None So Deaf …

27 Oct

The Government has been accused of confusion on the issue of giving the vote to prisoners. More precisely, on giving the vote to some prisoners – no-one is suggesting giving the vote to murderers and rapists – but the point is being treated as one of principle – should you lose (it is implied, temporarily) your civic right* to vote when you lose (ditto) your human right to liberty as a result of a sentence of imprisonment ?

In a series of cases (Hirst, Greens, Scoppola v Italy) the ECHR has made it clear that they regard the Right to Free Elections as requiring that prisoners have at least some opportunity to vote, and so a blanket ban on prisoners voting is unacceptable. Whatever one makes of the logic of this, the ECHR’s Grand Chamber has made its overall position reasonably clear in Scoppola v Italy (No 3) earlier this year: (1) A blanket rule is inappropriate for a basic human right,* (2) some relationship between crime/sentence and ban is expected, and (3) discretion for the Judge is at least preferable.

Given that the UK currently has just such a blanket rule – conviction = loss of civic rights* for duration of sentence – what is to be done ?

Adam Wagner worries on the Human Rights Blog that this is going to cost the UK Government a lot of money. Joshua Rozenberg worries in The Guardian that this is a snub for Dominic Grieve QC the Attorney General, who has been more conciliatory about the ECHR than most Conservative MPs, and will damage the UK’s international standing. Adam Wagner commented also about the Government’s approach being “like a ping-pong ball in a wind tunnel.”

With respect, these worthies misunderstand.

Dominic Grieve QC has the natural (and, to this lawyer, commendable) tendency of lawyers to dislike overstatement and to treat all law as one and equally to be obeyed, however unpleasant and whatever its merits. He is doing the job of Government’s/Crown’s Chief Law Officer with admirable impartiality.

However, the fact is that just as the previous Government never quite got around to giving prisoners the vote – they preferred ‘consultations’ – so this one has no such plans. Indeed, the Opposition have made it so politically toxic that they dare not.  The tabloid headlines practically write themselves, and would allow the Opposition to paint themselves as standing up for law & order. That’s politics.

*The elision is deliberate. Some seek to distinguish them.

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