Deferrals of justice

December 5, 2008 at 6:42 pm | Posted in Big Brother Britain, British Politics, Gordon Brown, Prison Reform | 2 Comments

Whatever your thoughts on European integration, we should still feel a mixture of embarrassment and relief that the European Court of Human Rights remains a rational, independent failsafe against the worst excesses of the British state. A number of blogs have picked up the story of two men from Sheffield whose DNA had been extracted by police and stored on a national database. One of the men had been arrested on suspicion of harassment, the other with attempted robbery. Both were innocent. In Gordon Brown’s Britain, the state can take your DNA for crimes as heinous as dropping litter or committing a traffic violation, and they can hold onto it even if you’re found innocent of the charges brought against you. Whilst the court’s decision will hardly spell the death of the database state, we can at least hope that its power will now be tamed, with at least 850,000 separate records expected to be removed.

But lest anyone assumes that justice has finally run its course, it’s worth remembering that the speed with which the government reacts to these decisions is nothing short of sclerotic. In February 2007, the ECHR ruled that trade unions were legally entitled to exclude members of fascist organisations, yet 22 months later, the changes which are needed to make that more explicit under British law are still being haggled over on a slow-moving employment bill.

But by far the most grievous of these deferrals of justice has been the government’s senseless, obsessive delays in giving prisoners the right to vote. As I’ve noted twice before, the ruling that Britain must extend the franchise to at least some prisoners was made in 2004, and since then, all that’s materialised has been a thoroughly meaningless ‘consultation exercise’. As John Hirst – who took the case to Strasbourg in the first place – points out, this week’s Queen’s Speech contained no mention of the issue, making it almost certain that the ECHR’s decision won’t be written into British law before the next general election.

There’s only so long you can use ‘consultations’ as an excuse for avoiding that which you are legally obliged to do, and for New Labour to have allowed so much time to pass without even a hint at progress shows a blatant disregard for a document they once considered important enough to embed into law. What’s more, the implications of allowing an election to go ahead without extending the franchise are simply embarrassing for Britain. As parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights has already pointed out, holding a general election without fixing the law will create “a significant risk that the next general election will take place in a way that fails to comply with the convention and at least part of the prison population will be unlawfully disenfranchised.” Procrastinating your way into a constitutional crisis might be so typically New Labour, but it still makes the country look pathetic.

By comparison, I find the whole Damian Green affair to be superfluous & tiresome, but there was one comment on the saga which struck me as absolutely correct:

“MPs have to be allowed to get on with their job but no MP is above the law.

The man who said that was Gordon Brown. If only he and his government could produce actions to match the rhetoric.

Image: European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, taken by Flickr user keepthebyte (Creative Commons)



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  1. […] refused to give prisoners the right to vote despite being legally obliged to do so, he’s produced policies of pure populist junk (having the public vote on a […]

  2. […] a comment » I’ve written about this a few times before, but it bears repeating: There are few or no votes in prison reform and little interest in the […]

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