On the morning of Tuesday the 2nd of November 2010 the Government announced, via the news media rather than through a statement in Parliament, that they are planning to give prisoners the right to vote.
Cambridge’s MP Julian Huppert responded to the news with a tweet saying:
It’s great to wake up to hear that prisoners will regain the right to vote!
“Great” certainly wasn’t my first thought on hearing the news. Mr Huppert appeared to me to be taking an excessively extreme liberal stance.
In Parliament that afternoon the Speaker allowed an urgent question to be asked so MPs could seek an explanation from the Government of their decision. The question was directed to the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, but he didn’t turn up to answer it, leaving one of his Conservative colleagues to attempt to respond.
The Deputy Prime Minister’s deputy explained the government was responding to the October 2005 Grand Chamber judgement in the case Hirst v. the United Kingdom which ruled UK law in violation of Article 3 of Protocol No. 1 (right to free elections) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
It rapidly became clear that many MPs didn’t think giving prisoners votes was all that great, and that Mr Huppert is in a minority, perhaps of just one, in holding that view.
View whole debate (starts at 15:34:46)
Mr Huppert spoke to say:
Does the Minister share my concern that the first response of so many Members here to a court judgment going against them is to refuse to accept the verdict of the court? What does that say about the rule of law?
The people of the UK, through their representatives in the House of Commons make the laws which govern the way the country is run. I think it is entirely right and proper for MPs to say when they disagree with a court judgment and if necessary to seek to change the law as a result. I am very worried by the fact we appear to have an MP who does not agree with this, and does not think that the people of the UK, through him and his fellow MPs, ought decide how we run our society. I think Mr Huppert has made a seriously wrong judgement on this critical basic point.
My view is that the other MPs who did so were entirely right to express their opposition to acting on a court judgement. I hope MPs decide to vote in the House of Commons on the question of allowing prisoners to participate in elections and referendums. Judging by the speeches made on the matter, and the incredulous tone of MPs, it looks to me as if the idea of giving votes to prisoners would be comprehensively defeated if such a vote was held.
The following day, at Prime Minister’s questions the Prime Minster David Cameron said that to even contemplate giving the vote to people who are in prison made him physically ill. Despite this he said it was something the government had to do to avoid paying compensation to prisoners not allowed to vote.
Hearing the Prime Minister of the UK say that contemplating doing something made him feel physically ill, but that he was going to do it anyway was astonishing. Something has gone very wrong with our democracy. We need to elect MPs with more gumption, who actually believe in democracy and using their positions to act on the will of those they represent.
Another astonishing aspect of the questions in Parliament on the question of prisoner votes has been the showing up of the fact that many MPs do not know the difference between the European Union, the European Court of Human Rights, The European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act. Mr Huppert drew attention to this when he asked his question. Just before he spoke I tweeted:
It’s not just science MPs need remedial lessons in; they’re confusing the EU, the ECHR, and the Human Rights Act. #live #prisionervotes
Of course persuading people elsewhere in the UK to elect people to the Commons to represent them who didn’t need remedial education in anything would be the ideal solution.
Cambridge based aspiring legal academic Kopmatt88 asked Julian Huppert how he could contact the confused MPs to send them a basic briefing on the various institutions, treaties and legislation.
Julian Huppert is one of the better MPs in Parliament and almost certainly one of the most communicative; however I think in this case he’s made the wrong call. I hope he will listen to Cambridge residents’ views on giving prisoners the vote; and will give some more thought to the relationship between his role and the role of judges. The will of the people as expressed through MPs in Parliament must be able to over-ride decisions made by unelected and unaccountable Judges.
Julian Huppert is so easily accessible a few people have been questioning him both on his view of the role of MPs and Parliament, and on prisoners getting votes.
On Tuesday Twitter user @ifonlyella asked: “@julianhuppert You think it’s a good thing for criminals to vote while they are in prison? Their liberty is meant to be being restricted.”
Mr Huppert replied: “@ifonlyella rehabilitation is important”
@ifonlyella responded: “Yes it is, but rehab should be separate from punishment. People are punished by having luxuries and liberties restricted. Certainly they should be allowed to vote after prison. But not during. They are being suspended from society.”.
Today @nicola_prigg asked: “@julianhuppert Will giving prisoners the vote change the outcome of a seat & therefore the outcome of a general election?”.
Mr Huppert responded: “@nicola_prigg I wouldn’t want it to be all prisoners, so they wouldn’t be away that long. They’d vote @home, so be unlikely to swing results”
- @duncanparkes @julianhuppert You lot are there to change the law if you don’t like it, though!
- @pmcuthbertson @julianhuppert It’s heartening how many MPs aren’t willing to let judges take political decisions out of democratic hands – even if you are!
The only response I’ve seen from Mr Huppert explaining his support for the EHCR ruling was directed to me and Phil Rodgers; it said:
- @PhilRodgers @RTaylorUK and bear in mind that Britain took the lead in writing the ECHR in the first place…
I think its fantastic that anyone can grill our MP on the views he expresses, directly, in public, and in a timely manner.