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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The MPs voting against prisoners, and 21st century civic death

The MPs voting against prisoners, and 21st century civic death

Afua Hirsch
February 11, 2011 ET
(I seem to have missed this first time around)

Politicians of all parties are threatening to vote against implementing the European court of human rights ruling that prisoners should be given the vote. Photograph: Paul Doyle/Alamy

John Hirst is not a sympa­thet­ic char­ac­ter. The 59-year old hacked his lan­dla­dy to death with an axe in 1979, and was convicted of manslaugh­ter af­ter he successfully pleaded di­min­ished responsibility on the basis of a person­ality disor­der that rendered him amoral. Al­though Hirst's much discussed Eu­ropean court of human rights lit­igation "Hirst v UK" has caused an unprecedented row about the na­ture of the UK's relation­ship with the court in Strasbourg, that the man him­self makes an uncompelling spokes­per­son for a cause is undeniable.

Hirst claimed that the prohi­bi­tion on voting for pris­oners was a vio­lation of his funda­mental rights. In 2005 the Eu­ropean court of human rights agreed – sort of. It said that the UK's law – a blan­ket ban on pris­oners voting was wrong. When the govern­ment asked the court for guid­ance as to where exactly the line could be drawn in determining which pris­oners should be giv­en the vote and which shouldn't, the court dec­lined to pro­vide it.

"It is primarily for the state concerned to choose… the means to be used in its do­mes­tic le­gal or­der," the court said.

In oth­er words, the court said that while a blan­ket ban is a vio­lation of the right of the state's obligation to take a proactive role in fa­cili­tating free elections, how UK law should change to re­m­e­dy the sit­uation is for the demo­crat­ically elected leg­is­la­ture – parlia­ment – to decide.

You wouldn't know that, giv­en the frenzied debate about the court encroach­ing on our le­gal system this week. Faced with the prospect of unpopular leg­is­lation be­ing de­manded by some "Eu­ropeans", all three branches of state – the govern­ment, MPs, and judges – have obe­di­ently tak­en their cue to start Strasbourg-bash­ing. Next up is a backbench Commons debate tabled by Conservative MP David Davis, de­manding that the UK should defy the court and con­tinue to deprive all pris­oners of the vote.

Giv­en that David Davis is prob­a­bly best known out­side parlia­ment for his track record in defending civ­il lib­erties, it is one of many ironies about a West­minster move­ment against letting pris­oners vote that he should be a key pro­tag­o­n­ist. The circus surrounding pris­oners voting rights is all part of the up­side-down world where the To­ries stand up for human rights, and oth­er­wise civ­il lib­erties-defending politicians con­tinue to resist them.

And then there's the Labour party. The for­mer govern­ment presided over the deadlock in new leg­is­lation to imple­ment the court's rul­ing for five years whilst they were in power. Now a brief­ing circulated by Jack Straw to the parlia­mentary labour party, which I've seen, is the clear­est example yet on how much the party has lost its way on the question of civ­il lib­erties.

Straw says it's ok to change the law on the court's say so when it comes to "gen­uinely important issues like phone tapping", but that the issue of pris­oner's voting is "very differ­ent". He then goes on to echo many of the al­legations in the Pol­icy Exchange report earli­er this week, such as the idea that Eu­ropean judges lack com­pe­tence, and that chang­ing the law on pris­oners voting would be to "al­low the court to ex­tend its re­mit far be­yond any­thing that was ev­er antic­ipated".

On the one hand there is the question of why, if Straw is so determined to defy the Strasbourg rul­ing, his govern­ment wasted public time and mon­ey on two pro­tracted consultations on how to give pris­oners the vote.

On the oth­er, there is the big­ger issue – the strongly held view among MPs that pris­oners voting is not an issue of funda­mental human rights. This is clear nonsense – as the ju­risprudence from many oth­er so­phis­ticated democ­ra­cies demonstrates.

Depriv­ing pris­oners of the right to vote is part of an out-dated mental­ity of social exclu­sion, de­lib­erate dehuman­i­sa­tion and "civic death" which should have disappeared with the Victo­rians and certainly should not have now found new favour among labour politicians.

But we all know that politicians, including those on the left, are will­ing to abandon human rights principles when to do so seems in accordance with public opin­ion. As Lord Mackay pointed out in his ev­idence to the constitution­al reform committee, pub­lished in a report this week, the same think­ing would have seen the death penalty still on the statute books. "The prob­lem is that if you go along with public opin­ion you may well find your­self with op­pressed minorities," Mackay said.

The Eu­ropean court on human rights exists for exactly these sit­uations – where politicians lack the vi­sion, courage or wisdom to pro­vide unpopular people with the lev­el of human rights pro­tection that is accepted as part of an emerg­ing international standard. As history has repeatedly shown, in the end that standard tends to be big­ger than the small-minded politicians of the day. But that would be to think long-term, and as the Jack Straws of this world like to re­m­ind us, that is not what they do.

Comment: Apart from Afua Hirsch's vivid imagination, that is, which left me wondering how you hack someone to death with the blunt end of an axe; and her failure to realise that the 3 arms of the State are the Executive, Parliament and Judiciary, the article is pretty good. I think it is a bit rich coming frim her that I make an uncompelling spokesperson, given that her last link has my fingerprints all over it. I fed it to the Prison Reform Trust who fed it to her. Compared to me she has just climbed down from the trees, or just got off the Banana Boat. She owes her position at the Guardian not down to merit, but because she fills the black and woman tick boxes.

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