Archive for décembre, 2011

The British Government & the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)

Vendredi, décembre 30th, 2011

Britain currently holds the rotating chairmanship of the 47 member-state European Council, which oversees the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). It is using this position, in alliance with Switzerland, to put pressure on the ECHR, which is based in Strasbourg but is not a court of the European Union, to either reform or jeopardise public and political support for the European Convention on Human Rights it oversees.
The British government is already upset by the ECHR ruling that the UK should allow all prisoners to vote and its overturning of some British immigration rulings. Even in the on-going Harry Shindler versus the British government, Expatriate Voting Rights claim in the ECHR, the government has also pointed out to the Court that the Right to Universal Suffrage does not yet form part of the European Electoral heritage (which ironically enough can be traced back to a previous British government negotiation).
Currently the ECHR has a backlog of over 150,000 cases to hear and appealing a case to the Court can delay final judgement by two years or more. Therefore, one option being considered is to put a time limit on cases in order to reduce the number pending appeal, as the longer running ones pass this limit and then expire. This could then open the way for new rules including say a filter system to reduce the number of cases and allow the Court to concentrate instead on more major issues such as Freedom & Torture but not comparatively minor compensation claims, according to Kenneth Clark, the British government Justice Secretary.
Given the above, it seems perverse that the British government is contesting the Harry Shindler Expatriate Voting Rights case in the ECHR, on a major and self-evidently democratic issue such as the Right to Universal Suffrage within the European electoral heritage.

British Judges & European Court Rulings

Vendredi, décembre 23rd, 2011

The free movement of goods, services and citizens of member states is guaranteed by treaty within the European Union (EU). However, British politicians remain wary of rulings by judges from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) or the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), impacting legislation in the UK.
Most recently Lord Irvine of Lairg, the former Labour Lord Chancellor who introduced the Human Rights Act, said judges had erroneously assumed that they must comply with the European Court of Human Rights. Parliament had intended them to be free to make their own decisions when it passed the Act, Lord Irvine said in a lecture organised by the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law and hosted by the UCL Judicial Institute. Section 2 of the Human Rights Act was pivotal in the relationship between the Courts, Parliament and the ECHR. The Section states that when deciding a human rights issue, the Courts must take account of any judgement of the ECHR which could, however, be paraphrased as have regard to, consider, treat as relevant or bear in mind.
Such independence is evident in the Harry Shindler voting rights claim brought before the ECHR, with the British government defence resting on their counter claim that the right to universal suffrage is not yet considered a basic human right within the European electoral heritage. Another example is the recent judgement against James Preston in his voting rights case against the British government in the High Court in London, which considered that his disenfranchisement after 15 years does not constitute a deterrence to his free movement e.g. to work or live within the European Union.
Britain was also said, in an article in the Times of 16th December 2011, to have won a crucial victory when European judges admitted that they should not overrule the traditional use of hearsay evidence in the criminal courts. In what was hailed in the article as a landmark judgement, the ECHR said that the use of hearsay evidence in criminal trials – when witnesses cannot attend in person – did not breach the rights of defendants. This decision averted a clash between the UK Supreme Court and the Strasbourg-based court, which had previously ruled that the use of such evidence was a breach of the right to a fair trial. However, the Grand Chamber, or appeal court, of the European Court of Human Rights, said that the use of hearsay evidence did not automatically breach the human rights of defendants. The appeal court judges, therefore, seemed to step back and acknowledge the importance of local legal systems, in this case that of the UK on appeal by the British government, in the cases of two men jailed in the UK mainly or wholly on the basis of witness statements. There was no breach of article 6 of the Human Rights Convention, which covers the right to a fair trial.

British Veto of EU Treaty

Mercredi, décembre 14th, 2011

At the European summit in Brussels on 8th December, 2011 David Cameron defied all predictions by becoming the first British Prime Minister to veto a European treaty (aimed at stabilizing the Eurozone). This has not only surprised but also pleased his Eurosceptic backbench MPs. In contrast, others of his critics charge that President Sarkozy of France was the real winner in Brussels by forcing the Prime Minister to exercise his veto, thus removing him in one fell swoop as an important rival in influencing the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, leaving the field open for French officials to guide decision making in Europe. President Sarkozy of course has his own critics in France e.g. the Socialist presidential candidate, Francois Hollande, accuses him of yielding too much to Berlin.
One explanation for this turn of events is that Britain has a different view of its national interest from France and Germany, with both these nations seeking ever closer union and there is seemingly nothing to stop them going ahead with this strategy. However, the problem remains that the immediate crisis of the Eurozone has been neglected again, with no plan for the weaker members emerging from the talks. Indeed, the main issue for the Eurozone, and Britain, is not trade imbalances as such which are narrowing for its member states because of depressed activity reducing imports versus exports. More important is the major long term question of whether Eurozone members can overcome the huge loss of competitiveness since the Euro was launched.
Since 2000, while German unit labour costs have risen by less than 5%, over the same period those of France have increased by 25%, Spain by over 30% and Italy almost 40%. According to the OECD, most of these countries will not close this competitive gap in the next two years. Longer term, it is not clear if a process has been established to also allow these countries to successfully grow their economies and prevent government debt from rising inexorably at the same time.
Things do not look so good for the British economy either, with an outright break with the EU leading to the possibility of economic misfortune for both sides. The current crisis impacting the future of the EU is taking place within a tense political environment created by recession and an angry public suffering real hardship across Europe. For Britain the challenge is to re-establish or redefine its relationship with the EU, without damaging its current trading partnership.

Expat Voter Registration

Jeudi, décembre 8th, 2011

British political parties in general find it difficult to communicate with the large and widespread British expatriate population and, therefore, to release the full potential of this overseas voter base. That the currently registered number of such overseas voters is estimated at less than 1% of the total is, however, then taken by some as an indication of general apathy, rather than looking further into why this might be so. One such reason of course is that some 50% of this overseas voter base is already excluded by the 15 year rule, which deprives longer term expatriates of the right to vote in the UK. It is argued below that there are further problems of identification, registration and voting with the other 50%, which tend to further reduce the number of overseas voters.
Our political parties are set up to work through their local branches in defined domestic constituencies and, for canvassing purposes, have access to the Electoral Roll of the Electoral Commission, with which by law householders must register details of all those of voting age living within a household. The law is currently being amended to provide for Individual Electoral Registration although whether individuals will still be required by law to register is still not clear.
In contrast, the parties rely on a few politically active volunteers in their international branches to address the overseas voter base and e.g. to recruit members, raise party funds and encourage other British expatriates to register to vote. However, the relatively limited resources of these international branches are further diluted by problems of distance, density and distribution when trying to reach out to and identify their local British expatriate base, not helped by the general lack of consular records of British residents. The broadest communications means of registering overseas voters is then via the website www.aboutmyvote.co.uk operated by the Electoral Commission, which needs to be communicated much more effectively to British expatriates.
The electoral registration form for overseas voters which can be downloaded from www.aboutmyvote.co.uk , states that if you are a British citizen living abroad, as long as you were registered to vote in the UK within the last 15 years, you are then eligible to vote in elections for the UK Parliament and the European Parliament but not in UK local or mayoral elections, or to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly of Wales or the London Assembly. It is not surprising then that the number of British overseas voters registered increased from 13,600 to over 30,000 before the last election in 2010 not least due the higher level interest in national elections, together with the increase in media attention and canvassing activities. However, this still remains a disappointedly low number as far as the politicians in London are concerned.
That said, at first sight it seems quite easy to register by downloading an electoral registration form (for a British citizen living overseas) from www.aboutmyvote.co.uk . You read that you should register to vote as soon as you can, or it may be too late to vote in the next election. However, with the next General Election not until 2015, the natural impulse is to put off registering until closer to the date. If you do decide to register, you are informed that you can vote in one of three ways:
• By post, which is generally ruled out in most cases by the ballot paper not being sent out until 4 working days before election day, and having to be returned completed before voting closes on election day in order to count.
• By proxy, when you ask someone you know and trust to vote on your behalf (although this can still be open to abuse).
• In person, if you are in the UK on election day but you can only vote at the polling station where you are registered to vote in the UK. Also, you cannot vote at your local embassy or consulate (despite this being a common practice for expatriates of some other nations such as France).
The most practical option from the above appears to be by proxy but the overall impression is of a system which does not make it convenient for expatriates to register and/or vote, not least given their special circumstances, the presence of local embassies and/or consulates and the advanced telecommunications means available today.
Indeed, due to advances in travel and telecommunications it is now so much easier for international operations to be run via daily telephone calls, e-mail and video conferencing. As a result, around 750,000 British workers including young talented professionals are currently being posted abroad, while still being supervised and coached by their managers in the UK. The increasing use of such temporary global workers whose average time spent overseas is 5.4 years, is blurring the traditional definition of an expat according to Dave Isley, Head of NatWest International Personal Banking. In theory, these global workers should also register as overseas voters but this is unlikely, given the inconvenience and average length of their assignments, and they are more likely to remain on the domestic Electoral Register, again contributing to a rather false sense of general apathy amongst overseas voters, due only to their low registration rate.