Liberal Heroes of the Week #55: The 12 members of the Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill. My Liberal Villain is Chris Grayling

by Stephen Tall on December 24, 2013

Liberal Hero of the Week (and occasional Villains) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum

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12 members of Parliament of the Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill

Mr Crispin Blunt MP (Conservative), Mr Steve Brine MP (Conservative), Ms Lorely Burt MP (Liberal Democrat), Mr Nick Gibb MP (Chairman, Conservative), Sir Alan Meale MP (Labour), Mr Derek Twigg MP (Labour), Lord Dholakia (Liberal Democrat), Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen (Labour), Baroness Noakes (Conservative), Lord Norton of Louth (Conservative), Lord Peston (Labour), Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers (Crossbench)
Reason: for their serious look at the issue of prisoners’ voting rights and their majority verdict in favour of ending a blanket ban

Last year the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the British Government cannot maintain its blanket ban on prisoners being disqualified from voting. David Cameron, one eye always fixed on the Daily Mail front page, hyperbolically declared he would feel “physically sick” if prisoners were allowed to vote.

Nonetheless a response was still needed, so a Bill was drafted with three options to keep everyone happy: options A and B would give the vote to all those serving sentences of less than 4 years or 6 months or less respectively; option C would re-state the existing complete prohibition on all convicted prisoners voting.

A cross-party parliamentary committee was established to examine the Bill and it reported last week. Its conclusion? “We recommend that the Government introduce a Bill at the start of the 2014-15 session, which should provide that all prisoners serving sentences of 12 months or less should be entitled to vote in all UK parliamentary, local and European elections; and moreover that prisoners should be entitled to apply, up to 6 months before their scheduled release date, to be registered to vote in the constituency into which they are due to be released.”

Its reasons were clearly expressed:

  • In a democracy the vote is a right, not a privilege: it should not be removed without good reason.
  • The vote is a presumptive, not an absolute right: all democratic states restrict the right to vote in order to achieve clearly defined, legitimate objectives.
  • The vote is also a power: citizens are entrusted, in voting, with an element of power over their fellow-citizens.
  • There is a legitimate expectation that those convicted of the most heinous crimes should, as part of their punishment, be stripped of the power embodied in the right to vote.
  • There is an element of arbitrariness in selecting the custody threshold as the unique indicator of the type of offence that is so serious as to justify loss of the vote.
  • There are no convincing penal-policy arguments in favour of disenfranchisement; but a case has been made that enfranchisement might assist prisoner rehabilitation by providing an incentive to re-engage with society.
  • The enfranchisement of a few thousand prisoners is far outweighed by the importance of the rule of law and the desirability of remaining part of the Convention system.
  • I was particularly struck by this quote from Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, a former prisons minister, who argued:

    “We didn’t just sign up to the European Convention on Human Rights – we more or less wrote it. For us to fail to respect our international treaty obligations, over an issue as relatively minor as a few thousand prisoners having the right to vote, which the evidence suggests most of them wouldn’t exercise, would be a grossly disproportionate reaction. It would set an appalling example to other nations and undermine human rights across Europe.”

    Not all members of the Committee agreed with the majority verdict (it was passed by 8 votes to 3, with chairman Nick Gibb cleaving to the illegal ‘blanket ban’) – but at least they looked at the evidence before reaching their own principled judgement on a difficult “where do you draw the line?” issue. For that they all deserve recognition.

    Here’s another person who deserves recognition… though for a wholly different reason.

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    Chris Grayling

    Conservative Secrtary of State for Justice
    Reason: for petty and mean new rules which will prevent some prisoners receiving parcels from loved ones at Christmas and throughout the year

    ‘Tis the season of goodwill to all persons. Except if you’re Chris Grayling that is. Then ’tis the season for petty vindictiveness to all prisoners. Here’s the Prison Reform Trust on his latest changes to our justice system:

    For the first time this Christmas, people in prison will not be able to receive parcels from their loved ones under petty and mean new rules introduced by the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling.

    The new rules, which forbid prisoners from receiving any items in the post unless there are exceptional circumstances, were introduced in November as part of the government’s changes to the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme.

    Under the rules, families are prevented from sending in basic items of stationery such as cards, paper or pens to help people in prison keep in touch with their friends and families and wish them a happy Christmas. They are also prevented from sending books and magazines or additional warm clothes and underwear to the prison. Instead people in prison are now forced to pay for these items out of their meagre prison wages to private companies who make a profit from selling goods to prisoners.

    The new rules will add to the loneliness and isolation felt by many of the 84,500 people held behind bars in England and Wales. Christmas can be a difficult time for people in prison, held far away from their children, families and friends, often in bleak and overcrowded conditions. The rules will also add to the distress of the 200,000 children in England and Wales who are estimated to have a parent in prison.

    While concerns about security are understandable and it is important to have consistent policies across the prison estate, it is also vital that prison policies do not undermine the importance of family contact and rehabilitation or the safe and decent treatment of people in prison.

    Since the introduction of the scheme in November the Prison Reform Trust’s advice and information service has responded to over 100 prisoners concerned about its impact on them and their families.

    The Prison Reform Trust has been contacted by women prisoners who cannot get hold of enough clean underwear to keep them hygienic during their period. The Ministry of Justice has introduced a fixed limit to the number of items of underwear which men and women may have in their cells, as well as placing restrictions on other items of clothing.

    The advice team has also been contacted by many elderly and disabled prisoners who are unable to work and cannot earn enough money to pay for items such as stationery or things to keep them occupied during the long periods of time they are locked in their cells. Previously the families of these prisoners could have sent them a pack of cards, board games, books or magazines to give them something to do. Prisoners are now forced to pay for these items or obtain them from under-resourced prison libraries.

    Rates of pay for those working average around £10 a week and can be as little as £2.50 a week for a prisoner who is unable to work – out of which they must pay for phone calls, TV rental, stationery, reading material and any additional food, clothes and toiletries they may need. It costs 20p a minute to call a mobile from a prison phone during the week; and 9p a minute to phone a landline.

    The advice team has also heard from prisoners working outside in the community on release on temporary licence, but who are not able to get hold of enough clothes to keep them warm during the cold winter weather. One woman prisoner said:

    “I … have a thick padded jacket which is brown and I am being told this will no longer be allowed. I cannot afford to buy a new coat as I only earn £12 a week as it is. This is not just me but other women who go out to work. Some work in London and will have the same clothes day in and out. Surely if we are working towards and maintaining all our goals we are entitled to a bit of leeway?”

    Under the new rules the prison governor’s discretion is limited but it is up to individual governors to decide what counts as exceptional. Items allowed could include disability or health aids, items needed for religious observance, stamped addressed envelopes or replacement clothes where there is limited or restricted access to the laundry. The impact of these new rules is being monitored by Ministry of Justice officials responsible for safer custody and ongoing work to reduce self-harm and suicide in prison.

    Commenting, Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

    “These new mean and petty prison rules just add stress and strain while doing nothing to promote rehabilitation and personal responsibility.”

    If anyone deserves a visitation from the Christmas spirits tonight it’s Chris Grayling; he could do with some rehabilitating.

    * The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.