Friday, 24 May 2013

Blanket Ban on Prisoner Voting in Scotland's Referendum - John Scott QC

The trades union movement has been at the forefront of the struggle for basic rights and liberties around the world. Rights that that we have all come to take for granted today. And you continue to challenge injustices to this very day.

The STUC’s A Just Scotland report painted a picture of a country many of us aspire to, regardless of where we stand on the issue of Scotland’s constitutional future. The chapters on equality and human rights, and democracy and citizenship in particular begin to put flesh on the bone of what we mean when we talk about a Scotland that truly values ‘social justice’.

The Howard League for Penal Reform has a long history of campaigning for the rights of those held in custody and for just responses to the causes and consequences of crime.

The Scottish Parliament is currently considering legislation that determines who will get to vote in next year’s independence referendum. This is a first. The franchise for local and general elections is an issue reserved to the Westminster government.

The Scottish Independence Referendum (Franchise) Bill seeks to extend voting rights to 16 and 17 year olds. However, the Bill also bars convicted prisoners from voting in the referendum – something that the Howard League for Penal Reform in Scotland and others have opposed. The Scottish Government has chosen to replicate the UK Government’s blanket ban on prisoner voting. On this issue, we are out of step with other civilised democracies in Europe. The only other European countries with a blanket ban on prisoner voting are Armenia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Lichtenstein, Russia and San Marino.

Scotland has one of the highest prison populations in Western Europe and our reoffending rates remain stubbornly high. The Scottish Government has accepted that our prisons are full of people many of whom are more troubled than troubling, and they have acknowledged that those held in Scottish prisons are some of the most disadvantaged individuals in our society. Research carried out by former prison governor Roger Houchin in 2005 confirmed that a quarter of all inmates in Scotland’s prisons hailed from just 53 council wards and some of our most deprived communities.

Put simply, prisons are the dumping grounds for the failures of other areas of social policy. I have seen this with relentless regularity in my work as a criminal defence lawyer over the last 26 years.

Most people held in Scottish prisons will re-enter our communities, many after only a short time away, and we need to do what we can to give them a stake in Scottish society. That should include giving them the vote and the sense of civic responsibility that comes with it.

 The anomalies that arise for those in prison on short-term sentences are particularly acute. For instance, in 2011-2, over 10% of custodial sentences handed down were for shoplifting. Are we really saying that these individuals shouldn’t have a say in the future of the country they live in? That they shouldn’t have a say in the future of communities they will return to? That they shouldn’t be encouraged to feel part of society rather than continuing to be excluded from it?

 As our Parliament debates this issue, the words spoken by late trade union activist Jimmy Reid over four decades ago have lost none of their resonance:

 It's the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision-making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies.

We at Howard League Scotland want fervently to avoid this issue ending up as the political football that issues of crime frequently become. This benefits no one, not least victims of crime.

This is Scotland’s chance to put down a marker regarding the value it attaches to social justice and human rights. And a chance to send a message to those on the periphery of our society that they have a stake in its future.

 John Scott QC

Howard League Scotland

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