Terence Blacker: Behind the times on those behind bars

It is difficult to see how any fair-minded person could argue against this ruling


That's embarrassing. At the very moment when the nation (or some of it) is about to celebrate that emblem of British values, the monarchy, those values are revealed to be illiberal and stupid. While London prepares to become the focus of the sporting world, our Government, supported by our Opposition, makes a bold stand – against human and democratic rights.

At least representatives from Estonia, Armenia and Hungary will feel at home when they fly in for the 2012 Olympics. Britain, like those countries but unlike virtually every other country in Europe, has a universal ban on the right of any prisoner, with some minor exceptions, to vote. Anyone found guilty of an offence serious enough for incarceration becomes, at the will of the state, a non-citizen.

Unsurprisingly, this punishment thrills the wet-lipped punishment freaks of the Conservative Party. What is bewildering, and unutterably depressing, is that the Labour Party is giving the Government its weaselly support. The Lib Dems seem to have adopted their usual position – hiding under the table until the issue goes away.

To find out why Britain's political establishment is so enthusiastic about this issue, one only has to turn to the outraged press coverage of a recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, and the rage of the baying mob of the message boards. Supporting the human rights of prisoners, it seems, is a vote-loser.

Yet the ECHR's position, in relation to a case in Italy, is not wildly liberal and, if anything, marks a concession towards the British Government. Each European state, it concludes, has the right to regulate a voting ban as it wishes; only a general disenfranchisement of all prisoners is a breach of their human rights.

Ignoring the sideshows which surround this case – arguments over Europe and sovereignty, the weird panic surrounding the phrase "human rights" – it is difficult to see how any fair-minded person could argue against this ruling. Voting is, indeed, a right which can be withdrawn but, in kinder, more sensible cultures, like those of France or Germany, it is left to judges to decide when sentencing whether that additional punishment is appropriate.

We are becoming more intolerant and vengeful as a society, not less. We already have the highest number of prisoners per capita in Europe, and are now content to remove more of their civil rights than other countries do. Even when the Government conceded in 2010 that it would bow to a European ruling and give the vote to those serving sentences of four years or less, the proposal was voted down, by a massive majority, in the Commons.

Beyond the legal niceties and the European debate lies a simple question of commonsense and morality. It is a matter of shame that so few politicians are brave enough to make that unpopular but obvious point.


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