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Prison Reform Trust director Juliet Lyon
"This is a relic of the 19th century"
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The BBC's Jon Silverman
"Convicted prisoners have been disqualified from voting since 1870"
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Wednesday, 21 March, 2001, 16:39 GMT
Prisoners' voting rights bid attacked
Most European nations give some prisoners the vote
A legal bid by three prisoners to win the right to vote has been attacked as "darn silly" by shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe.

Sentenced inmates have been banned from voting in the UK since 1870.

But the prisoners - serving sentences for drug smuggling, arson, and manslaughter - have launched a High Court challenge, arguing the ban breaches their human rights.

The case could have implications for the country's 64,000 prisoners.

It is in our interests as a society to have those people coming out with a sense of responsibility.

Juliet Lyon
Prison Reform Trust

Under the European Human Rights Convention, which passed into UK law last year, citizens are guaranteed the right to participate in free elections.

But Ms Widdecombe condemned the legal challenge as "a mockery of justice".

"The courts have ruled that convicted prisoners, many of them dangerous, cannot be allowed to take part in normal society," she said.

"How, therefore, can it be sensible to give them a say in how that society should be run?"

Human rights

She said the Tories had warned the government that the incorporation of the European Human Rights Convention into UK law would result "in this sort of silly case".

Ann Widdecombe
Widdecombe: Case is mockery of justice

The challenge is being brought by Anthony Pearson, serving 10 years for importation of drugs; Richard Martinez, serving life after being convicted in 1996 for committing arson with intent to endanger life; and John Hirst, serving life for manslaughter.

QC Edward Fitzgerald told the High Court on Wednesday the voting ban was "completely illogical".

Those jailed for offences lost the right to vote while those who committed offences but were not imprisoned did not, he said.

The ban also punished prisoners who had served their tariff for retribution and deterrence but were kept inside purely on a preventative basis.

Mr Fitzgerald told the court there was no ban in 19 European states and only a specific ban for particular offenders in eight states.

The action is backed by the Prison Reform Trust.

Trust director Juliet Lyon said that enfranchising convicts would increase the chances of them going straight on release.

"If we are interested in involving people and asserting their role and responsibility as citizens, surely they should have the vote while in prison," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Cross-party support

The denial of voting rights was "a relic of the 19th Century" she said.

"I think it is in our interests as a society to have those people coming out with a sense of responsibility, feeling less excluded than they were when they went in," she added.

She said the campaign for prisoners' right to vote had gained support from MPs of all parties.

Prison Service director general Martin Narey said in a recent interview that it would be a good idea to allow prisoners to take part in elections.

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