According to the European Court of Human Rights the British Government has behaved illegally in not allowing prisoners the vote in that it restricted the prisoners’ rights. In line with most public sentiment neither Labour nor Conservative governments have enacted the right to vote when in power. While Britain takes a moral stand on this point they have also signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights which obligates them to comply to European standards.

The most high profile attempt to get the British Government to legislate was brought by John Hirst who in 2001 had just been released from prison after serving 25 years for murder. He had killed a woman by hitting her several times with an axe and showed no remorse for killing her. Prior to that he had also served time for burglary. While he was in prison in 1989 he had attacked a prison guard and had to be segregated from other prisoners as he was defined as being highly dangerous.

Hirst lost his initial case to allow prisoners to vote when it was brought to the High Court in London but subsequently went on to win his case in the European Court of Human Rights in a ruling that not only was contrary to the British Government but also went against the beliefs of the majority of the general public.

Now watch a video of an interview with Hirst to help inform your opinion before answering the questions.


Richard Horton 2016 (updated 2021)


Instructions This exercise is designed primarily to be a speaking exercise although so reading and listening is involved. Read the short article on the right and then watch the video before discussing the following questions.

1. Are prisoners allowed to vote in your country? What are the rules that govern prisoners’ rights and what do they include?

2. What distinction does John Hirst try to make between human rights and civil rights? Even if you disagree with him do you agree with this distinction?

3. What are your impressions of John Hirst?

4. John Hirst suggests that he served an extra 10 years because he caused trouble for the authorities in legally opposing them. Do you agree with his argument?

5. Should prisoners be denied the right to vote? Should it apply to all prisoners? How would you mark the difference?

6. The British Government has signed up to the European Convention on Human rights and legally should follow European rulings in such matters. However, the British public and both labour and Conservative governments have opposed such legislation and voted it down on at least four occasions. Should the British be forced to adopt what the European Court of Human Rights has decided? If YES how should it be enforced and if NO what does this mean for future European decision making?

Optional Questions

7. To what extent do you think this clip shows manipulation by the media – in that they chose to interview John Hirst who is far from being a poster boy for prisoners’ rights?

8. On 29th November 2019 Steve Gallant, aged 43, who is serving a prison sentence for murder was attending a course in London as part of his rehabilitation when a terrorist attacked. He was part of a small group of men who fought off the terrorist and has since been hailed a hero. Many people are calling for him to be freed and yet he still murdered somebody. His victim’s family can never see him as anything but a murderer, but he committed a great civil act and helped protect the public from further harm. Should he be freed and have his civil liberties restored on the basis of his heroics?

Full Story can be read here.