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Tuesday 1st February 2011 | 09:07
By Paul Waugh
Tory backbenchers are set to be allowed a free vote on a Commons motion opposing prisoner voting rights, PoliticsHome.come has learned.
Faced with possibly his biggest ever rebellion by Conservative MPs, David Cameron is looking closely at allowing the Government payroll vote to abstain on the motion tabled by David Davis and Jack Straw.
With just over a week to go before next Thursday's Backbench Business Committee debate on the issue, Government whips are set to effectively concede they would lose the vote and instead allow MPs to express their personal views, sources say.
Meanwhile, the cross-party campaign against voting rights for prisoners hardened its stance today as Mr Davis and Mr Straw published the wording of their Commons motion opposing the Government's plans.
The motion states that "no sentenced prisoner", other than those on remand or in jail for contempt or debt default, should be granted the vote.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled last year in favour of John Hirst, a prisoner who had been convicted of manslaughter and argued that the voting ban was incompatible with the Human Rights Act. The Ministry of Justice and Number 10 concluded that to fight the ruling could result in lengthy and expensive litigation.
But that decision triggered fury among both Tory and Labour MPs.
The Straw-Davis motion stresses that Parliament, rather than the European courts, should decide the issue. It exploits the fact that the European Court of Human Rights conceded that there had been no "substantive" debate on the topic by Parliament.
The motion, which has been amended to fit with Parliamentary counsel's requirements, reads:
"That this House notes the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights in Hirst v the United Kingdom in which it held that there had been no substantive debate by members of the legislature on the continued justification for maintaining a general restriction on the right of prisoners to vote; acknowledges the treaty obligations of the UK; is of the opinion that legislative decisions of this nature should be a matter for democratically elected lawmakers; and supports the current situation in which no sentenced prisoner is able to vote except those imprisoned for contempt, default or on remand."
It is signed by Mr Davis, Mr Straw and Tory backbencher Dominic Raab.
Government sources have hinted that David Cameron is ready to bow to pressure from his own backbenchers and curb voting rights.
Whitehall lawyers had originally suggested that the law could be complied with if prisoners with sentences of four years were given the franchise, but recent reports suggested that prisoners with one-year sentences may only get the vote.
However, fresh figures released last week showed that even if inmates with one-year sentences were granted the vote, that would include upto 1,780 criminals convicted of violent and sexual offences. Tory and Labour MPs are ready to vote in large numbers to oppose any extension of the franchise.
The European Court set the government a deadline for a change in the law of August 2011 and ministers are expected to table legislation for first reading as late as possible. Some backbenchers believe that the Ministry of Justice could even table its legislation on the last day of the summer term before the Commons breaks for recess.
The former Tory Shadow Home Secretary and former Labour Home Secretary persuaded the Backbench Business Committee last month to debate the topic in one of its Backbench Days. The committee has 27 Commons days at its disposal this year.
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