People in prison are citizens, says Archbishop ahead of prisoner voting rights debate

The Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams has spoken of the importance of regarding people in prison as citizens ahead of a debate and vote in Parliament tomorrow (Thursday 10 February) to retain the UK’s blanket ban on sentenced prisoners voting.

The notion that in some sense, not the civic liberties but the civic status of a prisoner is in cold storage when custody takes over is one of the roots of a whole range of issues around the rights of prisoners,

he told a recent meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Penal Affairs Group in the House of Commons.

If we lose sight of the notion of the prisoner as citizen, any number of things follow from that, and indeed are following from that.
The prisoner as citizen is somebody who can on the one hand expect their dignity as a citizen to be factored into what happens to them, and can reasonably expect that penal custody will be something that contributes to, rather than takes away, their capacity to act as a citizen in other circumstances. Thus issues around restoration, around responsibility, around developing concepts of empathy and mutuality are all part of what seems to me to be a reasonable working out of what it is to regard the prisoner as a citizen.
The blanket ban is in place despite a 2004 European Court judgment which declared it unlawful. In a briefing sent to MPs ahead of Thursday’s debate, the Aire Centre, Criminal Justice Alliance, JUSTICE, Liberty, Penal Reform International, Prison Reform Trust and UNLOCK, the National Association of Reformed Offenders, warn that failure to overturn the ban before elections in May will result in mounting compensation claims and the “unnecessary and avoidable waste of UK taxpayers’ money”. They “urge the government and Parliament to now put aside delaying tactics, respect the judgment of the Court and overturn the outdated ban on prisoners voting.”

The government has acknowledged that the UK needs to move towards compliance with the European Court judgment and at least some sentenced prisoners will be allowed to vote. However, without urgent action, elections in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and in local constituencies due to be held in May 2011 will not be compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights. The 2010 general election was held in breach of the European Convention and over 70,000 people were unlawfully disenfranchised. This has resulted in more than 2,500 compensation claims so far being lodged with the European Court.

The former Lord Chancellor, Lord MacKay, has criticised the UK’s failure to comply with the judgment. In evidence to the House of Common’s Parliamentary and Constitutional Reform Committee on 1 February, he said:

The [European] Convention ... was initiated ... to deal with the ... terrible persecution of minorities in Germany ... If we believe in the rule of law, we are just as much bound to observe the decisions of the European Court on matters within their competence as we are to obey the decisions of our own courts in matters within their competence.

Dr Peter Selby, former Bishop to HM Prisons and now President of the National Council for Independent Monitoring Boards for Prisons has stated that:

Denying convicted prisoners the right to vote serves no purpose of deterrence or reform. What it does is to state in the clearest terms society’s belief that once convicted you are a non-person, one who should have no say in how our society is to develop, whose opinion is to count for nothing. It is making someone an “outlaw”, and as such has no place in expressing a civilised attitude towards those in prison.

The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales also support the view that prisoners should have the right to vote. Their report, A Place of Redemption, states that: “Prison regimes should treat prisoners less as objects, done to by others, and more as subjects who can become authors of their own reform and redemption. In that spirit, the right to vote should be restored to sentenced prisoners.”

Commenting, Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:
In all conscience surely MPs should stand up for the fundamental human rights and dignity of everyone, obey the law and encourage the exercise of civic responsibility. Hanging on to a nineteenth century punishment of civic death is morally and legally wrong. The outdated ban on prisoners voting has no place in a modern prison system, which is about rehabilitation and respect for the rule of law.
Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, said:
A victim of a crime may feel understandable revulsion if a convicted prisoner re-builds any kind of life but this re-building can prevent future crime. Depriving some people of their liberty is vital for public protection but depriving all prisoners of the vote is as petty and counter-productive as depriving them of books or communication with their families. The truth is that Britain is better than that. Our politicians won’t teach criminals to obey our laws by breaching international law themselves.



1.   The Archbishop's address to the APPG (All-Party Parliamentary Group) on Penal Affairs, at the House of Commons in London on 18 January 2011, is available to download here.

2.   The briefing Barred From Voting: The Right to Vote for Sentenced Prisoners, supported by the Aire Centre, Criminal Justice Alliance, JUSTICE, Liberty, Penal Reform International, Prison Reform Trust and UNLOCK, the National Association of Reformed Offenders, is available to download here.

3.   The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee will publish its report, Voting by convicted prisoners: summary of evidence at 11.00 hrs on Wednesday 9 February 2011.Copies will be available on the Committee’s website: <>