This is a guest post by Farah Damji
I sleep with my phone in my bed, and so I was startled by early texts and BB PIN messages from solicitor friends yesterday:
“Have you heard?”
“Seen the news?”
“Switch the TV on. Now”
Stumbled out of bed to watch Bill Turnbull stumbling over the breakfast news, announcing the main news story of the day was that prisoners in the UK would be allowed to vote. I couldn’t believe it. Grim library footage inside HMP Elsewhere, waist down shots of men walking, reminiscent of the prison film Midnight Express dismembered from their bodies and the rattle and shake of metal bars and gates clanging served to further the surreal news.
President Macaroon has capitulated it appears, to the toxic hot potato which the last administration tossed around, the issue was decided in the ECHR in a decision handed down over 5 years ago, and just last month, the original applicant in the case, John Hirst Shaun Attwood and I decided to ask for an ex-parte Order of Mandamus forcing the new administration to allow the vote and put the systems in place so that prisoners can vote in the upcoming local elections next spring. Word came down that not only would the application not be heard ex-parte but that we were required to wait six weeks as an announcement on this issue was “imminent.” Hearing this “imminent” word from the Ministry of Justice is like Take That saying they are going to reform and record a new hit song with Robbie, five years ago. I didn’t think it would happen and was sure it was a stalling technique.
Yesterday’s news, however tempered, is to be welcomed. Nick Clegg seized a thorny issue (the job of dealing with this unrosiest of tasks fell to him when all electoral reform was handed to the Cabinet Office by the Home Secretary) and it appears all the policy and good intentions have been laid. Now to make it law, which means overturning existing legislation which bans the vote for serving inmates through the Forfeiture Act of 1870 which can only be done through and act of parliament.
Different news outlets spun the story according to their news agenda, the BBC’s take on it was that the government had capitulated due to 1340 prisoners joining three test cases, which would have resulted in each getting a payout of £750, in compensation. The BBC also reported that Cameron was very unhappy about prisoners who had committed violent crimes being allowed to vote and that some suggestions being mooted included only allowing prisoners serving less than 4 years the right to vote.
The Guardian claimed that Nick Clegg was “struggling to avoid giving prisoners the right to vote” but in June the UK Government was told by the Council of Europe in Strasbourg that they wanted to see some plans and some action being taken on this issue which is the longest any violation of international human rights has been left unimplemented in a matter involving the UK government. The UK Government replied it was doing its own (yet another) consultation on the issue and waiting to see the outcome of further cases which had been brought since the original Hirst v UK (2) case in 2004.
Whatever ministers feel about this issue, it will not be possible to exclude anyone serving a prison sentence, of any length of time, for any violation of the law, from voting. A recent case, heard in April this year, Froidl v Austria confirmed that the 2005 decision makes it unlawful to disenfranchise prisoners serving more than a year in prison. Disenfranchisement should be left in the hands of the sentencing judge and only applied in cases of crimes against the electoral process, such as vote rigging or postal vote fraud.
Sky News’ take on it was negative, as it panders to its viewers feeding frenzy for tabloid headlines like that plant in The Little Shop of Horrors. Phrases such as “Prime Minister David Cameron was said to be ‘exasperated and furious'” and The Telegraph quotes an anonymous senior civil servant as saying “This is the last thing we wanted to do but we have looked at this from every conceivable angle. We had lawyers poring over the issue. But there is no way out, and if we continued to delay it could start to cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions in litigation.”
These “angry” MTBL documents and statements don’t do the government any favours when the meant-to-be-leakers add their spin and personal dissent. Do yourselves a favour boys. Buck up, sort it ourt and move on. Isn’t it great when government makes sensible, socially responsible policy , not propelled by media-manipulation. Every wing in every prison in the UK gets a copy of The Sun. Perhaps Mr Murdoch and those at Wapping Towers might like to adjust their content for their newly franchised readership of almost 73 000. That represents a pretty sizable constituency and a block vote, which if used effectively could cause bums being displaced from long-held political seats.
The devil’s going to be in the detail of this one but I sense the cool unruffled brow and sturdy hand of Ken Clarke leading the way on this one. His speech calling to the end of the “bang ’em up culture” and locking up too many people and getting limited results was received with the fervour of cold custard on Eton Mess. However, with a comprehensive review underway on sentencing , this administration’s response and implementation of the Corston Report and major shifts in the way the Ministry of Justice operates, it’s fair to say, watch this space, in anticipation of more good news. There’s nothing more dangerous and powerful than a senior minister at the end of his political life, who sees reform as the best way forward. The inside scoop at the Policy Unit of the Ministry of Justice is a general consensus of “We Love Ken.”
Don’t get the bunting and tee-shirts printed just yet. But do remember tne words of Clive Stafford Smith
“Prisoners are the ones who most need the right to vote. Where, on the tablets that Moses brought down from Mt Sinai, does it say that you should remove the right to vote from those who are in need of a voice?”