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MacAskill Admits He Was Wrong On Voting Rights.

Kenny MacAskill: We can't fight for Human Rights Act and not back prisoners voting

May 27th, 2015 - 12:29 am Kenny MacAskill

THE SNP are right to condemn Tory plans to repeal the Human Rights Act. They have done so vigorously but justly and correctly. It was mooted during their period in Coalition but even the supine Liberal Democrats baulked at conceding it.

But now with a majority Tory Government and right-wing ideologue Michael Gove as Justice Secretary, itís full speed ahead in another lurch to the right. The repeal and the consequent withdrawal from ECHR threaten to place the UK along with the likes of Belarus and absent from mainstream democratic Europe. Its replacement with a British Bill of Rights will not provide adequate protection for ordinary citizens in their daily lives. Itís for that reason that not simply politicians but the Scottish Commissioner for Human Rights have both opposed it and spoken out against it for a long time. The leadership of the SNP in opposing it both at Westminster and in Scotland is to be welcomed. Politically, the Tories may run into trouble as there is some signs of discontent on their backbenches and from within their own legal fraternity.

Anything that undermines them and especially something so basically wrong such as this is beneficial.  It may also be very complicated and become constitutional given that the Human Rights Act is embedded in the Scotland Act. The Westminster Parliament may be sovereign but itís deeply complex. Also, with 58 out of 59 Scottish MPs opposing it, how can the Tories legitimately change the founding Act of the Scottish Parliament Ė never mind the fundamental rights of the Scottish people?  

However, if it is to have credibility on the issue then the Scottish Government will have to change its own position on prisoner voting. Thatís an issue that has come before the European Courts on many occasions and in which they have been quite clear. A blanket ban is unacceptable and in conflict with human rights, notwithstanding that the UK Government has simply refused to comply and indeed Prime Minister David Cameron has said that the very thought of it makes him sick.

Shamefully, the Scottish Government has so far refused to adhere to the spirit and the judgements of the European Courts. Initially it hid behind the franchise being reserved to Westminster but did indicate that it did not support its extension to prisoners. That was compounded by replicating the Westminster line in the franchise for the referendum. Votes were granted for 16 and 17-year-olds but not prisoners. In that act I am as complicit as any as the former Justice Secretary. It was the wrong thing done, albeit for the right reasons. It was to avoid any needless distractions in the run up to the referendum, to deny the right-wing press lurid headlines that could tarnish the bigger picture. But the referendum is behind us and the Tory press have failed to stop us.

To have credibility on the issue the Scottish Government must now review their position on votes for prisoners or the defence of the Human Rights Act will ring hollow. The decision of the European Court is not hard to comply with. They have not insisted on all prisoners having the franchise as itís recognised that other rights along with liberty can, on occasion, be forfeited. However, a period of time, whether a year or thereabouts, as the threshold for forfeiture of the right upon conviction, would likely be acceptable. In most instances itís a right that will not be exercised.

The likely take-up given the problems prisoners face whether with drugs, alcohol or mental health will be low. But there is a point of principle that the European Court is trying to drive home. Prisoners remain human beings and have human rights even if some, including the franchise, can be forfeited depending on the sentence. The Scottish Government has shown remarkable vision in recognising the needs and problems of female offenders.

That understanding would be jeopardised if the position is not changed. Moreover, in this there can be no gender discrimination. Many male prisoners have social, health or educational problems that were factors in their offending, never mind that a different franchise on the grounds of sex would itself be in conflict with fundamental rights, and history. The great South African jurist and anti-apartheid campaigner Albie Sachs has made it clear that voting is a human right. Prisoners are humans who have done wrong and lose their liberty as a consequence.

Other human rights should only sparingly be removed. That means the right to vote, albeit that some with lengthy sentences will still forfeit the right and most will simply not bother. The SNP is right to oppose the repeal of the HRA but it needs to support human rights for its prisoners. Forum Index -> Test Forum 1
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Sincere thanks to all those who have supported Shirley and challenged miscarriages of justice on this forum.