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.)

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.