Thursday, 17 February 2011

Voting rights for prisoners

Should prisoners be allowed to vote? Some judge or other at the European Court of Human Rights thinks they should and the result has been a serious clash between our elected parliament and the Strasbourg court.

Last week parliament debated the issue and, along with most Conservatives, I voted to reject the ECHR judgement and reinforce the current position that prisoners should not be entitled to vote. I can't believe that having the ability to vote is very high up the agenda for most prisoners but I think there is an important principle that if someone loses their liberty as a result of committing a crime, then that should include losing their right to vote.

But the debacle has raised a much bigger issue that needs to be addressed and that is the unacceptable intrusion in the governance of our nation by international bureaucracies in recent years. From the European Union to the ECHR, organisations that might mean well have accumulated far too much power and need to have their wings clipped.

The European Convention on Human Rights was established after the last war with the aim of getting internationally agreed principles on human rights legislation that would prevent the emergence of another Hitler like figure in any European country. It is a list of perfectly laudable but broad aims which most people would support.

However, over the years, clever barristers have made ever more creative arguments in front of judges citing "human rights" and so what was once a good idea has become abused by the lawyers and has been turned in to a by-word for injustice. That can’t go on and we need to take action to sort out the ECHR.

We have a long tradition in this country of the separation of powers between the government and the courts. An elected parliament makes the laws and the courts job is to implement those laws independently. However, when judges stray from their role and start setting public policy through their judgements in a way which neither the elected parliament nor the public intended, you need to take swift action to give the judges clearer guidance.

The problem with the ECHR is that the laudable aims are very vague. Worse still, Tony Blair made the mistake of introducing the Human Rights Act which hard wired the legislation into our own legal system and it has been causing havoc ever since.

The only solution is to abolish the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights which explains to the courts what the European Convention means within our own shores. We should also put the ECHR itself on probation to give it time to raise its game but on the understanding that it, too, might need sorting out. That was the real issue at stake in last week’s debate.