TOPIC GUIDE: Votes for Prisoners

"No prisoner should have the vote"

PUBLISHED: 01 May 2011

AUTHOR: Dave Clements & Helen Birtwistle

Share this Topic Guide:

Download topic guide (500k)


“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.  But in 2011 the issue became more than just an academic one. In April 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 failed in his challenge to the ‘blanket ban’ on prisoner votes at the UK High Court. The ECHR has now given the government six months to introduce reforms. Advocates such as the Prison Reform Trust argue, quoting the South African Constitutional Court, that “the vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and personhood”. A blanket ban on prisoner votes not only undermines fundamental human rights, but also denies the ideal of universal suffrage, upon which democracy is predicated. But critics warn that we must not be seduced by the ‘highfalutin’ language of rights. What is at stake is a very simple moral idea, says David Davis MP:  ‘If you break the law’ you should not ‘be allowed to make the law’.  Does the denial of the right to vote for prisoners demonstrate, in the words of one writer, that the UK ‘has hardly emerged from the Jurassic period’? Or are there deeper moral principles associated with democracy, punishment, and parliamentary sovereignty than accusations of ‘stick in the mud old tories’ suggest?

For further reading use the menu bar on the right hand side.


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’
Announcing that it would be appealing against the decision of the ECHR in 2005, a spokesman of the former government 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]. Critics underline that voting is a right that prisoners give up by virtue of the crime that they have committed against society [Ref: Spectator] and that denial of this right remains an important punishment, because it tells those who break the law that they have lost their right to participate in democracy whilst incarcerated. But campaigners for prisoner votes argue that the moral arguments used by their opponents are archaic and redundant. Moral thinking today, they suggest, supports the idea that human rights, including the right to vote, are fundamental to all human beings. The right to vote is therefore an indivisible one, and whilst as writer Afua Hirsch suggests, imprisonment deprives inmates of their liberty while facilitating their rehabilitation, “it does not strip them of their citizenship rights.”

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. Those pressing for reform argue that such a notion is an outdated and uncivilised philosophy of punishment. A modern prison system, they argue, needs to embrace the idea of civic responsibility and rehabilitation. By lifting the voting ban the government would be encouraging prisoners in civilising patterns of behaviour, and help to incorporate socially excluded groups and individuals within the political process [Ref: Guardian]. As it stands, says Paul Tidball of the Prison Governors Association, the ban is “out of step in a modern prison service and runs counter to resettlement work”.

Degrading the vote and democracy
But some critics argue that talk of rehabilitation and the rhetoric of rights masks the fact that there is little of democratic substance to the discussion on prisoner votes. Indeed, says writer Tim Black, the idea of the vote becomes debased as its foundation, liberty, is degraded [Ref: spiked]. From the Levellers through to the Suffragettes, the struggle for enfranchisement promised self-rule and ‘freedom from arbitrary powers’. In this context, prisoner votes make no sense, precisely because those that are detained lack the ability to exercise the freedom that they represent. From this standpoint, some argue that we should be suspicious of those pushing for reform on behalf of prisoners.  Far from demonstrating a commitment to democracy, such campaigns indicate the low esteem in which the vote is now held, as campaigners such as the Prison Reform Trust rebrand the vote from being a means to effect social change to a socialising and civilising act in itself. But advocates of the vote argue that far from undermining democracy, allowing prisoners the vote deepens it. Universal suffrage, they argue, should be just that – universal. In a liberal democracy, says blogger and inmate Ben Gunn, all competent adults should have the right to vote. That right is inalienable and must remain so if the individual is to be free from overbearing and dangerous government. [Ref: Guardian]

It has been well documented that until the ECHR became involved, the issue of prisoner votes had inspired little interest in British Politics. However, as the dispute has unfolded the debate has broadened itself out to incorporate arguments about parliamentary sovereignty, European interference, and the universalism of human rights.  Some warn that bowing to the Strasbourg based court sets a dangerous precedent, whereby an unaccountable court is able to override the electorate, the Government and the British judiciary. This, they argue, is not democratic. But others counter that the debate around prisoner votes has become a vehicle for anti-European populism, and that claims that ‘alien institutions’ are making decisions that override parliamentary democracy are both overblown and imprecise. Resisting the ECHR on this simple moral question not only keeps the UK in the ‘Jurassic period’ in relation to prison reform, but threatens to undermine our commitment to the universalism of human rights, demonstrated by our compliance with the ECHR [Ref: Economist].


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

Should Prisoners have the right to vote?

Juliet Lyons and David Green The Times 12 March 2010


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

Prisoner voting rights are undemocratic

Blair Gibb Spectator 2 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

Why deny prisoners the vote?

Martin Kettle Guardian 21 January 2011

Give prisoners the right to vote, and everybody benefits

Robert Chesshyre Independent 12 February 2010

Disenfranchising democracy

Afua Hirsch Guardian 10 April 2009


Prisoners of their own self-importance

Jon Holbrook spiked 16 February 2011

Prisoners’ voting rights: Britain’s mounting fury over sovereignty

Bagehot’s Notebook Economist 10 February 2011

Why should prisoners be denied the vote?

Ben Gunn Guardian 19 September 2009


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

Human Rights Act good, meddling judges bad

Jack Straw The Times 10 February 2011

Why deny prisoners the vote?

Martin Kettle Guardian 21 January 2011

Court of appeal rejects prison vote plea, government announces plans

Adam Wagner UK Human Rights Blog 17 December 2010

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.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.

Court rules out prison vote compensation

Financial Times 18 February 2011

David Davis: Prisoners ‘lose right to vote’

BBC Radio 5 Live 10 February 2011

MPs reject prisoner votes plan

BBC News 10 February 2011

MPs back ban on prisoner votes

Independent 10 February 2011

David Cameron backs prison vote rebels

Telegraph 10 February 2011

Cameron challenges court on votes for prisoners

Financial Times 9 February 2011

Prisoners to get the right to vote

Guardian 2 November 2010


David Davis: Prisoners ‘lose right to vote’

BBC Radio 5 Live 10 February 2011

This site contains links to websites operated by parties other than Debating Matters. Although we make every effort to ensure links are current, they will sometimes break after Topic Guide publication. If a link does not work, then the publication reference and date should enable you to find an alternate link. If you find a broken link do please send it to the webmaster for review.

© 2005-2020 Debating Matters Competition, boi, Unit 208, Cocoa Studios, The Biscuit Factory, Drummond Road, London, SE16 4DG, UK

Tel +44 (0)20 3176 0827 - | admin login