Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Never-ending Prisoners Votes Argument

There are moments when that ember of anger permanently embedded in my soul flares up. The Prisoners Vote issue is almost guaranteed to have me foaming at the mouth. The moronic, childish and plain ignorant arguments that some of our leaders spout makes me wish that stupidity was made a crime - and they would get the maximum sentence.
The reasoning on this issue seems pretty straightforward. Do we accept that there are limits on the power of the State to oppress its own people? I'm going to assume I can carry you on that, it's hardly a revolutionary concept.
It's an idea the British State liked so much that our lawyers drafted an international Convention that set out the limits on Government power - the European Convention for Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. We wrote it, we signed up to it, we supply part of the funding and one of the Judges on the Court. We have been happy to support this mechanism in holding other nations to account for the way it treats its citizens. This has held for two generations.
The proposition remains simple  that all individuals retain certain fundamental rights. It doesn't matter how unpopular these people are, their politics, their actions, their ethnicity, none of these matter. There is a limit - that we agreed - to how much the State can oppress individuals. The clue is in the title -"fundamental freedoms". Not "optional", or "only for nice people that we'd invite round for tea". All people. That’s what we signed up to 60 years ago.
There is a legitimate debate about what constitutes "rights" and whether they are subjective or flow from some Natural Law. These debates ebb and flow, probably never to be settled. Most importantly, though, we wrote and signed up to a set of principles that laid out the specifics of what constitute "rights". It's okay to debate the merits, but in the meantime we signed a legal deal.
And the British State agreed that participation in democratic elections was a "fundamental right". There's no point in pig-ignorant xenophobic MP's bitching about foreign courts and foreign judges. We created the structure and agreed to abide by its judgements. Barely concealed racist ranting sixty years after the fact shouldn't obscure that detail.
Now, the Court has held, twice, that British prisoners are unreasonably being denied our right to participate in free elections. And the body politic is squealing like a pig farm, orchestrated by the bandmasters that pass themselves off as tabloid editors.
I pore over every word I can written by opponents of the Prisoner Vote. And I have yet to find one coherent argument. Not one. Some have a surface attraction, but fall apart under scrutiny. Some are just the meanderings of thick-as-shit MP's. Most of the arguments boil down to a simple proposition - "I hate criminal scum".
There is vast irony in this. The Convention on Human Rights was created to protect groups from being screwed over by their government on the basis of prejudice. And now prejudice is the only argument that is being deployed. This is illustrated by Philip Davies MP calling us, "vile creatures". This is what this debate is reduced to. And in fairness, I hope no one now objects to my suggesting that Philip Davies is a joke of a legislator, a man who is tasked with helping guide the fate of a nation and yet whose public utterances on prisons - there are many - reveal that he is labouring under a burden of ignorance that is so profound that it must qualify him for help under the Disability Discrimination Act. On the prison landings we would dismiss him with the term "muppet".
Where are we so far? We wrote a set of human rights, we signed it, we agreed to abide by the Court who judges it. And now it has presented politicians with an unpopular judgement, every politico with a line to the Daily Mail is whining like a baby.
Some of the arguments I've heard against the prisoner vote are positively childlike. One is that we don't deserve human rights as we broke the human rights of our victims. As well as being dubious logic, this argument highlights a complete ignorance of human rights. Human rights regulate relations between the individual and the State, not between individuals. A policeman who, on duty as a State servant, beats me to death breaches my right to life (as well as being murder). That same copper, off duty as a private individual, would not be breaching my human right to life if he killed me. People who peddle this argument should be made to sit in a corner to devour a decent legal textbook before being allowed to join in the grown-up's conversation.
It is also claimed that we prisoners have "waged war on society" and so deserve none of the rights of that society. Really? Really?? Because I thought I killed my friend, not engaging in some Fawksian political act. Let such silly hyperbole rest in peace, as quiet as the neurons in Philip Davies' brain.
And then there's the argument that rests on a slip of the tongue, the sly substitution of the word "liberties" for the word "liberty". It is claimed that when we are sent to prison we lose all of our "liberties". Alas, quite which law, which statute, which legal doctrine underpins this mad claim is never produced. When we are sent to prison we lose our "liberty". That is, our physical freedom. To try to fool people by saying this encompasses all possible "liberties" is tripe. It plays well with the idiotcracy, but it's tripe nevertheless.
This "liberties" argument is the basis of the assertion that the ability to vote isn't a "right" at all, it is a liberty granted by the State, a sweet that the rulers throw to the plebs at their whim. So, if prisoners have no liberties, we have no vote. QED!
Many people would argue - though not if their vote were in peril! - that the franchise is indeed a liberty, a favour, not a "right". It is fortunate that this is not a subjective debate, it is a matter of law. The ability to vote is a fundamental right. It's in the Convention that we wrote and signed up to. People may say they don't want it to be a right, that it shouldn't be a right, but as a matter of straightforward unassailable fact - it is a right. So, even if we did lose all of our "liberties" on being imprisoned, we retain our fundamental rights - including the ability to vote.
The part of the current debate that really makes me angry is the call by some politicians and commentators that Britain should tell the Court of Human rights to sling it, to just ignore their judgement on the Prisoners Vote.
Take a pause here. Just consider what is being said. That we should ignore the judgement of a Court, because even though we set it up and wrote its principles, we don't like one of its judgements.
I'm sure some of my prisoner colleagues could be persuaded to follow that principle - let's just ignore laws we find inconvenient or distasteful. The prohibition on murder, for instance. Or that pesky court that has a view that we shouldn't break into MP's homes and kill them in their beds. I wonder if the likes of Philip Davies MP have a view on this? Put in these personal terms, do they really want to advocate people only obeying laws and courts they find personally appealing?
How dare anyone in a public office make a suggestion that Courts and laws should be ignored, when they do so in the cause of further denying prisoners their due rights.
We ignored the courts and the laws and you punish us for it. Don't you fucking dare now stand up and argue that you should have the right to treat the law with the same contempt and not face any consequences.


  1. Aye, couldn't agree more.

    I was rather disappointed to see the politicians caving yesterday and considering giving the vote to only prisoners with sentences of <12 months (down from the original idea of <4 years), I'd prefer to see it granted to all prisoners.

    I'm really not sure what the problem is, the proportion of prisoners in any constituency can't be that high, what are they afraid of?

    Additionally, I'm of the opinion that if a 16yr old is old enough to work and pay tax to the state, he or she is old enough to vote in an election!

  2. It seems to me that prisoners lose many "fundamental rights". For example, their freedom, the right to see their friends and family whenever they wish, the right to get a job and earn money, the right to private communication, even the right to eat what they like when they like.

    I cannot see that the right to vote is more fundamental than the right to freedom, for example. If we accept that the state can take away someone's freedom, everything else seems secondary.

    Also, I'd dispute that human rights "regulate relations between the individual and the State, not between individuals". We get our human rights because we are human, not because the state gives them to us. And the idea that someone who kills another has not breached their right to life seems bizarre. If someone steals something from me, they have breached my right to my property. In a civilised society, we delegate the enforcement of those rights to the state. It doesn't mean the rights are to do with our relation to the state. Sure, the state can steal from me, but so can an individual. Both breach my rights because I have those rights by virtue of being human.

    We have enshrined certain human rights in international agreements and laws. Your argument seems to be that, because those agreements do not allow prisoners to be deprived of a vote, it is against their rights. You may be correct, but I would argue that we are then talking about what states have decided to do, not fundamental rights. Humans have the right to their lives, their property, their consciences, their freedom, regardless of whether international treaties say so.

    Suppose the Convention on Human Rights did not recognise the right to vote. Would you then consider this not to be a fundamental right? If so, I would disagree, because I think it is a fundamental human right. I do think, though, that human rights exist between individuals, although they are enforced by the state. That's one reason we have states. If one person breaches the rights of another, they have forfeited their rights to a degree. The size of the forfeit and the length of time is determined on behalf of the whole of society by the state.

    I hope I haven't made you angrier :) I'd be interested to hear your futher thoughts.

  3. Blimey, Julian, we don't often get a brain your size on this blog. We're accustomed to cosy consensus here, mate, interrupted only by an occasional gibbering nutter whom we can easily disregard.

    As soon as you bring conditionality into it things get loopy. To what degree? For how long? Of course, we have that now with the arbitrary one-year cut-off. By the same logic, withdrawal of franchise could be extended. To all sorts of offences. 'I fine you fifty pounds and withdraw your franchise for one month.' Especially meritorious behaviour might be rewarded with more than one vote. Does that add up logically? I'm out of my intellectual depth here.

    I take a pragmatic view. To withdraw the franchise is to outlaw someone and, therefore, to make an enemy of them -- an angry, resentful and vengeful enemy. To send such folk back out into society at the end of a spell of incarceration is socially foolish.

    We need a penal system which makes people feel they are bound into society, not rejected and despised by it.

  4. A superb argument. It’s a pity that you spoiled it a bit with the disparaging reference to the Disability Discrimination Act. Disabled people deserve better than to be put in the same bracket as Philip Davies MP.

  5. Heck, Tim, is that me you mean? If I have offended, I'm really really sorry. Apart from anything else, you're one of life's nice guys. Can we agree to substitute 'ranters'? My full and unqualified apologies.

  6. A passionate piece today Ben, your frustration and anger is there for all to see.
    I agree with Charles Cowling comment about our penal sytem, but if our Goverment won't accept Human rights as universal, what hope have we of getting the debate and reform our prisons so badly need? Vote anyone?......

  7. The suffregets fought for our vote, and as a woman i feel i ought to use it, but i haven't done in years, because the pot is empty, they are all much the same, they lie and are only interested in fethering their own nest's. If i want something done, i do it myself, my useless MP won't help, each letter i have ever had comes accross as mildly discuised disinterest.

  8. Sorry, Charles, my comment was not directed at you, but in response to Ben's piece. I couldn't imagine you saying anything that would offend me. Ben made a great argument, Philip Davies deserves a put down - but not at the expense of disabled people.

  9. 'We need a penal system which makes people feel they are bound into society, not rejected and despised by it.'

    Well said Charles, this is the crux of the matter to me.

  10. @Anonymous Around the time of the Suffragettes there were various groups all fighting for various rights. It was only in 1918 that all MEN got the right to vote the same as women albeit with a age difference factor.

    Why the difference?

    Factor in a million men slaughtered (In the UK alone) who had no choice and no vote, plus the many millions more who were injured, maimed, disfigured physically and mentally. This distorted historical snapshot of Suffragettes fighting starts to look like a sick joke at best.

  11. Yes, it does seem like The Never Ending Story. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. I can report that there is a Debate & Vote : Wednesday 26 January 2011 At the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) On the subject of Implementation of judgments of the European Court of Human Rights. Draft resolution: The Assembly, in particular, urges the following states to give priority to specific problems: The United Kingdom must put to an end the practice of delaying full implementation of Court judgments with respect to politically sensitive issues, such as prisoners’ voting rights... it is essential that states parties fulfil their obligation under Article 46 of the Convention to ensure the full and rapid implementation of judgments of the Court.

    The execution process for some of these judgments (where it has begun) has become somewhat politicised at the national level and consequently the JCHR has identified what it perceives as an emerging practice of “minimal compliance’; where some action has been taken by the United Kingdom but far from enough. This has been highlighted by the JCHR as a problem in that it increases the possibility of repetitive cases by failing to put an end to a root problem, thus creating further litigation.

    The Council of Europe reserves the right to take appropriate action should the state concerned continuously fail to take appropriate measures required by a judgment of the Court, or should the national parliament fail to exert appropriate pressure on the government to implement judgments of the Court;

    This follows Philip Hollowbrain's pathetic debate in Westminster Hall in the Commons on 11 January, and pre-dates Jack Straw and David Davis' Back Bench Business Committee's debate in February in the Commons. Put that in your pipe and smoke it!

    (Exceeded word count. More to follow...)

  12. PACE decided to up the pressure on the UK by taking over the reins from the Committee of Ministers, whose next meeting is scheduled for 8 March, and vote on what sanctions to apply to the UK. It might include suspending the UK's vote in Europe until the UK decides it will fully comply with Hirst v UK (No2). Irony or what?

    Given that each of the 47 Member States provides a judge to the Court, that's 46 foreign judges to each State, I wonder if, and how many, other States play the foreign judges card?

    The Court has now held 4 times, twice British cases, that disenfranchisement of prisoners breaches their human rights. Originally, States were only bound by cases found against them, but since February 2010, if a case against another State has the same or similar facts then this too is binding upon other States. So, that's now 4-0 against the UK!

    In Scoppola v Italy the Court ruled that it was a breach of human rights to sentence a murderer to life imprisonment which also disenfranchised for life. Italy reduced the life sentence to a fixed 30 year sentence, but still left the disenfranchisement for life in place. It would appear that now a life sentence is a breach of human rights. If so,natural life must go too (which will please Peter Sutcliffe), and the life licence is on very dodgy ground (I will be glad to see this go). Quick, pass David Cameron the sick bag!

    Tim: I take on board your objection and have to agree with you that Ben was a bit insensitive to liken that prize twunt Philip Davies to people like you and I with a genuine disability.

    Ben: Be careful bandying about the term Muppet, I called a bunch of park rangers who were having a pop at me as "Being like The Muppet Show" and they complained to the police and the police tried to prosecute me under s.5 of the Public Order Act 1986! I told my solicitor that I was wrong, and that what I meant to say was like The Goon Show.

    Your last para also includes a bit I gave to Radio 5 Live in an interview, which the BBC now uses on their website. But, a criminal lawyer and me think that the UK is in contempt of court (certainly there is a case that Jack Straw is in contempt of Parliament) but Elkan disagrees. We're looking into this more.

    Also, at what some politicians have said outside of Parliamentary privilege and they are fair game. In addition, looking at some of the media reporting to fight back. I actually own the Hirst No2 case bearing my name, the Council of Europe has confirmed that it is my intellectual property right. Elkan was only interested whether I had that in writing, and I confirmed that I have it in black and white. This opens up a whole new can of worms...

  13. Excellent work JHL, I don't know how you do it; but I am glad you did what you did regarding prisoner's voting rights and that you are still strong on the case. Respect is due to you

  14. Thanks John, and I agree with Sophie J.