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Monday, January 24, 2011

Votes for prisoners: Bang to rights

Votes for prisoners: Bang to rights

Reluctance to meet our obligations to the European court of human rights makes it harder to uphold rights everywhere

Editorial The Guardian, Monday 24 January 2011

It has been a rough week for the coalition, and the Lib Dems' ambitions for constitutional reform have had the worst of it. The battle for the alternative vote teeters between success and disaster, while the attempt to allow prisoners the vote is taking on water. Complying with the 2004 ruling from the European court of human rights is still on the agenda, but in so weak a manner as to be likely to provoke a new legal challenge. This is not just an argument about human rights. It is a surrogate for an attack on the ECHR, led by Eurosceptic libertarian Tory MP David Davis in an unprincipled alliance with Labour's top command-and-control merchant, Jack Straw.

More than five years ago, the ECHR found that the UK's blanket ban on votes for prisoners was a breach of their human rights. To comply with the ruling, the UK government had to decide on what grounds prisoners could be disenfranchised. Despite complaints from Strasbourg, Labour procrastinated. The matter was unresolved when the coalition came in. Credit to Nick Clegg for including it in his constitutional reform remit, and coming up with a solution – votes for those sentenced to less than four years, with judicial discretion to remove the right in certain circumstances – which most thought would answer the case. Now he has been forced to concede that only those sentenced to less than a year should be enfranchised. The former proposal would have allowed about half the UK's adult prisoners to vote, the latter barely one in 10. Human rights lawyers will be standing by their BlackBerries.

There are two points here. First, as correspondents argued on these pages recently, it is morally right that prisoners should both pay their debt to society while continuing to remain a part of it. But the broader point is that the purpose of human rights legislation is to protect unpopular minorities. By definition, governments will find compliance politically uncomfortable. But noncompliance – failing to reach the basic standard that the British architects of the ECHR laid down 60 years ago – should be considered worse.

The Strasbourg court has little in the way of sanctions. The upholding of human rights elsewhere – in, say, Chechnya, or Lithuania – depends in part on the readiness of this country and others to accept and comply with the spirit of its rulings. There are many proposals for improving the court's workings, but no one has suggested an alternative to its authority resting on consensus and the capacity of signatories to be embarrassed when they are found in breach. David Cameron's churlish intention to do as little as possible to meet our obligations makes it harder to uphold rights everywhere.

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