Thursday, 17 February 2011

Prisoners "right" to vote

I came across a blog about the so-called "right" of prisoners to vote that was so misleading in its arguments that I have to comment on it. The blog, by one David Grace (a self-styled "disgruntled liberal"), argues falsely that MP who voted against giving prisoners the vote were showing "scorn for human rights" and "sheer xenophobia."

This utterly false description of those ethical Members of Parliament who voted against giving prisoners the vote cannot be allowed to go unchallenged. The main thrust of Grace's argument is that as the European Court of Human Rights derives its powers from a treaty that was signed by the British government and ratified by the British parliament, it is a matter of "honouring our commitments." He also argues that there is nothing undemocratic about accepting the judgements of the Court. But this argument fails on a number of counts.

First of all the recent parliamentary vote that Grace condemns was just as much a parliamentary vote as the one that ratified the treaty. Is Grace saying that individual MP's must vote in accordance with the Court's ruling and not in accordance with their consciences? That most certainly would be undemocratic. Parliament is as independent of the Courts as the Courts are of parliament. Grace even criticizes some MPs for being absent from the debate and vote, thereby implying that they are not even allowed to abstain, but must vote the way the Court tells them. So much for his commitment to democracy.

Secondly, the ruling that the disenfranchisement of prisoners serving custodial sentences is an infringement of the right to a free and fair election can only be described as a brazen misinterpretation of the Act. No honest judge - and indeed no honest person for that matter - could possibly believe such an interpretation.

When the judges handed down that ruling, they were breaching their oaths of office in which they swore to exercise their judicial functions "honourably, independently and impartially." (That is not to gainsay however that they have complied with the other part of the oath, to "keep secret all deliberations." So much for openness and the rights of the public!)

Grace also conveniently ignored the fact that both victims of crime and taxpayers (who are clearly affected by the decision) were not given any standing to argue their case, despite the fact that its outcome impinges upon them.

There is in fact no conflict between the view that the right to vote is indeed a right and the view that the right can be forfeited by the commission of a crime. After all a person ordinarily has the right to freedom, but that does not mean that the right cannot be forfeited for a while by the commission of a crime.

Grace's logic fares no better then he argues that disenfranchising prisoners has "no value in penal policy."He offers no evidence that granting the right has rehabilitative value.

Having said all of the above, I would also point out that even if one accepts the circuitous logic used by the criminal-friendly judiciary to reach their decision, then one arrives at an interesting conclusion regarding the question of compensation. The “honourable” judges held that the alleged right of (at least some) prisoners to vote, although nowhere stated in the European Convention on Human Rights, is a consequence of the requirement that free and fair elections be held.

But the effect of an election (unlike say health care or humane conditions) is collective rather than individual. Therefore it could be argued, applying the Court’s own logic, that the effect of denying prisoners the right to vote infringes the rights of society as a whole, to a free and fair election!

Accordingly, if one follows this reasoning to its logical conclusion, then the disenfranchisement of criminals must be held to victimize the whole of society and not just the disenfranchised criminal himself.This means that all members of society are entitled to compensation in equal measure. This conclusion may be counter-intuitive, but it is the inescapable consequence of the Court's own logic.

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