Prisoners’ rights under attack

On 10 February 2011 the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly in favour of the proposition that convicted prisoners should continue to be prevented from voting in elections. The motion to parliament was tabled by former Conservative Shadow Home Secretary David Davis MP and former Labour Home Secretary and Justice Minister Jack Straw MP, and was passed by 234 votes to 22 in a free vote in which both the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet had been instructed to abstain. It is not binding on the government, which still has to work out how to respond to the repeated European Court rulings against it on this issue. Nicki Jameson reports.

In 2001, John Hirst, then serving a life sentence for manslaughter, unsuccessfully challenged his lack of access to the electoral process in the English High Court. He then took the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which in 2004 ruled in his favour. The then Labour government appealed unsuccessfully in 2005 and, for the rest of its time in office, simply ignored the judgment hoping it would go away.

In November 2010, faced with mounting pressure from prisoners who were filing lawsuits in both the British and European courts demanding financial compensation for being prevented from voting in the May 2010 general election, the government announced that it would introduce a scheme to give some prisoners the vote. ‘Some prisoners’ was generally indicated at this stage to mean those serving less than four years. This was considered to comply with the European Court judgement, even though John Hirst himself would have remained disenfranchised; however the introduction of even such a limited franchise sent tabloid newspapers and reactionary politicians of all parties into an apoplectic frenzy.

By January 2011, ‘some prisoners’ had become those serving less than 12 months, with hypocrite Shadow Secretary of State for Justice Sadiq Khan welcoming this ‘U-turn’, saying: ‘The government should be standing up for the victims of crime but instead they are slashing police numbers and giving dangerous convicted prisoners the vote.’ (This is the same Sadiq Khan who was a partner in human rights law firm Christian Khan and who quite rightly complained when Woodhill prison bugged his visits to his imprisoned constituent and old school friend, Babar Ahmad.)

But even this measly concession was too much for Straw and Davis, who then instigated the parliamentary debate about whether any prisoners (never mind increasingly narrowing definitions of ‘some’) should be permitted to vote.

A week after the debate, to massive applause from tabloid newspapers, High Court judge Mr Justice Langstaff ruled that, despite the government’s failure to comply with the European Court, disenfranchised prisoners had no right to sue for compensation through the British courts. Instead he ordered that all those who had issued County Court claims should pay court costs of £76 each.

Although both the Conservative and Labour Parties are massively affronted by the very idea that serving prisoners should have the same right as other citizens to decide who governs the country, the main target of their mudslinging has not been prisoners (who, incidentally – having witnessed the bile heaped on them by politicians of all the major parties – might well abstain if they ever actually win the vote!), but ‘Europe’. As was clear in an earlier parliamentary debate in November – in which speaker after speaker delivered outraged tirades about the difficulty of explaining to their constituents that murderers and sex offenders might be allowed to vote, and complained about Britain’s lack of sovereignty in such matters – many MPs, either wilfully or out of ignorance, fail to understand the difference between the European Court and the European Union, conflating the two into a single predatory entity that interferes in British life at every level.

On 16 February, following another heated parliamentary session sparked by a Supreme Court ruling that keeping people on the Sex Offenders Register for life without any appeal mechanism breaches their human rights, ConDem Home Secretary Teresa May announced plans for a Commission to investigate a ‘British Bill of Rights’, stating that it was ‘time to assert that it is Parliament that makes our laws, not the courts; that the rights of the public come before the rights of criminals; and above all, that we have a legal framework that brings sanity to cases such as these’.

Support for replacing the Human Rights Act (HRA) with some form of ‘British Bill of Rights’ (designed to reduce the meagre rights of the most oppressed and increase the ‘rights’ of the ruling and middle classes), is not restricted to the Conservatives. Although the LibDems are generally opposed to any proposals for Britain to distance itself from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), Labour politicians are as virulent as the Tories.

In December 2008, Jack Straw (who, ironically as Home Secretary in 1998 introduced the HRA) told the Daily Mail about his plans to ‘rebalance’ the HRA and make provision of fundamental rights dependent on obedience to the state and the law. Straw said he aimed to ‘generate a debate about whether there should be a declaration of responsibilities and rights which grow together, the kind of rights we are owed and the rights which we owe... It’s about identifying values that bind us and what it is that makes Britain great, that makes the whole of us greater than the sum of its parts.’

The ECHR is a charter of bourgeois rights and does not contain rights to be fed, clothed or housed; however it provides for basic civil liberties, protecting the rights not to be tortured or subject to arbitrary detention and to a fair trial, family life and freedom of expression. These have proved of use to prisoners struggling to maintain a level of decent treatment against a punitive and oppressive system. For example, there was a successful legal action against the Scottish prison system’s continued use of ‘slopping out’ (being locked in a cell with no toilet facilities except a bucket) and new mothers who had given birth in prison used the HRA to extend their rights to keep their children with them. A series of cases reduced the executive power of the state to overrule decisions by the Parole Board or judges on release or length of time to be served, and established the right for parole and disciplinary hearings to be heard by nominally independent parties (the Parole Board and magistrates) at oral hearings, rather than behind closed doors.

In the continuing struggle for prisoners’ rights, every gain must be safeguarded and every attack fought against. People outside prison must remember that when prisoners take action to defend basic human rights, they do so on behalf of all of us. The British state herds working class people into prison in increasing numbers and as the ruling class attack on jobs and services intensifies, there will be yet more imprisonment. At the same time political dissent is being suppressed and the ‘war on terror’ is criminalising entire communities. The fight to defend and increase prisoners’ rights is not separate from the struggle against the current vicious government onslaught against the working class and it must remain a central component of that struggle.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 220 April/May 2011


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