Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Vote Thing...

My view on the Prisoners Vote issue is well known and based on two broad arguments. Firstly, that human rights are inviolate and universal - they apply to the most despised as well as those most lauded. Secondly, prisoners remain a part of society, even if tucked out of sight. I have rehearsed my views previously, over at the Guardian's Comment is Free for those who are particularly interested.

Though not many prisoners seem to be! While this issue has exercised the best political and legal minds of two governments, and they have been found wanting, prisoners sat on the sidelines, largely indifferent. The prospect of gaining the vote is merely entertaining for many of us, and an irrelevance to most. I think it's more important than we appreciate.

The Labour government bobbed and weaved in an embarrassing display of deceit to avoid facing the reality of the Court’s judgement. Jacqui Smith, their Home Secretary, admitted on "This Week" that Labour deliberately delayed. We all knew this, but they happily looked Parliament and the Council of Europe in the eye and assured them otherwise. Nothing makes prisoners angrier than being lectured on our disdain for the law by a government that treats a court judgement with contempt.

I expected the current Government to adopt a similar stance. After all, as a matter of practical politics, who wants to be the Prime Minister that gives us lot the vote?? But, politically, it was handled extremely adeptly. In blaming the financial crisis and the European Court, Cameron deflected the flack he would otherwise have received. And he was, partly, correct to do so. For months, prisoners have been filing claims for compensation with the Court for Labour’s refusal to allow us to participate in the General Election.

This was a rare opportunity to open a debate around the place of prison and prisoners in society, and it was lost. To some, it was because John Hirst became the story rather than the campaign. To others, the opportunity was squandered because the media reverted to a default position which avoided engaging with any of the genuine issues.

There will inevitably be a continuation of this battle, though. The government seem determined to restrict the number of prisoners voting to the minimum. I suspect their legal advice is telling them what everyone familiar with this judgement knows -that this will be challenged. Within the lifetime of this administration most prisoners will have the vote.

This will include Lifers and some of the bogeyman groups such as rapists and paedophiles. The legal landscape has advanced since the original Hirst judgement and, taking into account Frodl v Austria, then an almighty political embarrassment remains for the government to face up to.

Astonishing though it is that a Tory government that has done the right thing by prisoners in this, Cameron has only dealt with the initial problem. In not giving us all the vote, blaming Europe and the public coffers, he faces a second crisis when some Lifer returns to the courts and forces the government to give all prisoners the franchise.

No Prime Minister wants to be the one who gives Ian Huntley or Rose West a ballot paper. That's just politics. But it will have to be done, and avoiding this certainty for now will only make it more politically damaging later.

From where I sit, I also suspect that no Lifer will want to be the one to take this back to court and be forever known as the man who got Huntley the vote. That is also practical politics. But someone will. And that's when this story becomes a very hot topic - again. Next time, though, those of us involved in prisoners’ rights and reform should all be better prepared to take advantage of the situation and use it as a platform to crack open a genuine debate.


  1. I take it that prisoners get legal aid to fight for compensation etc. As the govt are cutting back on legal aid, this may no longer be an option.

  2. Couldn't they just make it part of the sentence? So monsters like Huntley are deprived of the right to vote but little old ladies imprisoned for non-payment of council tax are not?

  3. Hi,
    If a prisoners grandmother was to pass away during his/her incarceration, i dont believe for one second that the prisoner would be exempt from inheritance tax. (and rightly so). No taxation without representation. Either someone is a member of society or they are not, and I believe we ALL are, prisoners or not.

  4. To Anonymous #2: it doesn't seem to me that we should be imprisoning people for non-payment of a tax anyway.

  5. I would like to correct the second sentence.

    " Firstly, that human rights are inviolate and universal - they apply to the most despised as well as those most lauded."

    Um no. Very much no. Indeed laughably no. Or at least not from a legal perspective, which is what matters here, as the ECHR is a legal document not a moral document. It is important to make that distinction, something which this piece fails to do.

    The rights are not inviolate. The fact that Ben is sitting in a prison sell is proof of that, as Article 5 can be violated in prescribed circumstances, namely in his case conviction by a competent court.

  6. @tall guy. You are wrong, bens article 5 rights to liberty were not violated. See article 5.1.a. Human rights laws are more than the chapter heading, please read further before wading in and lecturing.

  7. No they were violated. In the same way most rights aside from Article 3 can be violated.

    "Everyone has the right to liberty and security of a person. No one shall be deprived of his liberty save in the following cases and in accordance with a procedure prescribed by law:"

    Now it is very clear that this is a right. It also states he is being deprived of his right. Or in other words, the state has permission to violate the right in certain circumstances.

    This means that criminals no longer have the right to liberty. Meaning that they do not apply equally to all, and therefore are not universal. Which is the premise I am arguing against.

  8. I would like to ask if there is anyway of me asking some private questions? stupid silly questions.

    I am facing crown court trial shortly and there is so many questions I want to ask about prison life it is scary.

    I understand if you can't


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  10. To Paul,

    I have a friend I support who would I'm sure would be happy to answer your questions about prison life, he has had several spells in prison but is out now. I know he wouldn't think they were stupid questions. If you click on the purple silk cross icon where all the followers are listed (Twitter profile) you can let me have your email address privately if you want. I think this will work, not sure how else I could contact you.

    Kind regards, Jules


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