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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Jack Straw and David Davis bid to block prisoner votes

Jack Straw and David Davis bid to block prisoner votes

By Nick Robinson BBC Political Editor

18 January 2011 Last updated at 13:32

Labour's Jack Straw is joining forces with Conservative David Davis in an attempt to block plans to give thousands of prisoners the vote.

Only prisoners on remand can currently vote

The former home secretary and shadow home secretary are seeking to trigger a Commons vote on the issue.

The pair want the government to defy a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

Ministers say if they do not change the law they will face compensation claims from prisoners costing well over £100m.

They plan to give any prisoner serving less than four years a vote in Westminster and European elections.

But Mr Straw and Mr Davis have made a Dragons' Den-style pitch to the new Commons Backbench Business Committee at to ask for time to debate a motion calling for the planned change in the law to be scrapped, which could be voted on by MPs as early as next week.

The two men are making use of new Commons rules which give backbenchers control of parts of the parliamentary timetable.

Real problem

They argue that the Commons should be given the chance to stand up to the ECtHR and defy what they see as an illegitimate challenge to a democratically elected Parliament.

The move could pose a real problem for the coalition.

Many Tory MPs have threatened to rebel on the issue. They are angry not only at the idea of giving the vote to prisoners but at the power of the ECtHR.

The Conservative manifesto promised to amend the Human Rights Act - a plan which has since been put on the back burner.

Labour has said that it may vote with Tory rebels so a parliamentary defeat for the government cannot be ruled out.

The Liberal Democrats have consistently argued for a change in the law.

The government's proposals could involve giving the vote to many thousands of offenders in England and Wales.

Legal victory

More than 28,000 prisoners have sentences of less than four years including almost 6,000 jailed for violent crime, over 1,700 sex offenders, more than 4,000 burglars and 4,300 imprisoned for drug offences.

The precise number of prisoners eligible to vote may be lower since a small number of those serving four-year sentences may be concurrently in jail for longer terms and will still, therefore, be barred.

This argument was triggered by the legal victory of a prisoner called John Hirst who had been convicted of manslaughter and argued that the voting ban was incompatible with the Human Rights Act.

Last year the European Court of Human Rights set the government a deadline for a change in the law of August 2011.

Ministers said legislation would be passed before MPs' summer break but rebels suspect that they are waiting until after May's elections to introduce it. Mr Davis and Mr Straw are moving to ensure that that vote is held sooner rather than later.

Widespread support

Mr Straw was first home secretary and then Lord Chancellor in the last Labour government, which launched a consultation on granting votes to prisoners but never acted on it. Mr Davis was shadow home secretary when the Conservatives said they would oppose any such move.

Their motion reads: "This House... is of the opinion that A) legislative decisions of this nature should be a matter for democratically elected lawmakers and B) that on the merits of the issue the current policy... is confirmed."

The Commons Backbench Business Committee controls the subject for debate on 35 days a year although the timing is up to the government.

Mr Straw and Mr Davis are competing with other proposals on the reform of Parliament and consumer credit regulation.

The committee is meant to choose a motion which has widespread cross-party support and which the government and opposition do not plan to debate in their allotted time.

The committee's decision will be off camera and will be known later on Tuesday.

Comment: Edited to correct Nick Robinson's bad English. I will be on BBC 1 Look North tonight putting Jack Straw and David Davis in their place!

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