Ernest Hemingway said ‘most people never listen’ – and perhaps we could all be a bit better at it. Including the Government, who’ve been sticking their fingers in their ears for ten years over prisoner voting. This is an emotive issue, but let’s stick to the facts of what the European Court of Human Rights has (and hasn’t) said.
The Court has ruled (on four occasions) that the current blanket ban on prisoner voting is unlawful, and that we need to grant some voting rights – but to whom is for Parliament to decide. In theory this could mean the smallest of concessions, say enfranchising those serving less than six months or convicted of non-violent offences.
What the Court hasn’t done is direct the UK to give every rapist and murderer in the land a ballot slip. The Government also hasn’t listened to its own cross-party parliamentary committee, which recommended giving the vote to prisoners serving less than 12 months.
If we look outside our own backyard of hysteria, we’re out of step with much of Europe: France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Norway, Portugal and many others have systems where some convicts can vote or judges can impose disenfranchisement as an additional punishment.
But in a way this is neither here nor there – the fact is we’re part of an international human rights framework, and that comes with a responsibility. It means not picking and choosing what verdicts we like best, but responding in a rational and coherent way to court judgments. In this case, it means having a clear-headed debate about what voting bans achieve and when they’re appropriate.
For the record, prisoners are rightly deprived of certain rights when convicted – to punish them and protect the public. But we don’t deny them food, or access to their family. Why stop them voting? How does it help the victim, or the prisoner’s rehabilitation? Surely it only ostracises them further from society?
Some others not listening this week are the Metropolitan Police, Transport for London and Westminster City Council, who, despite being well aware of their duty to enable peaceful protest, have adopted a ‘not my job guv’ approach to a planned demonstration by the Campaign Against Climate Change.
The organisers of the Time to Act march have been told that the police will no longer facilitate the temporary closure of roads along the route – while the other authorities are telling the CACC they need to hire a private traffic management company, at a cost of thousands.
Article 11 of our Human Rights Act doesn’t say ‘everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly – if they have the financial means’. There are some things you just can’t put a price on – public protests are a powerful way of making your voice heard by those in charge.
And, finally, a rare victory! The Committee Stage debate on the Armed Forces Bill turned out to be more fruitful than we expected – the Committee voted to change the Bill so that the proposed Service Complaints Ombudsman will have power to investigate the substance of a complaint, as well as looking at maladministration. Important changes that will help create a complaints system that is effective, transparent and independent. Military life is different, but does that really mean our Armed Forces should settle for second-rate justice?