According to the Daily Mail and its ilk it has. Everyone on both sides of the political fence are up in arms about it on the basis that criminals do not have rights. Everyone on both sides of the fence who hate Europe are up in arms about it on the basis that the EU is trouncing our own democracy.
Here’s my take on the issue and I don’t think the world has ended. It might surprise many but I think the decision is pretty fair.
Voting is not a human right, otherwise children would have the right. It’s a privilege that the ruling class has allowed to be used by anyone over the age of 18 as part of this thing called democracy. Originally the privilege was limited to male landowners criminal or otherwise but it has been enhanced over the years to include women and those without land and to include everyone regardless of race or religion. As it was enhanced it also placed restrictions such as removing the vote from those convicted of a felony.
The right to vote or suffrage is part of being a citizen. Prisoners lose some civil rights when the get locked up, namely that of freedom. But they don’t lose their citizenship. Unless they get deported too. Part of the reason for locking criminals up is to keep the dangerous ones away from the rest of society but also to punish such transgressors. But not all prisoners are dangerous to society – fine defaulters for instance.
Who can and who can’t vote has been changed constantly since it was first allowed in the 1400s. This change is just another minor update to cope with the changes in society. Nothing can stay fixed for ever. In fact one of the previous changes to the voting laws allowed prisoners to vote – but only for a short time, 1967-1969.
Voting has become to be seen as a human right due to the universality of voting.
This decision was made by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), a part of the Council of Europe (CoE). The ECHR is not part of the European Union (EU). The CoE was set up in 1949 and worked towards European integration, with particular emphasis on legal standards, human rights, democratic development, the rule of law and cultural co-operation. It’s a separate body, probably with a lot of duplication with the EU, but it’s not the EU with its aim of taking over the democracy of individual member states.
John Hirst vs UK
The case that led to the decision by the ECHR was originally brought by John Hirst. He is a convicted murderer who has now been released. Many commentators call him a low life and deserving of the death penalty, but that’s their opinions which I suppose they have a point about considering his upbringing in a Barnardos home which led to his criminal life ending with his murder conviction for killing his landlady. Some of the people mentioned by Winston Smith in his blog probably attract the same opinions.
What ever the case about John Hirst’s personality, he took the case of the blanket ban on prisoners to the high court. When he lost in 2001, he took the case to the ECHR. In 2006 the ECHR decided in his favour that the ban was against the human rights of prisoners. What they didn’t say is that all prisoners had to have the vote. What they said was that the government of the time (Labour) had to make a decision as to who and who wasn’t allowed to vote. In other words they had to lift the blanket ban and decide on a case by case basis – somehow.
This is similar to many other European countries where prisoners are allowed to vote to varying degrees. Germany, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands allow prisoners to vote. Austria, France and Italy and 9 others only allow some prisoners to vote. The UK is with Ireland and Belgium in denying suffrage to all prisoners.
There are many ways in the decision can be made. It can be made by the judge on a case by case basis. It could be decided on the length of the sentence, or the severity of the crime. They could be allowed to vote after they have used up their tariff but still kept in prison by the parole board. The government could even decide to remove the vote for life from some prisoners even when they have left prison. In no way do they have to give the right to vote to murders, pedophiles, rapists, or those who commit other serious crimes. So it will not lead to situations like this.
So the Labour government had to make a decision as to how to decide which prisoners would be allowed to vote. They did the usual thing of asking for consultations but it has now closed and they still didn’t get round to say that they would sort out the issue. Basically they sat on their arse for over five years and did nothing. They probably hoped that the issue would go away. Well it did for Labour because they left it in the hands of the coalition government to sort out. I suspect that Labour, being led by someone who was famous for not making a decision, couldn’t decide which was worse – change the law and get hit by a huge wave of public opinion or default to the ECHR. They seem to have chosen the latter. Most, sorry, all politicians are scared of public opinion to the extent that they will make a decision based on not getting kicked out of government before the needs of the country.
The current government has now said that they will sort out the mess left by Labour.
Some final thoughts. Has the ECHR decision overridden our democracy? No I don’t think so. For one thing democracy is not that big a deal. For another this is about civil rights and governments cannot trounce all over them. Governments are not above the law. The laws they make must also be fair and proportionate. If the UK government was exempt it might lead to the situation in Zimbabwe where the government there ignores the law. The UK government signed up to the principles of the CoE in 1949 and has followed many of its decisions since then. Why is the voting right any different? Previous governments have already signed away some aspects of the government control so why does the imposition of votes to some prisoners suddenly change everything. Even if the UK left Europe it would still be controlled by it just the same way that developing countries are controlled by more powerful states.
Some say that we didn’t vote to be part of the CoE and that it’s unelected judges cannot control how the UK makes its decisions. But there are many aspects of modern life which affect the UK but which we didn’t vote for. Some are external factors such as international trade laws and with the internet other country’s laws. Others are internal such as going to war against Iraq. So not everything can be voted on. Democracy is not a perfect solution.
There are many things which the government decides to do which the majority of the population doesn’t like, but due to the way democracy is set up, they don’t have a say in. There are many laws introduced, approx 3000 during Labour’s term in office, which the population didn’t vote for and would probably vote against if given the choice. The proponents of democracy say that we voted in our MP to vote on our behalf. I say we vote in our MPs to vote as they like even it including voting that the moon is made of cheese.