Prison Break

Labour Party

Yesterday David Cameron was given six months to honour the coalition Government’s pledge to give prisoners the vote. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) had previously ruled that a blanket ban on all serving prisoners losing voting rights is in breach of their human rights.

Voting is a basic human right, and if we agree that prisoners are entitled to other basic human rights then disenfranchisement is a contradiction of this view.

The ECHR has now twice ruled that losing voting rights is a breach of prisoners human rights and the court twice decreed the UK’s total ban to be illegal.

Despite this nothing has been done. In addition, the waters have been somewhat ‘muddied’ as a result of how the ECHR has enforced this ruling because member states have been given discretion in how they regulate any form of ban. This complicates matters and allows for avoidance of any such assurance that those incarcerated will have the right to vote.

For example the ECHR said it now accepted the UK government argument that ‘each state has a wide discretion as to how it regulates the ban, both as regards the types of offence that should result in the loss of the vote and as to whether disenfranchisement should be ordered by a judge in an individual case or should result from general application of a law.’

The problem this creates isn’t just an unecessary level of bureaucracy but also it encourages class lines to be drawn if, for example, those who commit white collar crimes and/or who have a suspended sentence are expmpt from disenfranchisement then rightly further issues arise. In addition any ruling would need to be consistently and fairly used therefore a ruling by a judge on a case by case basis will create further problems.

The right to participate in free elections, like the right to freedom from torture and degrading treatment, freedom of forced labour or the right to an education are all basic human rights exercised in the UK. If any of these rights and freedoms are breached, you have a right to an effective solution in law.

The UK was given nine months to introduce at least partial voting rights for some prisoners in November 2011, but has not done so. A new six month deadline was triggered by yesterday’s ruling- now it really is the time to get this right and allow prisoners the opportunity to exercise their basic human right.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, summed it up perfectly when she said: ‘People are sent to prison to lose their liberty, not their identity.’

David Cameron’s stance on the European Court of Human Rights would make Winston Churchill turn in his grave

Labour Party

In what seems like a follow-up to his stupidly short-sighted refusal to join all 26 other EU leaders in signing up to treaty change at the summit in Brussels on 9 December last year, David Cameron is again displaying his ignorance on European matters.

 Cameron now wants to reform the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which is, incidentally, nothing to do with the European Union. While there is probably no institution on this earth which would not benefit from some kind of sensible reform, Cameron’s attack on the ECHR is undoubtedly motivated by a desire to appease the feral Eurosceptic Tories who not only make up much of the Parliamentary Conservative Party but were also instrumental in electing Cameron as Party Leader.

 Cameron obviously knows little about ECHR. In yesterday’s Independent Sir Nicholas Bratza, the British judge who heads up the Court, put forward a sterling defence of its long and distinguished record, citing, amongst other things, the judgements which allowed the media to challenge restrictions on reporting the Thalidomide case and ensured child criminals were not charged in adult courts.

 David Cameron’s attitude to the ECHR becomes even more dislocated when the history of British cases tried in the Court is examined. Over the past 12 months Britain only lost eight of the 955 applications sent to the ECHR. This fact alone makes a complete mockery of David Cameron’s accusation that the ECHR “meddles” in internal UK matters.

Maybe Cameron should look hard at the two cases he believes did constitute interference – allowing prisoners to vote and the ruling that the radical cleric Abu Qatada cannot be returned to Jordan. I believe prisoners have basic human rights, the franchise being one of them. In the case of Abu Qatada, the ECHR would not allow the deportation of a man who would be tried by the Jordanians using evidence gained by torture.

Prisoners voting rights and the Abu Qatada case transported the feral Tory right into a state of apoplexy. This is the real reason Cameron is turning his attention to the European Court of Human Rights. Winston Churchill, who played a key role in establishing the Court, would surely turn in his grave if he knew the levels to which the modern Conservative Party has sunk.

David Cameron is displaying the same breathtaking level of ignorance about the ECHR as he has already done on the European Union. While I am prepared to concede there may be a case for reasonable reform of the ECHR based on proper evidence, this does not appear to be the way Cameron is looking at the issue.

David Cameron is also going it alone again. He either does not understand, or does not wish to understand, that European institutions are made up of many countries, 47 in the case of the Council of Europe which oversees the European Court of Human Rights. I believe that as a lone voice, albeit as the one currently holding the Council of Europe presidency, calling for reform, Cameron will almost certainly fail. To be successful, he will need to build alliances, something he does not seem to have done and may not be able to achieve during the six month presidency.

This is all very reminiscent of the debacle on 9 December. Cameron left the Brussels summit with nothing. We know he did not circulate the British demands to the other summit members until the night before rather than two weeks earlier which is the usual practice to allow time for discussion negotiation. We have also heard that Cameron did not involve the UK Permanent Representation to the EU in the preparation for the summit, an extraordinary dereliction of duty which lends weight to the argument that Cameron did not take the summit seriously.

 David Cameron is treating the EU and now the ECHR with utter contempt in order to buy off the rebellious hordes on his backbenches. He is merely engaging in superficial posturing. I very much doubt if push were to come to shove he would actually take Britain out of the ECHR, largely because there would be a huge body of informed opinion against such a move.       

 What I personally want to see from the Prime Minister is honesty. The UK has been in the EU for nearly 40 years and the ECHR even longer. These institutions are part of the very fabric of our society and also have a lot of good in them. Britain is never going to come out of either, so let’s stop kidding ourselves.

Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

Another week and another clash with Europe, this time it was over the issue of human rights legislation. Britain’s most senior judges have warned that new legislation threatens “the way the entire system of criminal justice in this country works”. They have warned that the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has rejected fundamental rules of criminal evidence enacted by Parliament to ensure that criminals do not escape conviction. You can read the full story here.

Whatever the case the ECHR is unpopular here because the Conservative led government is unhappy with many of its rulings. However, I was not surprised that the Government will seek to reform the relationship between the ECHR and national parliaments when it assumes chairmanship of the Council of Europe in November. It follows controversial rulings on sex offenders and votes for prisoners. I blogged on both of these at the time and am more in agreement with the ECHR than the Con-Dems on both these issues.

The usually pro-European Kenneth Clarke, the Justice Secretary, told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show that the government intended to scrutinise the UK’s relationship with the ECHR following calls from a large number of Conservative backbenchers for the UK to walk away from the ECHR because they are unhappy with its rulings. However, once again these little England Tories show a huge lack of understanding of the ECHR. You can read more on this here.