Giving criminals the vote is an affront to democracy
The question of in British jails has never been put to the British people. There was originally no need for legislation: as prisoners were not normally resident at a home address when the electoral lists were made up, they were not eligible to vote, nor could they have got to the polls and they did not qualify for postal votes.
Then without any reference to the wishes of the people, in a blatant affront to any concept of democracy, a foreign court asserted that our law is a breach of the human rights of criminals and that a blanket ban on all prisoners from voting is unlawful. We are now supposed to be grateful to our masters on the continent that they should graciously allow our "sovereign" parliament to decide exactly which criminals should have the vote.
Apologists for this state of affairs point out that it was the European court of human rights that handed down the judgment, which sprang from the European convention on . That convention, they triumphantly declare, is part of Churchill's inheritance intended to keep Europe safe from communism or a return of anything like Hitler's National Socialist regime and therefore immune to criticism.
It hardly takes longer than it does to mutter "another case of the law of unintended consequences", before one begins to laugh at the idea that Churchill, or come to that Clement Attlee, envisaged that the noble principles set out in that convention, drafted under the leadership of the Tory lawyer , would be extended by a process of judicial imperialism, to override the democratically elected parliament of the United Kingdom on such a matter.
To give the former NuLab government credit, it tried by every means possible (for both good reasons and bad) to avoid compliance with the decree of the court. Now it has fallen to the unfortunate Con-Lib coalition either to haul up the white flag and surrender, or to simply withdraw from a convention that has been so abused by those to whom it was entrusted. Being the Con-Lib coalition, it has chosen surrender.
Even that policy has its difficulties. Should the surrender be total and unconditional, or should there be an effort to escape with some vestige of a pretence that it is parliament, not a bunch of foreign judges, that has decided this matter?
Unsurprisingly, it has decided on the second option, as I am sure would have the NuLab government had it been re-elected last year. Even that, however, has its difficulties. Playing for safety to avoid an avalanche of criminals (and avaricious lawyers) bringing cases for compensation for being denied the right to vote, the coalition has proposed to grant votes to all criminals serving sentences of less than four years in jail. That would include almost 29,000 criminals, about 6,000 convicted of violent crimes, and some 1,700 sex offenders.
Unfortunately for David Cameron, a number of government backbenchers suspect that the line has been drawn at four years more to and his Lib Dem colleagues than the ECHR judges. Now, it seems that in a shrewd bit of tactical politicking, Ed Miliband will support a rebel amendment restricting the concession to one, rather than four years.
If that amendment is passed, the government will be on a hiding to nothing. First of all it will have to decide whether to seek to reverse it in the Lords. And if it cannot do so, what then? Should the expected "avalanche" of claims not materialise, or be turned down by the court, then its judgment will be called into question. Should they be faced with huge compensation claims from successful claimants, they will equally be in an unenviable position.
What does seem certain is that the question of whether criminals sentenced to imprisonment should, or should not forfeit civic rights will not get a great deal of attention, but just wait until the lawyers move on, as they surely will, to the matter of the deprivation of prisoners' rights to family life. That one should run and run.