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Gordon Campbell: ongoing saga of prisoners' right to vote

Gordon Campbell on the ongoing saga of prisoners' right to vote

Last year, and despite the objections of its own Attorney-General, the Key government removed the right of all prisoners to vote. That puts us outside normal practice in most of the developed world.

This week, Thomas Hammerberg, the European commissioner of human rights told the British government why a proposal by a Tory backbencher to restrict the right to vote to those serving less than a year was unacceptable under European law :

Convicts are human beings with human rights. I hope the British authorities will respect the [Strasbourg] court ruling on voting rights for prisoners. They could do that knowing that most other member states of the Council of Europe already allow prisoners to vote – and this has caused no real problems and is not even an issue in these countries. With the elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland drawing near, it is high time that the UK made good on its obligations."

Those obligations were spelled out in a landmark European court ruling six years ago.

However, the Blair/Brown Labour governments failed to implement the European court ruling. This week, the British Parliament will hold a conscience vote on a Tory backbencher Bill that aims to limit the vote to those serving less than a year. There is no moral principle involved in this shabby exercise. The Bill is an attempt to shield the British government from having to pay compensation to a group of 2,500 British convicts who have sued for being wrongfully disenfranchised.

Hammerberg again, cited reasons why denying convicts the right to vote – while widely supported among a vengeful public – diminishes the whole notion of democracy :

"It may be sobering to remind ourselves that democracy was once established through the idea of universal suffrage. Our forefathers accepted the principle that not only male persons, nobles, and those who owned property or paid taxes should have the right to vote, but everyone – irrespective of their status in society. We may now feel that some of these right-holders do not deserve this possibility, but to exclude them is to undermine a crucial dimension of the very concept of democracy – and human rights."

He said the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights said everyone had the right to take part in the government of their country and stipulated that this should be expressed in elections based on universal and equal suffrage.

To his credit, NZ Attorney-General Chris Finlayson had pointed out the bizarre outcomes if New Zealand did go down the path of denying all prisoners the right to vote. A serious violent offender for example, could be lucky enough to serve their two and a half year jail sentence between elections, without losing their right to vote. By contrast however, a person unlucky enough to be jailed for a week for unpaid parking fines just before an election would be disenfranchised.

Regardless, the Key government chose to disenfranchise all prisoners. As a result, this country has become an extreme and punitive exception on this issue. As Werewolf explained last year, Canada recognizes that convicts’ right to vote is a basic right recognized and protected by the Canadian constitution.

Almost all of Europe takes the same view. The arguments for allowing prisoners to vote include self-interest. Being able to vote and thus take part in the democratic process can be an integral part of a programme of rehabilitation. Moreover, politicians are more likely to support an enlightened and effective prisons policy if they think there are votes in it to do so.

Most of us have been victims of crime and it is particularly difficult for those who are related to or are victims of violent crimes. But we should remember the words of former Home Secretary Douglas Hurd who said that, in office, the only pressure on him to improve prison conditions was his own conscience. In his words: "If prisoners had the vote, MPs would take a good deal more interest in prisons and making them better." His views are backed up by the Prison Governors Association, former chief inspector of prisons, Lord Ramsbottom, the Prison Reform Trust and numerous other crime reduction charities.

Prisons exist to punish but also to rehabilitate and ensure that criminals integrate back into society and do not re-offend. They are failing because there is no political incentive to improve them. The best way to put prison conditions on the political agenda is to give prisoners the vote, regardless of how many of them actually vote.

***

Mouse Alert

Nice to see an issue on which retiring Green MPs Sue Kedgley and Keith Locke can work together, during their last year in Parliament. A story from Britain last week combined animals in cages with anti-terrorism procedures in a New Scientist report about the use of specially trained mice, working in teams of eight in four hour shifts, to detect explosives on airlines.

The mechanism involved works like this :

Along one side of an archway [in a device similar to a full-body scanner], a detection unit contains three concealed cartridges, each of which houses eight mice. During their 4-hour shifts in the detector, the mice mill about in a common area in each cartridge as air is passed over people paused in the archway and through the cartridge. When the mice sniff traces of any of eight key explosives in the air, they are conditioned to avoid the scent and flee to a side chamber, triggering an alarm. To avoid false positives, more than one mouse must enter the room at the same time.

The failure rate is allegedly very, very low. Trained mice are, it seems, far superior to dogs in the art of sniffer detection. As one commenter to the Economist pointed out though, this could be a slippery slope. given that US airline security will be all too willing to drop mice down your pants in future, rather than risk touching your junk.

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