Sunday, 25 November 2012

Parliament needs a serious debate on votes for prisoners, not playground posturing from the government.

Parliament will get the ultimate decision as to whether or not the UK grants voting rights to prisoners, says Justice Secretary Chris Grayling. Although something of an assertion of the obvious this is exactly as it should be.

The government has waited until the last possible moment to address the issue of complying with a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that the current practice of denying prisoners the vote is not compatible with the convention on human rights. In a statement to parliament on Thursday he cited legal advice received by the government making it clear that parliament could breach individuals’ human rights if it wished, in this case by denying prisoners the vote.

The Ministry of Justice has published draft legislation offering MPs three options, maintaining the status quo, giving votes to prisoners serving sentences of six months or less, or giving the vote to prisoners serving up to four years behind bars. What, if anything might be done to give voting rights to prisoners serving longer sentences is an issue that seems to have been swept under the Westminster carpet.

In his statement Mr Grayling said that it was ‘ultimately for parliament to determine’ what to do and that ‘nobody can impose a solution on parliament, but it is accepted practice that the UK observes its international obligations.’ Last year parliament voted by 234 votes to 22 not to give prisoners the vote, at the time this was seen as an instance of plucky little Britain striking a blow against the overweening EU.

Although the language he used on Thursday was suitably cautious the subtext in Chris Grayling’s speech was that parliament should take the opportunity to do so again. This is something the sillier sections of the Tory party will respond to in the way dogs respond to a high pitched whistle; by rushing off to obey the call of unreasoning instinct.

The Justice Secretary added that the ‘constraints’ exercised on parliament were ‘political not legal’ and that the ‘principle of legality means that parliament must confront what its doing and accept the political cost.’ Reading between the lines any dissenters from the populist line can expect to be thrown to the tabloid wolves, who just happen to be ravenous for a taste of woolly liberal.

One such dissenter is Labour MP Paul Flynn, who pointed out that by following the line suggested by the government the UK could by ‘insisting on the British way on a relatively insignificant matter’ be giving ‘ an open invitation to other countries in Europe to mistreat their prisoners.’

I agree with him on everything apart from one point, whether or not we give prisoners the vote isn’t a ‘relatively insignificant matter;’ it is a hugely important one. An issue of principle that goes to the heart of what sort of country we want to be.

Not that you’d know it from the way the government has handled the issue, an odd mixture of foot dragging and blustering assertions from the PM that ‘prisoners are not getting the vote under this government.’ A stance that seems as baffling as it is reactionary from a man who is, quite correctly, willing to fight his own party over the issue of gay marriage. Yet again we are left wondering which, if any is the real David Cameron; the shire Tory or the metropolitan progressive or some grey mix of the two.

The principle behind the issue is simple, so simple it needs repeating time and time again. Giving votes to prisoners isn’t to do with soppy liberalism or condoning what they might have done to end up behind bars; it is about protecting an inalienable right of citizenship. In a democracy when someone is jailed for a crime they may lose their freedom for a period, but they are still citizens.

An honest and open debate in parliament would draw this issue out into the open and make MPs confront the real political cost of their choice, if we can take the franchise away from a prisoner is it secure for anyone else? Can the UK continue to preach the virtues of democracy to other nations when its own isn’t operating fairly? I don’t intend to offer up pat answers to either question, it is something that has to be wrestled with as an issue of conscience.

Sadly what we have been presented with is muddled legislation and shallow gamesmanship on the part of the government. This is perhaps par for the course since its leader has truly shown himself to be the ‘heir to Blair.’ A showman who alternately patronises and provokes his own party and treats parliament with thinly disguised disdain.

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