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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Council of Europe should take the Presiding Officer to task over Alex Salmond

The Council of Europe should take the Presiding Officer to task over Alex Salmond

Stewart Maxwell (West of Scotland) (SNP): To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government's position is on prisoners having the right to vote.
The First Minister (Alex Salmond): The Scottish Government does not agree that convicted prisoners should be entitled to vote while they are serving a prison sentence

• I don’t know what the hidden agenda is behind the question and response. The former appears to be innocent on the face of it; the latter is certainly provocative.
It is a direct challenge to the ECtHR’s ruling in Hirst v UK (No2), Council of Europe and REGISTRATION APPEAL COURT, SCOTLAND in Smith v Scott and Frodl v Austria.

“Stewart Maxwell: Like many in the Parliament, I am totally opposed to rapists, murderers and drug pushers getting the right to vote. They have given up their right to participate in decent society by their actions. It is a disgrace that forces outside Scotland are trying to force such a change upon us. Even worse is the fact that, thanks to incompetence by the previous Labour Government at Westminster, some of these criminals may now try to claim compensation from taxpayers across the United Kingdom. Does the First Minister agree that voters in Scotland should not have to suffer any more bungled handling of elections by Westminster and that responsibility for our own elections must be devolved to the Scottish Parliament as soon as possible?”.

• Was there a vote in the Scottish Parliament supporting this opposition?

• In Hirst No2 the UK argued that by committing their offences and being committed to prison prisoners lost their privilege to vote. The Court rejected this argument, and stipulated that it was not a privilege but rather a right to vote.

• Whilst it is true that the Council of Europe is forcing change upon Scotland, it is because the country gives some of its citizens below the minimum standards of human rights guaranteed under the Convention. This force is applied via the force being applied to the Westminster Parliament. However, the Registration Appeal Court is not a force outside Scotland. It’s a disgrace that Scotland is 60 years behind Europe in giving its citizens human rights.

• It is not just incompetence. But also corruption. For example, there is a claim against Charles Falconer, Tony Blair, Jack Straw and David Miliband alleging misfeasance in public office in relation to the Prisoners Votes Case.

• Prisoners are claiming damages for loss of the human right to vote, as per Lord Bach’s advice given in the House of Lords.

• It appears that the prisoners’ human rights are being kicked around like a political football with this question calling for devolved power for the Scottish elections.

“The First Minister: I agree with that. Apart from anything else, I think that it is quite remarkable that any member should believe that it is right and proper for this Parliament to have legislative competence and authority over climate change—perhaps the greatest issue facing the planet—but not over the running of its own elections. How can anyone possibly believe or sustain that position? If the Scotland Office's track record on running elections were beyond reproach, there might be something of an argument to be had, but I do not think that anyone would argue that either.
Incidentally, looking at the previous Government's two consultations and its prevarication and delay on the thorny issue of prisoners and voting, I do not think that it covered itself in glory either”.

• Confirmed by Salmond’s answer. It’s a double act between Maxwell and Salmond. Behind the innocent appearing first question, the prisoners’ votes were used as a shield for an attack upon Westminster by Holyrood.

• Almost as an after thought “Incidentally”, and yet he had these documents before him. They are the equivalent to the dodgy dossier to seek to justify the war on Iraq. Baroness Butler-Sloss has called the delay in fully complying with Hirst No2 a national disgrace.

“Richard Baker (North East Scotland) (Lab): The previous Government resisted making the changes for exactly the reasons that the First Minister gave earlier. However, he might be aware that the current UK Government is reviewing the policy. Have any discussions taken place with the UK Government on what impact there might be on retrospective claims by prisoners who are now registered to vote, and what costs there might be to the Scottish Prison Service or the Scottish Government?”.

• The previous government lost those reasons in Hirst v UK (No2) and as the Court’s decision is final the Labour government was in the wrong to carry on as though they had won or not even been into the Court at all! The previous government also stated that it was reviewing the policy, so the coalition needs to be seen to be acting and not further delaying what is a simple matter of repealing s.3 of RPA 1983. It is estimated that damages claims could be as high as £135m for the UK taxpayers to foot the bill for Labour’s playing political football with convicted prisoners’ human rights.

“The First Minister: According to our legal advice, any costs would apply to the UK Government, which might concentrate minds.
Something about Mr Baker's question puzzles me. He said that the Labour Government had avoided coming to a position. It did so by introducing its first consultation paper on the issue in December 2006 and a second consultation paper in 2009, closing the consultation in December 2009 and then handing the thorny problem over to its successor Westminster Government. I think that it would be wrong for convicted prisoners to have the right to vote and the public would be outraged if compensation claims on the matter were made on any Government, whether in Scotland or the UK. However, Richard Baker should face up to the fact that the previous Labour Government's strategy in dealing with the question was to wait until it was out of office”.

• There never was anything to consult over in the first place. The UK being under an obligation to abide by the Convention and Court decisions. Labour came to a position of deciding to ignore the Court decision and any decisions reached by the Committee of Ministers. Labour left if for the next government to sort out.

• How can it be wrong for convicted prisoners to get the vote when the Court has said it is right?

• If the taxpayers are outraged by being lumbered with the bill for damages, they should let the government know who’s fault that is and it is not the prisoners to blame.

• Indeed, Labour must face criticism for its tactic. But so too must the Tories and LibDems who did not raise the issue in opposition. And, certain elements in the media are also to blame for their irresponsible news coverage directed at prisoners when the bad men were those in government.

“Robert Brown (Glasgow) (LD): The First Minister is missing the point. The UK is signed up to the European convention on human rights, so it is under the obligation to follow the protocol that refers to free and fair elections. Is he not aware that the European Court of Human Rights has made a decision on the matter? Is he suggesting that, if Scotland were independent, it would opt out of the European convention on human rights? What is the Scottish Government's position on that?”.

“The First Minister: A couple of things would improve if Scotland were an independent nation. First, we would have the same protection against compensation claims as any other country has at the moment, instead of theoretically being liable for 10 years of compensation claims—members will remember that in connection with another thorny issue. That would be a distinct improvement if Scotland were independent.
Secondly, I know that the Liberals are understandably keen on the European Court of Human Rights and the European convention on human rights. However, I cannot believe that, back in 1997 when there was blanket signing up to the ECHR, those of us who argued very strongly that human rights should be observed across the European continent thought that one of the key issues would be to give convicted prisoners the right to vote. For most people, that does not seem to be what we would consider to be an important human right”.

• I don’t think that Alex Salmond is missing the point at all, rather he is choosing to ignore it. His answer shows that he is aware that the UK signed up to the ECHR, and he is aware of Article 3 of the First Protocol because during the leadership debates for the Prime Minister he argued unsuccessfully to the BBC that by denying him a platform they were denying the people of Scotland their human rights under this Article and Protocol. Obviously he is aware of the ECtHR decision in Hirst v UK (No2), because it is referred to in the two consultation exercises that he referred to earlier.

• Alex Salmond chose to ignore the question whether he was in favour of Scotland withdrawing from the ECHR.

• It seems a very weak argument for an independent Scotland one being based on not being liable for past compensation claims.

• It is clear that Alex Salmond’s objection to convicted prisoners getting the vote now is that back in 1997 politicians did not contemplate that prisoners would also benefit from the human rights under the ECHR when it was incorporated into the HRA 1998. However, from a Prison Law Inside Out perspective it was certainly contemplated as early as 1989.

• Alex Salmond is clearly making the mistake of moral judgements regarding human rights. However, as Article 1 of the ECHR makes clear that the human rights are for all citizens regardless of their social status. As these are the minimum standards there is no room for the outdated notion of less eligibility. Therefore, all human rights should be important to all people. Given that Alex Salmond is the First Minister he should be leading by good example, and not displaying his ignorance, prejudice and fear.

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