Prisoner Votes and Human Rights Humbug

Court room of the ECoHR
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European Court of Human Rights – Does It have the Powers David Cameron Says It Does?

An awful lot of humbug seems to be flying around right now over the issue of giving prisoners the vote.

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that prisoners serving less than four years in prison should be able to vote.

David Cameron has said that the idea of giving prisoners the vote makes him feel “physically sick”. But his hands are tied, cos the Court has ruled, you see. If he ignores the ruling, that could leave the government open to having to pay £160 million in damages to prisoners denied the vote.

Tory backbenchers have other ideas. the idea of giving prisoners the vote doesn’t make them feel physically sick. It makes them want Mr Cameron to be physically sick. They are therefore threatening to rebel.

A distinctly queasy Mr Cameron is trying to broker a compromise, with the vote given to prisoners serving less than a year.

You have to do something seriously awful to get more than a year in prison, so even with a one year cut-off, that means quite a few quite nasty criminals will get the vote. The Tory backbenchers are not happy.

And there is a good chance the European Court won’t be happy either. They said four years, not one year, and have little time for Mr Cameron’s stomach troubles.

But Mr Cameron reckons he has no choice. Because the Court has so ordered.

But wait. The government ignored several European Court rulings in Margaret Thatcher’s time. There was no process for the Court fining anybody, or awarding damages. the European Court is not part of the EU, and had no actual power over Britain.

Unfortunately things have changed since then. Labour’s Human Rights Act incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights, which governs the European Court of Human Rights, into British law. So now a British Court can award compensation for infringements of the Convention. Those £160 million damages would not be awarded by the European Court, but by a British Court under the Human Rights Act.

Repealing the Human Rights Act would stop that.

Repealing that Act was something the Tories talked about in opposition. But now they are in government, it has gone hastily on the back burner. They’re far too busy, you see. And the Liberal Democrats would never agree. They come over all misty-eyed with adoration whenever they think of Europe.

There is more: under the Treaty of Nice, signed by Mr Blair in 2001, EU states are bound to honour the European Convention on Human Rights. So Mr Cameron would also have to abrogate the Treaty of Nice, or simply ignore its provisions. (AKA the French approach to Europe.)

So Mr Cameron is telling little porkies about this. The alternative to giving prisoners the vote is not to pay £160 million compensation. The alternative is to repeal the Human Rights Act.

Perhaps it is in fact telling too many porkies that is making him feel physically sick.

The Labour government caused this mess. They have tied Mr Cameron up good and proper. And now all he can do is talk about his stomach.

They are disclaiming all responsibility, as usual. As the BBC says:

Tony Blair’s former political adviser at Downing Street, John McTernan, has told Newsnight that the opposition has “the foot on the government’s throat on this issue and should keep it there”.

The Labour frontbench opposes giving prisoners serving up to four years a vote and while it has not ruled out a one-year compromise it wants the government to show them the legal advice they have been given. Sources say it may well end up opposing votes for any prisoners.

The position is simple, really.

Labour are spinning as usual. It was their Human Rights Act, and their Treaty of Nice, that tied the government’s hands on this.

And Mr Cameron is also spinning. He pretends the only alternative to giving the prisoners the vote is to pay compensation. He really doesn’t want anybody to notice that the third alternative is to stand up to Europe. Whether that is because he has a weak stomach or because he doesn’t want to upset little Mr Clegg is anybody’s guess.

I guess that’s what Mr Cameron gets for running a Liberal Democrat government that is dependent on Tory votes in parliament.

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6 thoughts on “Prisoner Votes and Human Rights Humbug

  1. Strictly speaking, of course, the European Court of Human Rights is not part of the EU – it answers to the Council of Europe. That is why it has never fined anyone – it doesn’t have the power to do so. It merely interprets a system set up by diplomatic agreement.

    That raises in itself a very interesting legal point. Suppose Cameron does call the ECHR’s bluff entirely and do nothing, or compromises – would the EU, under the Treaty of Nice, actually do anything to uphold the decision of a court that is not part of its judicial system? Or indeed, could it? Are there precedents for any supranational organizations imposing the will of an alien court because of a treaty convention? A rummage in the CIS archive might be profitable from that point of view.

    Looking at these numbers, we may be about to find out what happens when an ECHR ruling proves unenforceable by the court. It should be very interesting indeed.

    • You are right about the ECHR. As I said, it doesn’t have the power to enforce anything.

      What’s more, the EU itself has not yet ratified the Convention, which means the European Court of Justice (the Supreme Court of the EU) does not have the power or duty to enforce the Convention.

      However, all this is academic unless Cameron repeals the Human Rights Act. That Act gives British courts the right and duty to uphold the decisions of the ECHR, by incorporating the Convention into British law. As the law stands right now, the prisoners denied the vote could appeal to a British court for redress.

    • what about when Britain had to pay compensation to foreign trawlers who had been banned from fishing in our waters?

      • The fisheries compensation was ordered by the European Court of Justice I believe, which is the high court of the EU. We are subject to that court by virtue of our membership of the EU. EU law includes the fisheries policy, and the right for the European Court of Justice to fine member states who do not adhere to EU law.

        That is not the same as the European Court of Human Rights. As Huw said, the ECHR is not an EU body. It has no power to fine us. But its provisions were enacted into British law by the last Labour government (via the Human Rights Act), and therefore a British court can fine the British government or award damages to prisoners denied the vote. The only way to stop that is to repeal the Human Rights Act.

  2. Why not give prisoners the vote. After all there are far more villains out than in prison.
    And look what giving the populace as a whole the vote has done to Britain.

    • Whether it is a good idea to give prisoners the vote is another matter. The politicians seem to be agreed that it is a bad idea, but are all spinning away to show it’s not their fault!

      I also don’t really see why the decision on this should be made for us by foreign courts that are not answerable to British politicians or electorate.

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