on behalf of prisoners, because far from demonstrating a commitment to democracy, such campaigns indicate the low esteem in which the vote is now held: “To give prisoners the vote reveals that the ECHR do not view the vote as an important right, but a political pawn which can be given away at a whim.” [Ref: OpenDemocracy] In this sense, critics claim that campaigners for prisoner votes have effectively rebranded the vote from being a means to effect social change through politics, to a socialising and civilising act in itself. However, advocates dismiss these suggestions, and instead say that far from undermining democracy, allowing prisoners the vote would deepen it. Universal suffrage, they argue, should be just that – universal. In a liberal democracy, notes blogger and former inmate Ben Gunn, all competent adults should have the inalienable right to vote, including prisoners, because: “One of the most important aspects of human rights is that they are unearned. Being of the human species is all that is required, and for a perfectly sound reason: it is intended to prevent governments oppressing unpopular or difficult individuals or groups.” [Ref: Guardian] So, should prisoners have the vote, or is it right that those who break the law are excluded from the democratic process?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

The conversation: Should prisoners be allowed to vote?

Jonathan Aitken and Frances Cook Guardian 23 April 2011

Q&A: UK prisoners’ right to vote

BBC News 20 January 2011


Law breakers should not influence law makers

Glyn Gaskarth Policy Exchange 10 February 2015

Prisoners shouldn’t have the right to vote

Tim Black spiked 16 February 2011

Allowing prisoners to have the vote would be criminal

Jonathan Aitken The Times 3 November 2010


It’s time to give prisoners the vote

Ian Dunt 11 March 2015

Stop prisoners from voting? That’s criminal

Kevin McKenna Observer 3 April 2011

Prisoner voting: Convicts are human beings, with human rights

Thomas Hammarberg Guardian 4 February 2011

Give prisoners the right to vote, and everybody benefits

Robert Chesshyre Independent 12 February 2010


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Should prisoners have the right to vote?

Evie Pardoe Inside Time May 2015

Why some prisoners should have the right to vote

Mark Thompson New Statesman 19 November 2012

Why prisoners should be given the right to vote

Caspar Walsh Guardian 5 June 2012

Prisoners should get the vote

Prison Reform Trust 15 February 2011

Why deny prisoners the vote?

Martin Kettle Guardian 21 January 2011

Prisoner voting rights are undemocratic

Blair Gibb Spectator 2 November 2010

Why should prisoners be denied the vote?

Ben Gunn Guardian 19 September 2009

Disenfranchising democracy

Afua Hirsch Guardian 10 April 2009

Forfeiture Act 1870


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


David Davis: Prisoners ‘lose right to vote’

BBC Radio 5 Live 10 February 2011

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