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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Unchristian views towards convicted prisoners

Unchristian views towards convicted prisoners

David Burrowes MP claims that: “The rehabilitation of prisoners will not be helped by giving them the vote”.

However given that prisoners have been disenfranchised since the franchise was extended to the common people in 1832, or at least, since the Forfeiture Act 1870, the rehabilitative idea has not been tested. Therefore, he is just expressing an opinion without producing any evidence to support his hot air idea.

David Burrowes MP claims that: “Prisoners should be given the vote, but ignoring the European Court of Human Rights entirely would set a dangerous precedent”.

Under the European Convention on Human Rights, the UK is under an obligation to not only abide by the Articles under the Convention, but also to abide by and fully comply with the Court judgments. Therefore, his implying that there is room for not fully complying entirely is misguided. Beware of false prophets.

David Burrowes MP claims that: “When a person commits a crime against the peace and security of their community, it is essential that the gravity of such behaviour is reflected in society’s response. For justice to be done, it is necessary that those convicted not only have their freedom of movement restricted, but are shown that their treatment of others separates them from those others. In a democratic society this can and has been demonstrated by ensuring that no prisoner has the right to vote”.

When a person commits a crime it is contrary to the criminal law, and not against the peace and security of the community. The State imposes a sanction on the offender, and does so claiming that the State is acting on behalf of the public. Justice has to be lawful and not unlawful. Only those given a custodial sentence are deprived of their liberty. This does not include removal from society because prisoners remain part of society and members of the public, just not the public at large. The ECtHR ruled in my case Hirst v UK (No2), that the UK was guilty of a breach of human rights, democracy, and rule of law. Therefore, the UK is not a democratic society whilst ever a large section of the population, all convicted prisoners, remains disenfranchised.

David Burrowes MP claims that: “It is right that we should always seek to rehabilitate those who are imprisoned so that they can rejoin society with refreshed aspirations and renewed opportunity, but this will not be achieved or helped along by giving prisoners the right to vote. Not once in my 18 years as a Criminal Defence Solicitor did a client in prison ever complain that they could not vote or demand the right to do so”.

Given that prisoners are sent to prison as a punishment and not for punishment, rehabilitation should be the primary objective of imprisonment. As already stated, prisoners do not leave society therefore the view that they somehow need to rejoin it is as redundant as it is outdated. One of the first acts of a South Africa free from apartheid was this the Constitutional Court of South Africa ruling: "The universality of the franchise is important not only for nationhood and democracy. The vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and personhood. Quite literally, it says that everybody counts". So, whether or not the franchise aids rehabilitation is immaterial. In my 35 years of imprisonment, I discovered that notwithstanding the legal maxim “ignorance of the law is no excuse” the lawyers I came across in prison their knowledge stopped outside the prison gate. So, I am not surprised that no prisoner raised the issue with him; it has nothing to do with the criminal law. Therefore it is not in his specialised area of knowledge. Prisoners resort to jailhouse lawyers for their rights in relation to their imprisonment and not outsiders.

David Burrowes MP claims that: “The practical problem is because the previous government stalled a change in the law for 5 years we now face up to 2,500 compensation claims from prisoners which could cost the taxpayer as much as £160 million - money that we can ill afford. It would be outrageous in this time of austerity for victims and their families to endure compensation awards going to prisoners”.

David Burrows is being less than truthful here. True the Labour administration ignored the ruling for 5 years. However, it is also true that neither the HMG in Opposition nor the LibDems challenged them for this so they are all as guilty under the joint enterprise rule. They entered into a conspiracy of silence. The 2,500 cases mentioned are just the backlog at the ECtHR, there are 75,000 prisoners looking for £135m compensation for loss of the vote in the 2009 European and 2010 general elections. If the matter is not resolved in time for the May 2011 elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and AV referendum in England, then that figure will rise to £270m. Given that it is the UK State which is guilty, and David Burrowes MP is part and parcel of the State, it is outrageous for him to attempt to bring the victims of crime and their families into this. Under the HRA the victims of State abuse are the convicted prisoners being denied their human right to vote. The victims of crime get their justice when a criminal faces trial and is sentenced. It is disingenuous to conflate the two separate issues.

David Burrowes MP claims that: “I believe the British Government must do the minimum that is necessary, but only that, to act in accordance with the European Court of Human Rights. It may be that any threshold Parliament sets can be challenged in the courts. The only course then available will be to give discretion to the judges with Parliament’s view expressed in sentencing guidelines”.

The minimum necessary is fully complying with the ruling in my case. The threshold set by the ECtHR is that all convicted prisoners must get the vote. Parliament has no authority to set a lower threshold, because the Court decision is final. The guilty party cannot be judge in its own cause. The only course is for Kenneth Clarke to make a remedial order under s.10 of the HRA 1998 to amend s.3 of ROPA 1983 and lay it before Parliament. Only in the very limited cases, for example, someone convicted of electoral fraud or abuse in a public office, can the franchise be removed and only then by a judge. Giving judges discretion to remove the vote from any other offenders will not be acceptable to the Council of Europe.

David Burrowes MP claims that: “Yet there is a wider principle at stake here. While I recognise the court’s legitimacy, in this case it has clearly overstepped the explicit intentions of the authors and of the signatories of the convention. Before signing up to the convention Britain specifically ensured that the words “universal suffrage” were removed from the article covering political participation. That these words were removed shows that the court’s decision pushes the document further than is, and ever was, desirable. The way the Court exercises its function must be revisited to ensure that the sovereignty of our Parliament and people is respected”.

Given that the Court determines its own jurisdiction it cannot be claimed that it has overstepped its jurisdiction. When the UK signed up to the Convention we still had the British Empire and its territories overseas, and the UK sought to keep its subjects subdued. Because the Convention is a ‘living instrument’ it is able to move forward in time even if some in the UK still like to think that they live in the days of the glorious British Empire. The Venice Commission reinstated the principle of “universal suffrage”, and the Court in my case decided that it was time to move on. The doctrine of the sovereignty of Parliament is not recognised in European law; rather the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people applies. The Court has stated that the rule of law means that the UK must fully comply with Hirst v UK (No2).

In my view, David Burrowes MP should amend his views or do the honourable thing and resign, because based upon this article he is clearly not fit for purpose.

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