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 attack on the European Court of Human Rights is baseless

Labour Party

David Cameron has made the knee-jerk statement that the European Court of Human Rights should not make judgements on cases that have been dealt with by the courts in Britain.  He also asked for a better filtering system for cases that are tried in the court.

Cameron’s comments come after last weeks decision by the ECHR to stop the extradition of Abu Qatada to Jordan on the grounds that evidence at his trial may have been obtained through torture.  There have also been numerous mutterings from within the Tory party about the UK’s current relationship with the ECHR and many extraordinarily misinformed articles in the right-wing press.

Now the UK government is in a position to do something about their perceived problem as they have taken over the six monthly chairmanship of the Council of Europe, which oversees the ECHR.

This seems like another example of Cameron’s populist tendencies coming through.  The idea that the ECHR should not look at cases that have already been dealt with in Britain is absurd beyond belief.  That is exactly what the court is designed to do and has done effectively in the past.  We should not forget that it was the ECHR who ruled that the highly controversial interrogation methods used during the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the seventies were in breach of the Convention on Human Rights after the UK had dismissed the case.

I would also advise Mr Cameron to stop reading the Daily Mail and the Telegraph so much, as their anti-European bent leads to a great deal of misinformation being published in their pages.  Both papers made the extraordinary and unfounded claim that the British government is defeated in three out of every four cases brought against it in the ECHR.  Given the fact that, as published by the ECHR which you can read here, 84% of all cases brought to the court are deemed inadmissible, that 75% claimed by the Mail and Telegraph is probably more like 2%. 

The fact is that if Abu Qatada would have been tried using evidence obtained through torture then we are obligated not to send him to Jordan.  We can’t have a set of rules, but ignore it if the person in question is really awful.  That is not how free and open democracies work

The European Court of Human Rights is Fit for Purpose.

Labour Party

Ken McDonald’s opinion piece in the Times today is quite simply wrong. Far from measures being needed to reduce the reduce the scope of its jurisdiction, the ECHR is one of Europe’s success stories.

McDonald’s main argument as to why the court is “no longer fit for purpose” is that is now has a backlog of 150,000 cases growing at 20,000 per year. While this is not perhaps an indication of an organisation fully in charge of its workload, it does show just how popular the court is with the people of Europe. Surely it is obvious that the solution to an oversubscribed service is to expand the service rather than curtail it? Surely that would be more beneficial than restricting people’s access to justice because the violations of their human rights weren’t really “serious enough”?

 Politicians and journalists frequently complain about the democratic deficit of the EU and how the structures of governance are not accountable to the people. The ECHR however, is actually a body that is reachable by all citizens of the EU and its role is to respond to their most fundamental of needs, the upholding of their human rights.

 This leads me to McDonald’s next argument, that the court is now overstretching itself in terms of the breadth of cases it is willing to hear. What he forgets, however, is that much as the rights to not be killed, tortured or imprisoned without trial are extremely important human rights they are not the only ones. The European Declaration of Human Rights is far more expansive than that. In order to properly uphold the law of the EU, the Court is actually obliged to consider all cases brought to it in which the claimant believes their rights to have been violated according to that law.

 Finally, the author also argues that the ECHR is in the impossible position of trying to apply the same law to former Soviet dictatorships as to the ‘nice, friendly’ countries of the West. This is a gross misrepresentation of the state of affairs within Europe. While the UK certainly has better human rights standards than other parts of the continent it is by no means exemplary. Consider for instance the deporting of victims of trafficking, the discrimination against same-sex couples and the slow erosion of civil liberties in recent years. The number of cases brought against the UK government in the ECHR (443 judgments since its creation) shows that the UK is also in need of an impartial overseer in matters of human rights protection.

Human Rights are dictated by moral reasoning – on this point Europe has reached legal agreement. It is right that all of Europe should be judged by the same standards of justice. That is the purpose of the ECHR and one for which it is fit.

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.

Honeyball’s weekly round-up

Labour Party

I am beginning to feel a little better following a nasty bout of shingles. Thank youto everyone who has sent me good wishes.

Last week the British Government defied the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and rejected its decision to allow prisoners the right to vote.

This was a disappointing result. Most prisoners at some point will be re integrated back into society; this gives them an opportunity to take on the responsibility and of reminding them what it is to contribute to society.

Of course the argument should be about what assistance, support and encouragement prisoners should be given in order to reintegrate them back into society.

Instead, it became a battle of wills for euro skeptic MPs insistent on showing that British sovereignty reigns supreme over and above that of the ECHR.

I wrote a piece on this for the blog earlier last week and suggested various theories as to why the Government has pursued this line over prisoner votes, but whatever else it sends a clear signal to Europe generally and of course to the ECHR that it doesn’t take it seriously.

Is Mr Cameron in someway intimidated by Europe? He continues to convey his anti-Europe rhetoric; but calling on the British Parliament to ignore European judges is not clever and may well have serious long term implications. You can read the full article on the vote here which includes a summary of the debate from the Daily Mail sketch writer Quentin Letts.

I was troubled to learn today that TUC research has revealed that unemployment rates among young women (aged 18-24) has trebled since the recession began in some parts of the country. Specifically of concern are those in the South West where it has risen from 5% to 14% since 2008.

These rates are alarming, the Government has a responsibility to acknowledge and work with groups in problem areas to alleviate the problems.

The crippling long term effects of joblessness will be felt by women especially after local authority budgets are cut where thousands of women are employed.

Yvette Cooper, said that the consequences of an increase in female unemployment will be a devastating blow for Britain’s children and families.

She is right of course, but the government has clearly signaled where its priorities are in terms of equality after it was revealed that the equality offices budget will be slashed from £76m to £47m between 2014-2015. You can read the full story here.

The Tories’ atempt to deny prisoners voting rights is about self interest not public interest

Labour Party

The Daily Mail and David Cameron are trying to tell us that the Government’s decision to give MPs a free vote on whether or not long-term prisoners should have the vote is about asserting the supremacy of the British Parliament over the European Court of Human Rights.

It sounds good, doesn’t it, and is music to the ears of Eurosceptic MPs. Good old Blighty taking on those uppity continentals who want to destroy our way of doing things.

However, on closer examination it becomes clear that the European Court of Human Rights is not by any means the matter as a whole. Giving prisoners the vote could potentially upset the electoral arithmetic in some Tory seats.  For instance, Dartmoor Prison in the Tory held Torridge and West Devon constituency has an inmate population of about 1000. Since the current Tory majority is just under 3000, the potential for the prison vote to make a difference is very high.

I believe it is no coincidence that Cameron is seeking to deny prisoners the vote as his plan to reduce the number of House of Commons constituencies is going through the House of Lords, albeit with strong opposition from Labour peers. The move to stop prisoners voting is quite clearly part of the same process – to gerrymander constituencies so that the Tories gain maximum advantage by foul means or fair.

So while we have Cameron behaving extremely cynically in order to maintain Tory MPs in Parliament and dressing up in his best anti-EU rhetoric, his junior coalition partners now have a real problem. Since the Liberal-Democrats before the 2010 general election actively wanted to enfranchise prisoners, I wonder where this leaves them in relation to their coalition responsibilities.

Meanwhile the question of European Court of Human Rights rulings still remains. Quite clearly the UK should not go against the European Court. Former Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, who was incidentally appointed to the post by Margaret Thatcher, has insisted Britain must recognise its rights under the European Convention on Human Rights and is very clear that politics should be conducted under the rule of law.

This is, indeed, true and I wonder what former Labour Home Secretary was doing in signing a motion with Tory MP David Davies calling on the British Parliament to ignore the European judges.

In conclusion it is worth bearing in mind that the only EU countries with an outright ban on prisoners voting are Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Luxembourg and Romania. Were Britain to go down the David Cameron route, we would be among the EU countries that have the least respect for human rights.