Law breakers and lawmakers

Why prisoners should be able to vote.

Should those who are convicted of crimes so serious that they receive a custodial sentence be able to vote?

Should prisoners have the benefit of influencing the making and reform of laws that they have either admitted to breaking or been shown beyond reasonable doubt to have broken?

According to newspaper reports today, the blanket ban on prisoners being able to vote is at last to be lifted. The spin is that this is because it is too expensive for the government to remain in breach of its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

The European Court of Human Rights ruled back in 2005 that such a blanket ban was not acceptable under the ECHR. (The 2005 case was brought by the indefatigable John Hirst, who can take the most credit for keeping the issue of prisoners' votes alive.)

However, one should not take the government's protestations about financial costs at face value. Blaming the pesky expense of undeserving legal cases is a time-honoured excuse for anyone retreating from an otherwise unsustainable position.

David Cameron is said to be "exasperated and furious" at having to lift the ban. It appears that it was looked at "from every legal angle", but apparently there was no alternative.

Hogwash. That is simply not the legal situation. It is perfectly possible for the UK legislature to derogate from the ECHR, should it really want to. Indeed, the UK has done so before in respect of anti-terrorism measures. Of course, such a move would be extraordinarily illiberal. But it would not be impossible if the Prime Minister actually was "exasperated and furious".

Instead, the better explanation is that this is a liberal measure being implemented under the cover of illiberal noises. This is a far preferable approach to policymaking to that of the Labour Party from 2001 to 2010, which often did just the opposite.

And it is indeed a liberal measure. There is no sensible or normative basis for the casual and routine desocialisation (and sometimes dehumanisation) that constitutes our current criminal sentencing and penal regime. Future generations will be aghast that we somehow think the best response to antisocial activity is to make it structurally more difficult for people ever to socialise properly again. Deprivation of liberty should not mean deprivation of other rights.

(In saying this, I am not being sentimental about criminals. I have no qualms about someone being incarcerated – even indefinitely – if that can be shown to be for the safety of the public.)

There will now be questions about how lifting the ban would work in practice. Would the votes go to the prisoners' home constituencies, or will there be (literally) voting blocks in the constituency where the prison is located? (On Twitter, @PeatWorrier said that his personal preference, for maximum interest, would be for prisoner seats, along the lines of the old university constituencies.)

Can certain, highly serious crimes be omitted? Can electoral offences be omitted? And so on.

A great deal of detail needs to be worked out now that the blanket ban will be removed.

But the coalition government is to be congratulated for this liberal measure, regardless of its supposed "outrage". It is the right thing to do. And it is a pity that the deeply illiberal Labour government from 2005 to 2010 was simply not willing to do it.

In principle, those convicted of a crime so serious that they receive a custodial sentence should not be rendered outlaws or excluded from society.

Prisoners should generally have the benefit of influencing the making and reform of laws. After all, they also have an informed view on how laws affect people's lives, and – in any case – they are citizens, too.

David Allen Green is a lawyer and writer. He was a government lawyer at the Treasury Solicitor from 2003 to 2005. He blogs on legal and policy matters for the New Statesman.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.