The European Court of Human Rights has effectively given the government up to 18 months to implement the court’s ruling that changes must be made to allow some UK prisoners to have the vote. The issue has been divisive amongst politicians and the previous Blair administration, along with the current government refused to address the issue for fear of criticism.
The latest delay follows a request from the Foreign Office to intervene in an Italian case, Scoppolo v Italy which also relates to the rights of prisoners to take part in elections. The Italian case is even more contentious than in the case of John Hirst that has caused so much trouble for the government in Britain. Berlusconi’s administration has no more wish to be seen to be pandering to prisoners than does the government led by David Cameron.
There is also a parallel case running regarding a Mr. Frodl of Austria, the result of which so far has been a judgement suggesting that all prisoners should be given the vote without exception. This ruling has naturally been contested through political channels by the traditionalist right wing Austrian government and others.
The main argument from Britain – and to a lesser extent from Italy – is that the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights does not take into account decisions made by national courts or national parliaments. There is, in the view of these institutions at least, not enough “wiggle room”. Officially known as the ‘Margin of Appreciation’, this seeks to allow national governments to interpret the rulings of the court in a way that is more acceptable to national and domestic traditions and customs.
Tory right-wingers, David Cameron included, have all rallied against the court’s decision to allow some prisoners to have the vote. The now defunct News of the World and its sister paper, the Sun have also sought to stoke up public resentment to any provision to re-enfranchise prisoners. The Liberal Democrats for the most part have chosen to remain fairly quiet on the subject, despite pre-election pledges of support for a revision to the current system.
What the European Court has actually said is that the British government must take action to revise the law – but has given the government up to 6 months after the completion of the Italian case to do so.
Given that the decision on Scoppolo may not itself be made for at least another year, this delay effectively gives the UK government 18 months to bury the issue of prisoners’ votes rather than let it interfere with the manipulation of what David Cameron sees as the most important aspect of government, public opinion.
The news will come as a bitter disappointment to prisoners rights groups and presumably to John Hirst himself who was responsible for and who won the original case some seven years ago. Since that time, both New Labour and the Coalition governments have tried desperately not to talk about the issue and have tried even harder not to address it.
Nor is this the only contentious and difficult court ruling with which the government has to deal. The British Supreme Court, nothing to do with Europe, also ruled last year that those on the UK Sex Offenders Register must be allowed to appeal against their indefinite registration. The court ordered that a mechanism must be introduced to facilitate such an appeal.
The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary,Theresa May have both made it clear that they are intending to do the “minimum necessary” in order to comply with the court judgement.
May has also indicated that she will “close loopholes” relating to foreign travel and other issues as she thinks it would be “helpful” to the police.
Her approach however is fraudulent and is nothing more then pure political posturing as the police have not required such “loopholes” to be closed in the past and have not in any shape, way or form indicated that the new measures will be “helpful” to them in the management of registered sex offenders.
The Home Secretary’s sole intent in announcing these new proposals was to send a well aimed slap in the face to the Supreme Court just across the road from the Houses of Parliament. Her actions demonstrate political cynicism of the worst possible kind and prove yet again that the Conservative side of the coalition are not remotely interested in fairness or justice but only in newspaper headlines driven by populist policies.
With UK prisons full to bursting and with the prison population at a new high for the second week in succession, the Secretary of State for Justice, Ken Clarke has got his work cut out for him if he still intends to achieve his objective of cutting prisoner numbers.
Many of his Tory colleagues want him to do just the opposite and to increase the prison population – the ultra-right wing, publicity seeking Philip Davies, MP for one – whilst the police, probation service and prison authorities are frightened that if prisoner numbers are reduced, their jobs may be on the line.
Now that the political silly season has come to an end – if indeed it really ever does – we can expect to see more posturing from the government and more whingeing from Conservative backbenchers. The tabloids, now led by the Daily Mail will also no doubt have their say.
The public meanwhile will generally continue to be disinterested in such issues as prisoners votes and will instead be much more concerned as to how they are going to pay their electricity and gas bills through a cold winter.
TheOpinionSite.org believes that it is appalling that successive governments have failed to deal with very serious issues and have sought to keep them into the long grass simply the sake of avoiding bad publicity. Tony Blair was well-known be using this tactic again and again and for compensating a perceived lack of action by introducing more and more criminal offences.
David Cameron is keen to emulate Blair and is only being reined in by the presence of the Liberal Democrats, a very necessary moderation of what would otherwise be a right wing Conservative government.
The forthcoming autumn and winter spell trouble the government on the battlefront of law and order. Long overdue police cuts, efficiency drives in the probation service, reform of prison policies and the reduction of the prison population itself are all going to be resisted robustly by those with vested interests.
Only this week it was announced that prison warders are to be balloted on industrial action and, according to their leader, if necessary defy a court ruling against prison staff which prevents them from going on strike. A fine example of law breaking to set when they are themselves charged with locking up other law-breakers.
Overpaid policeman have suggested that a ‘work to rule’ may be necessary whilst probation staff, always anxious to increase the number of recalls to prison rather than take constructive but difficult decisions, are fighting against the government’s attempts to rationalise and streamline the activities and authority of probation officers.
The decision of the European Court may for the time being have got the government off the hook regarding the voting rights of prisoners. Nevertheless, other difficult issues relating to law and order will not disappear quite so easily. Sites such as TheOpinionSite.org will continue to hold the government to account and reflect the concerns and views of our many visitors and subscribers.
MPs will shy away from voicing their true opinion for fear of criticism, the ever increasing army of child and public protection groups and charities will continue to try and protect us all from everything for ever, whilst at the same time making sure that they themselves get paid for doing so.
The newspapers will continue to stir up trouble and unions will doubtless cause as much mayhem as possible in order to protect the pensions of their members whilst at the same time taking a swipe at the government.
The rest of us meanwhile will continue to wander around with a vacant expression on our faces as supermarkets increase their prices yet again, electricity and gas bills become a form of legalised extortion and the government concerns itself with the minutiae of politics whilst failing so miserable to keep a lid on food prices and energy costs.
Are we then in for a “Winter of discontent”?
TheOpinionSite.org thinks not and instead suggests that the winter will be one of abject misery, limited money, difficult choices as to whether one eats or heats and an ever increasing sense of frustration that this government, like the last is not remotely interested in doing anything about the real problems that people face.
If David Cameron wishes to reinforce what little credibility he may have left he can start by demonstrating to the rest of us that he is willing to obey not just the letter of the Law but also its spirit, even if that is politically difficult.
Instead of constantly trying to delay difficult decisions of the European Court and those from the British Supreme Court, he should act upon them both and do so confidently and expediently.
To do otherwise simply gives the impression that like the slippery Mr Blair, he is more interested in the headlines from the Sun and the Daily Mail that he is in sorting out people’s real problems; problems that cannot be solved in a court, be that European or British.