On Thursday the House of Commons partook of a discussion and division on the issue of voting by convicted prisoners. The result of this vote is not binding on the government being as it was simply a backbench motion allowing members to express an opinion on a matter that has yet to be formally presented to the house by the government. In the free vote that followed the debate the motion was passed by 234 to 22. A roll of honour/list of shame* is available. Those on the government payroll and the Labour front bench abstained.
That the matter was under discussion is the ‘work’ of John Hirst, a thug convicted of the manslaughter** of his landlady with an axe, who sued the UK under the Human Rights Act because he was not allowed to vote whilst he was detained at Her Majesty’s (dis-)pleasure. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in his favour and asked the UK government to look again at the issue.
Predictably there has been a lot of outrage at the thought of the likes of Hirst being allowed to play a part in democratic elections whilst in gaol with one opinion poll putting support for the idea at only 9%. David Cameron has been widely quoted as saying that the idea makes him ‘physically sick’.
The whole issue however is somewhat of a red herring, a trifling concern. According to the most recent breakdown of figures that I could find (2010-08) there are 31,630 convicted people in prison serving 4 years or less (excluding under 18’s and fine defaulters but including the unsentenced). By the same criteria there are only 11,433 serving less than 12 months. Those numbers aren’t enough to form a constituency of their own. Split evenly across the 600 constituencies (come the 2015 election) that equates to 53 or 19 each (assuming an even split). Those sort of numbers aren’t going to affect the outcome of a general election.
Rather the issue here is one of sovereignty: is Parliament – elected by the population of the UK – supreme or does an external institution take precedence? MPs like to maintain that they are still in charge – and today’s vote has no doubt resulted in lots of back slapping amongst the Eurosceptic wings of the big parties – but they aren’t and haven’t been so for some time.
Unless Cast Iron Dave uses the result to find himself a spine and finally gives the public the in or out referendum*** that all of the big three political parties have offered at one time or another then it is meaningless. Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has already said that the UK would ‘do the minimum necessary in order to comply’ with the ruling and something tells me that said stance will not have been altered by what went on today.
It would be nice to hope that this is the straw that finally broke the back of the proverbial camel but I doubt it. Our elected representatives are, generally, too wedded to the idea of further political and economic integration no matter what the cost. Indeed I doubt that many of them realise that the PR exercise which is the Referendum Lock promised by the collation government will have no affect on the ongoing transfer of sovereignty to European bodies.
** During the debate various MPs referred to him in other terms but unlike them this blog is not protected by parliamentary privilege and therefore cannot be so blunt.
*** Yes, I am well aware that the ECHR is a Council of Europe body, not a European Union one but given the amount of overlap that exists between the two and being aware that provisions exist on both sides for integration, withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights would (hopefully) mean expulsion from both entities as membership of each requires the the Convention to be ratified.