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It's Time to Give Some Prisoners the Right to Vote

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The government is right to suggest some compromise on the issue of prisoners' voting rights and sensible MPs should support this. However this won't happen for three reasons. The Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the Sun. Our off-shore owned populist press now has more sway on public policy than MPs, think-tanks and most government departments.

To resume. For a number of years the view has taken hold amongst those who see prison as a process of rehabilitation and not revenge that prisoners should be able to take part in activities that they would undertake if not deprived of liberty. They can write novels, become good at sport, study for degrees, and towards the end of their sentence be released on a tagged basis. In some countries there are conjugal visits. The fact is that the fewer the number of prisoners and the better they are treated the lower the level of crime.

Therefore as we want all citizens - those at liberty and those temporarily deprived thereof - to be active in citizenship why not let them vote as well. Other countries have adopted this position. Switzerland, for example, has allowed prisoners to vote for more than 40 years. France takes a different position. A judge can add to a prison sentence a forfeiture of civic rights as an additional penalty in the case of serious crimes.

This satisfies the European Court of Human Rights. I suggested this compromise to various home and justice Secretaries as well as the attorney general, Dominic Grieve. At the time they pooh-poohed the proposal and said judges did not want to alter their system of sentencing.

That seemed a specious argument though it is true that judges do seem to be a law unto themselves. Now the government has come up with a sensible compromise based on allowing voting rights for sentences of fewer than four years.

But there are still many MPs who still want to get on their chargers, lower their lances and tilt at full speed against the European Court of Human Rights. They are encouraged in this by the off-shore owned tabloid press. The Daily Telegraph today says that again Brussels is imposing its unwanted diktat on Britain. Clearly the Telegraph's proprietors have a map of the Channel islands where they live but someone might give the paper's editor a map of Europe where he can find out that the European Court of Human Rights is in Strasbourg and has nothing to do with Brussels or the EU.

Again it seems necessary to repeat that the European Convention on Human Rights and its court was set up as a post-war British initiative and has served the cause of human rights and democracy well. Asia, Africa and the Americas would benefit from having such a Court to poke its nose into big and small abuses of human rights norms in non-European countries.

To be sure, it has been uncomfortable for successive British governments to be called to order in Strasbourg. On torture of interned prisoners in Ulster in the 1970s, on paedophilic beatings of small children in schools, on gay rights it has been the Court nudging Britain to a better place even if tabloid and populist politicians were hostile at the time.

Dominic Raab, the Tory MP, led a fine campaign in the Commons over the scandal of the brutal treatment and killing in a Russian prison of the British linked lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky. But like so many Tories he is good on human rights in another nation but nervous of upholding them at home, especially at the instigation of a body with the name 'European' in it.

He is quite wrong to assume that the ECHR having come after years of deliberation to its view that prisoners can be allowed some voting rights will now back down any more than it backs down on human rights questions in other countries under its jurisdiction like Russian or Turkey.

Of course, the UK can leave the Council of Europe and withdraw from the ECHR and the court. But no British government can seriously contemplate this. There will be much frothing about the government's pragmatic decision. It should be backed and MPs should move on to other business.