Prisoners to get the vote while Church of England bishops are barred
They can get discounts on their sentences, enjoy conjugal rights, and are entitled to free heroin and cocaine because ‘cold turkey’ breaches their human rights.
So why not give them the vote?
Every key marginal would then be yearning for a prison to be built in the constituency so that a visiting parliamentary candidate could kill a couple of thousand jail birds with one canvassing stone. Imagine the glorious gerrymandering opportunity: one speech to a captive audience in which you promise them the key to their cell, and that’s your majority taken care of.
This is not, of course, an EU issue.
But it will be presented, perceived and understood as one.
And coming the week after the Prime Minister conceded a £430million increase in the EU budget, he needs this judgement like a hole in the head.
Sentenced prisoners have been denied the right to take part in ballots since the passing of the Forfeiture Act 1870. This was itself based on the 14th-century notion of ‘civic death’, and has been sustained right up to the Representation of the People Act 1983.
It is this blanket ban which has been deemed by the European Court of Human Rights to be a breach of prisoners’ human rights.
The European Court of Human Rights is not an institution of the European Union. It is a creation of the Council of Europe (again, not an EU body: it has 47 member states) and rules on disputes arising from the European Convention on Human Rights which was incorporated into UK law in the Human Rights Act 1998.
In this sense, Strasbourg has nothing to do with Brussels.
But that won’t stop millions of furious Daily Mail readers banging on about Brussels.
If they want to blame anyone, they need look no further than ‘jailhouse lawyer’ John Hirst, who, whilst a guest of Her Majesty after having been found guilty of killing his landlady with an axe, challenged the removal of his vote. The ECHR ruled in 2004 that the blanket ban was discriminatory and breached the European Convention on Human Rights. However, the ruling said that each country can decide which offences should carry restrictions to voting rights.
Labour kicked the issue well and truly into the long grass, and the Coalition has simply inherited the inevitable.
The issue now is that either the Government complies with the ruling, or they will face compensation claims of tens of millions of pounds from prisoners whose human rights have been infringed (at least according to the ECHR).
His Grace has a few things to say:
Firstly, voting is not a human right.
If it were, babies would be given a ballot paper at the breast, and schoolchildren would not be deprived of their inviolable pursuit of democracy. Voting is an entitlement of privilege granted to members of a democratic society which forms part of a social contract. When that contract is broken, as it undoubtedly is by the law-breaker, it is not unreasonable for the entitlement to be removed.
To be free is a human right. And yet it is manifestly forfeited in the provision of a custodial sentence.
There is no end to re-classifying of entitlements as ‘rights’, and this can only have the effect of undermining the rule of law and diminishing the authority of the state to determine and dispense justice.
Secondly, if David Cameron learned enough philosophy from his PPE degree, he could turn this ruling to his advantage.
It is important to note that the ECHR has granted national governments the right to determine which classification of prisoners might be given the right to vote and which deprived: the power remains for a sovereign Parliament to legislate to ensure that murderers, rapists and paedophiles do not determine the outcome of a general election.
And while they are legislating on that, they might consider including those who commit fraud, burgle houses, steal cars or graffiti walls.
In theory, there is no limit upon the Coalition to determine who may not vote: the ECHR ruling applies only to the blanket prohibition.
Thirdly, there is no question of prisoners being released on parole to visit their nearest polling station: they are all likely to be postal votes.
It is already known that this area needs urgent reform, and there is no reason why the same rules which are designed to prevent some Asian males from casting multiple votes on behalf of their sisters, cousins and aunts, might also apply to a prison regime in which harassment, bullying and intimidation must be endemic.
Fourthly, His Grace thought that the UK had a ‘Supreme Court’.
In what sense is it supreme if it still be subject to rulings from a higher court?
Fifthly, the Attorney General Dominic Grieve has previously said it would be ‘ludicrous’ to give prisoners the right to vote.
And yet he is one of the Conservative Party’s foremost proponents of the ECHR.
Is it not time to revisit the Human Rights Act 1998 and the UK’s adoption of the European Convention on Human Rights, irrespective of the role UK lawyers played in its drafting?
Sixthly, in terms of cost, it is estimated that the taxpayer might have to foot a compensation bill of around £50 million if 70,000 prisoners are not given the vote; each individual claim is likely to be of the order of £750.
Why not then extract the equivalent of this sum from each claiming prisoner on release, by way of reparation? A compulsory community service; a mandatory contribution to the ‘Big Society’?
Seventhly, if David Cameron were to assert Parliamentary Sovereignty and refuse to comply with this ruling (unlikely, of course, whilst in coalition with a Europhiliac deputy prime minister, but bear with His Grace), what’s the worst that could happen?
Suspension or expulsion from the Council of Europe?
Would the UK actually lose anything by such action?
And eighthly, and finally, it must be observed that it is not only convicted prisoners who are deprived by UK law from participating in general elections. The ban extends to members of the House of Lords, including life peers, Church of England archbishops and bishops and hereditary peers who have retained their seat in the House of Lords.
And under common law, people with mental disabilities are also deprived of their ‘human right’ to vote if, on polling day, they are incapable of making a reasoned judgement.
Such a draconian restriction is hardly conducive to their rehabilitation or to the education of the general population with regard to the stigma of mental health problems.
Quite why Church of England bishops should be categorised with the mentally insane is unknown.
Is this not religious discrimination?
Ought it to be tested in the omnipotent and omnibenevolent European Court of Human Rights?
Why should being a state shepherd of the state’s sheep deprive one of the right to determine by whom one is governed?