Tory rebels given green light to crush prison votes


David Cameron is quietly giving a green light to Tory rebels seeking to crush plans giving prisoners the vote for the first time in 140 years.

Senior sources said it would be ‘quite helpful’ if Parliament rejected the move, which has been forced on ministers by a series of European court rulings.

The Government would then go back to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and say its attempts to comply by changing the law had failed.

Democratic right? Supporters of the bill argue that even those who have lost their liberty should be able to vote

Democratic right? Supporters of the bill argue that even those who have lost their liberty should be able to vote

The extraordinary volte-face on the most explosive political issue facing the Coalition in the weeks ahead will encourage dozens of Conservative MPs threatening to back a cross-party attempt to block the reform.

The suggestion that ministers are relaxed about the outcome means the Government now looks almost certain to face defeat. Alternatively, whips may propose a compromise motion in which MPs insist the number of prisoners voting must be kept to an absolute minimum.

That could allow ministers to negotiate a compromise with Europe which would see the sentencing threshold at which inmates are denied the vote dramatically scaled back – from four years to one year.

The issue is a delicate one within the Coalition, since the Liberal Democrats actively wanted to enfranchise prisoners before the election. Mr Cameron, by contrast, has said the prospect makes him feel ill.

Labour’s former justice secretary Jack Straw has joined forces with senior Tory David Davis to secure an early Commons vote on the issue.

JACK STRAW
David Davis

Unusual bedfellows: Labour's Jack Straw and Conservative David Davis have joined forces to secure an early Commons vote on the issue

The pair say it is a test of authority between Parliament and the ECHR and hope the debate, to take place next month, will embolden the Government to defy the court. It has been forced to enfranchise convicted criminals after losing a ruling at Strasbourg.

Ministers claim they will face compensation claims worth tens of millions of pounds if they do not respond.

About 2,500 prisoners have started legal proceedings because the law denies them a vote.

Ministers announced late last year that those jailed for more than four years, including murderers and rapists, will be disenfranchised.

But sentencing judges will also be given the discretion to stop those handed a jail term of less than four years from casting a ballot while they are behind bars.

Opponents point out that 13 signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights – including Ireland – still have voting bans on prisoners.

Even those that do impose restrictions often have harsher ones than the Government is proposing, with Belgium banning criminals from voting if they have a sentence of longer than just four months.

Mr Davis, the former shadow home secretary, described the ECHR’s attempt to dictate to the British Parliament as a ‘crisis’.

‘I yield to no one in my defence of human rights, but giving rapists the vote is not human rights,’ he said.

The Prime Minister’s spokesman said: ‘We welcome a debate. Our intention has been to keep the number of prisoners who have got the vote to an absolute minimum.’

However, Jon Collins, director of the Criminal Justice Alliance, said this was ‘a disgraceful attempt to derail the Government’s decision’.

‘It is a basic principle that in a democracy, everybody counts.

‘The Government should stand by its decision to take long-overdue action on the important issue of prisoners’ voting rights.’


 

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