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Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Hiding behind tradition

Hiding behind tradition

By Billy Little , from insidetime issue June 2010

How does the prisoners’ right to vote get past the censorship of the tabloid press, asks Billy Little

Since the late 1970s, the United Kingdom has become a place that is governed by politicians who appear more concerned with what the tabloid media have to say about social policies, over and above the will of the people and the judiciary. Just like many other members of society I am, along with thousands more convicted prisoners, sick of knee-jerk, populist policy decisions designed to appease the media rather than resolve the underlying issues. As a collective social body, the public has the right to vote. On the other hand, and despite legislation deeming it unlawful, prisoners remain subject to the 1870 Forfeiture Act, thus denying them the right to vote.

A High Court ruling (4th April 2001) on a Human Rights test case brought by Pearson, Martinez and others made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that the question of sentenced prisoners’ voting was: ‘plainly a matter for Parliament, not the courts’. In an attempt to quell such sedition (imagine, prisoners actually asking to be afforded rights, whatever next!) the ruling was made ‘res judicata’; essentially meaning that in its current form, the case could not be brought before a UK court. However, patience is a virtue that comes with long-term imprisonment and in April 2004 the now infamous (in prison anyway) Hirst v United Kingdom (No.2) has forced politicians in the UK to initiate changes. The primary problem, however, is how does something of this magnitude get presented to the public, when it has to go through the ‘censorship’ of the tabloid press, a vituperative and bloodthirsty media who dictate rather than report. After a series of initial challenges, consultations and appearances within Westminster’s Grand Chamber, it is now only a matter of time, most certainly within the next few years, that all convicted prisoners are empowered with the right to vote.

There are some countries in the world that make a point of furnishing their prisoners with the necessary infrastructure to participate in the electoral process. The vast majority of European Union members allow their prisoners full or partial voting rights. Eighteen European countries, including Ireland, the Netherlands and Spain have no ban. Eight other European countries only have the power to impose a loss of voting right as an additional punishment. The UK is one of only a handful of European countries (all now subject to the Hirst ruling) automatically to disenfranchise sentenced prisoners, the others being: Armenia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Luxembourg and Romania. Should a 1999 ruling by the Constitutional Court of South Africa be taken into account over this issue? The courts stated that a ban on prisoners voting was unconstitutional and that: ‘the universality of the franchise is important not only for the nation and the democracy, the vote of each and every citizen is a badge of human dignity and personhood’. If anyone should be heard as an authority on this, then who better than the South Africans, a nation of people who know exactly what the true definitions of inequality, discrimination and human rights are; given their well documented heinous history?

Former Minister for Prisons Paul Goggins claimed that the law should be preserved because it was ‘tradition’. A point that was immediately challenged by Sir Stephen Tumim, retired Chief of Inspector of Prisons who offered: “So was hanging, but we have done away with that one now I believe”. That aside, this notion of ‘tradition’ has somehow managed to asphyxiate the voices of reason and rational debate. Baroness Stern raised the point that the Canadian Supreme court decided that Canadian Prisoners must retain their right to vote because it helps to train them in citizenship and helps their social reintegration (House of Lords - 14th July). Lord Filkin responded to this by asserting that: “for many years it has been part of our society’s tradition that, when people are imprisoned, they lose a range of rights, one of which is the right to participate in elections”.

If we accept that the ‘tradition’ spiel is just another obstruction to be overcome through reason, there remains the notion of citizenship. Many may accept the general definition of a citizen as an individual member of a given political society or state; by extension, one who owes allegiance to and may lawfully demand protection from the government of that state. The more specific sense of the term citizen is closely in accord with the original meaning of the word. In the free republics of classical antiquity, the term citizen signified not merely a resident of a town but a governing member of the state as a whole; citizens had the right to participate in consenting to the legislative and judicial functions of their political community.

Everyone has the right to hold moral, ethical, religious, political and private views on any number of issues; even if you choose not to vote. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Nevertheless, in keeping with ‘tradition’, archaic forms of legislation (1870 Forfeiture Act) excluded royalty, peers, lunatics and felons from exercising the privilege of all other citizens, the right to vote. The irony of this is that when it comes to the completion of the ‘Census’ form, something that everyone is required to do as a citizen, convicted prisoners are included in this process. This essentially makes the whole notion a little bit of a cherry-picking farce. It was on these grounds that I refused to complete the 2001 Census form; if it is something that only citizens are permitted to do (those same citizens who have the right to vote) then clearly I am not legally a citizen.

It is not as though changes cannot be made. The real fear from politicians are the inevitable tabloid media backlash headlines (‘serial killers and paedophiles given the right to vote’) that offer nothing more than a sensationalist generalization of the convicted prisoner population.

Finally, with all the talk of politicians being made accountable, surely this extends to legislation that they themselves agree to? In May 1999, the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, signed up to the ECHR before proudly stating: “These are new rights for the new millennium. The Human Rights Act is a cornerstone of our work to modernize the constitutional legislation the UK has seen”. In accordance to the Hirst v. United Kingdom ruling: Protocol 1 Article 3: ‘There shall be free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of legislature’. This means each and every individual considered to be a UK citizen, irrespective of current status. To refuse them this right is to discriminate against them, thus, inferring that an offence is being committed under the higher laws of ECHR; laws that clearly state equality is paramount to all human rights. In terms of social exclusion in the UK, the punishment for the crime is more often than not far more than that handed down by the judge.

Billy Little is currently resident at HMP Bullingdon.

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