Prisoners' votes are least of our worries

THE news that a convicted heroin dealer and former prisoner who was denied the right to vote in prison may eventually cost the taxpayer millions and could even affect the timing of the Holyrood elections in May, will come as no surprise to many, or at least to those of us who are not civil servants.

As an electorate we have all slowly been coming to realise that the Human Rights Act appears to offer endless possibilities for expensive, and some would say spurious, claims on the public purse, which also seem to favour the perpetrators of crime over the law-abiding citizen.

I have some sympathy for this view myself, but as a former Inspector of Prisons - and former avid fan of Porridge - I was surprised, over the course of eight years, to encounter very few "barrack-room lawyers" on the galleries, as I threaded my way round Scottish prisons (which in those seemingly far off days were not in very savoury condition).

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Not once in the thousands of interviews of prisoners which I conducted, and on which my reports to parliament were partly based, did any old (or young) lag bring up the subject of their "human rights", despite having endless amounts of time to lie in their cells and conjure up both real and imaginary grievances.

Instead, No 1 on their list of complaints, which wasn't as long as some would imagine, invariably surrounded their lack of contact with their family, which of course is the inevitable consequence of the loss of freedom that underpins their being sent to prison in the first place, along with the over-arching need to protect the public, in the case of serious or persistent criminals.

There were far more complaints about the amount - and quality - of the food than there ever were about "slopping out", and I would be a rich man if I had received 50p every time I heard a complaint about "not getting to see the doctor": most medical centres have gradually, over the years, become nurse-led. In general, I received many more complaints from staff than I did prisoners, most, though not all justifiable, including some from some very frazzled governors.

With the "signing up" of the Scottish Parliament to European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in 1999, it seemed inevitable to me that the whole tenor of putative legal challenges by prisoners was about to change, and before issuing a warning about that in one of my key reports (on the rights of remand prisoners), I found it necessary, for the first time ever, to go to our own civil service legal department in order to find the appropriate wording.

Yet, much later, those same words were to come back and haunt the Scottish Prison Service and the Justice Department over claims surrounding "slopping out" which are still ongoing. In other words, surely "the powers that be" might have seen ECHR coming and could have done something about it!"

From all that I saw (from a somewhat jaded sideline), I am sure that both ministers and civil servants saw the deluge coming and contrary to some opinion, have not remained sitting like frightened rabbits in the oncoming headlights. The problem now costing all taxpayers dearly is not so much one of official incompetence - though maybe a charge of complacency might stick in some quarters - but rather one of volume, and detail.

The Scottish Executive and the parliament are awash every day, with the clock mercilessly ticking, with more and more detail, all of which could potentially have a major effect on all our lives.

The difficult trick, as I learned both as a soldier and an inspector, is to be able to anticipate which particular bit of detail is going to leap out and smack you in the face; and then having done so, to devise a plan to keep it in proportion (returning regularly to squash the detail when it threatens to erupt again). John Reid, the Home Secretary, Cathy Jamieson and many other Cabinet ministers could desperately do with a civil service which can do this consistently in large spadefuls, but this requires careful training of "the shop floor", something I am not sure has yet found the proper level for modern challenges to effective management.

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As to whether prisoners should have the right to vote, my own feeling is that it is a very marginal issue in the fight against crime, or for that matter a tool for persuading prisoners to change their ways (what some refer to as "rehabilitation").

What is more important is the interpretation of human rights laws which have been around for many years now - and which will continue to grow, so long as there are lawyers and legal fees to be earned.

On balance, my own opinion is that, by a very short head, maybe some categories of prisoners should be permitted to vote, more especially in a Scotland which this week celebrates Rabbie Burns and that wise exhortation issued many long years before ECHR rules were ever framed, that "a man's a man for a' that".

• Clive Fairweather is the former inspector of prisons in Scotland.