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Focus on: prisoners voting

Prisoner voting rights remain controversial. Kieran Corcoran examines the ongoing debate

A seven-year dispute between the UK and Europe over the enfranchisement of prisoners will come to a head this month as parliament nears the 22 November deadline for granting votes to prisoners.

A 2005 ruling by the European court of human rights (ECHR) deemed a total ban on prisoners voting a breach of human rights, and therefore obliges the UK to extend the franchise to some prisoners. The government would be able to decide which sections of the prison population were eligible, as is the case in other member states.

Despite years of prompting, today the government looks no closer to enfranchising prisoners as the countdown continues. The last parliamentary vote on the issue saw MPs emphatically dismiss giving prisoners the vote, with less than 10 per cent of members voting in favour.

Prime minister David Cameron has made clear that the government will not budge on this issue and, on a more personal note, has stated that the idea of prisoners voting makes him "physically ill".

Within government there's a dispute over what the consequences of ignoring Europe on this issue would be. Attorney general Dominic Grieve, the government's chief legal adviser, has restated the UK's obligation to adhere to the ECHR's ruling and speculated that non-compliance could lead to the UK's expulsion from the Council of Europe.

However, newly-appointed justice secretary Chris Grayling has championed the opposite view, insisting on the sovereignty of parliament and claiming that there are clear precedents for state governments disagreeing with Europe. He also raised the possibility that the ECHR may be acting beyond the original intentions of its remit, as the nature of human rights cases brought before it are now dramatically different to those of the 1950s, when systemic abuses in the Soviet Union were still commonplace.

If no action is taken by the government, prisoners will be able to launch legal proceedings against the UK government for violating their human rights after the November deadline passes. There are also fears that Britain resisting the implementation of a human rights law could set a damaging precedent and encourage countries with a worse record on human rights to resist reform.

Cameron is considering bringing another vote on the matter to parliament to re-establish a democratic mandate for rejecting the ruling, saying: "If it helps by having another vote in parliament on another resolution to make absolutely clear, to help put the legal position beyond doubt, I am very happy to do that."

Another option is to submit draft legislation to parliament in the knowledge that they would be swiftly rejected, though this would not placate the ECHR in the long term.

With prisoners making up around 0.2 per cent of the UK population, whether they can vote or not may seem inconsequential to future elections.

However, the issue brings to the fore a wider conflict between the interests of parliament and those of Europe - if parliament were to capitulate in this instance, it would set a precedent for accepting future European rulings which may be of wider consequence.

We asked students whether they thought prisoners should be allowed to vote. Here are three of the best responses...

*"By committing a crime a person has lost their right to have the franchise - prison should first and foremost be a punishment, and losing the right to vote is part of that." *Rosanna Leigh, University of Exeter

*"I believe the purpose of prison is rehabilitation; we should aim to bring prisoners back into society as active citizens. By denying prisoners the right to vote, we are undermining that process and hampering social integration." *Tim Rooke, LSE

*"The ability for prisoners to vote should depend on the crimes they committed. If it was severely anti-social they shouldn't be able to vote; but for less severe crimes they should. The problem is that it's really hard to draw the line." *Zhonglun Nie, University of Manchester

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