Friday 11 February 2011

Sick to the Stomach

The time was bound to come when this Blog would employ the saloon bar adage "There's one law for the government and one for everybody else". So here goes...

What would you think if the Government announced that it was going to exclude the right to vote from certain people on the grounds they were not morally fit? And what if they proposed to do this in defiance of the law?

That is virtually what the British Government is doing in tacitly supporting M.P.s in undermining the European Court of Human Rights requirement that some prisoners at least should be allowed to vote. See the shameful story of yesterday’s Commons vote here.

This is also a matter for people with a serious mental illness as the current rules prevent many people detained under the Mental Health Act from voting (but not all: there is a useful explanation of the voting rights of detained patients here).

The Prime Minister says it makes him “sick to the stomach” to allow some prisoners to vote as if the proposal was to give them champagne breakfasts. In fact having the right to vote is scarcely an attractive benefit but rather a civic duty and there would surely be advantage in encouraging prisoners to maintain their engagement in democratic processes. It is not credible that we will see a new “Member for Dartmoor Central” becoming Minister of Justice and going soft on crime as the tabloids would have us believe. And David Davis M.P., in unholy alliance with Jack Straw (who wouldn’t let people receiving treatment for mental health problems serve as jurors – see this post), is scarcely polishing his libertarian credentials by defying the European Court and asserting that MPs should arbitrate who is fit to vote for them.

Prisoners in Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, and Sweden can vote and there is no sign of these countries suffering as a consequence.

By contrast several States in the U.S. have a disgraceful history of using laws disenfranchising felons to exclude a significant percentage of poorer people and those from ethnic minorities. This can actually affect the outcome of elections meaning that the people who make the law excluding people from voting personally gain in terms of the vote they get. Nobody is suggesting that Mr Cameron has this in mind but it illustrates the danger of compromising the principle of universal suffrage.

What will be unfortunate will be seeing prisoners winning large sums in compensation if the government won't act because it wants to save its hard-line face. They should send the bill for compensation to the Prime Minister to pay personally if he doesn't obey the (European) law. But then there's one law for the government and...etc.