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20 December 2012

MPs should not flout law on prisoners’ votes

Read today’s jointly signed letter in the Guardian calling on the government to comply with the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights and allow prisoners the vote.

The European court of human rights ruled in 2005 that the blanket ban on sentenced prisoners voting is unlawful. Since then the UK government has remained in breach of its legal obligations. With six months to comply following the Scoppola judgment on 22 May this year, we understand that the government will introduce draft legislation on prisoners voting for debate in the House of Commons today, 22 November.

We ask MPs to consider if they are prepared to continue to flout international law, face substantial financial penalties, and millions in mounting compensation claims, and ignore the advice of the attorney general in order to stop prisoners from acting responsibly by voting in democratic elections.

Almost all of our European neighbours allow prisoners to vote – to pay their debt to society while remaining a part of it. Our outdated approach, enshrined in the Forfeiture Act 1870, to strip prisoners of their voting rights does the opposite. A 19th-century penalty condemning people to “civic death” makes no sense in a 21st-century prison system whose focus is on rehabilitation, resettlement and the prevention of reoffending.

The message that we can pick and choose which laws we obey is a poor one, for people in prison and for society as a whole. We hope parliament will now use its discretion and support sensible measures to start to comply with, and implement, the judgment.

Juliet Lyon Director, Prison Reform Trust, Shami Chakrabarti Director, Liberty, Rt Rev James Jones Bishop of Liverpool and bishop to Her Majesty’s prisons, David Ramsbotham House of Lords, Vicki Helyar-Cardwell Director, Criminal Justice Alliance, Nuala Mole Senior lawyer, The AIRE Centre, Chris Bath Executive director, Unlock – the National Association of Reformed Offenders, Michael Bartlet Parliamentary liaison secretary, Quakers in Britain, Dr Peter Selby President, National Council for Independent Monitoring Boards, Alison Hannah Executive director, Penal Reform International