Labour joins fight against prisoners' votes

By Andrew Grice
Thursday 06 January 2011 01:00

The Coalition Government could be forced to water down controversial plans to allow prisoners to vote in elections as Conservative MPs prepare to join forces with Labour to sabotage the proposal.

The threat of a Tory rebellion grew as ministers disclosed that 28,770 prisoners would be entitled to vote under their plans – including 5,991 convicted of violence against the person, 1,753 of sexual offences, 2,486 of robbery and 4,188 of burglary.

Following a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, ministers propose to lift the ban on votes for prisoners for those serving jail sentences of up to four years. Although David Cameron stressed he was doing so reluctantly, the Liberal Democrats have long argued that prisoners should not be denied the right to vote.

Labour delayed a decision on implementing the Court's ruling before last May's election but is now ready to form an unlikely alliance with Tory MPs in an attempt to force a U-turn. More than 40 Tories are said to oppose the Government's plan – potentially enough to defeat it with the backing of the Labour Opposition.

Labour wants the right to vote limited to inmates serving up to one year in jail. That would restrict the number to 8,096 of the 83,000 people in Britain's jails – including 1,761 people convicted of violent offences, 212 of sexual offences, 143 of robbery and 507 of burglary. The figures emerged in a written Commons reply by Crispin Blunt, the Prisons minister. Sadiq Khan, the shadow Justice Secretary, expressed concern that more than 28,000 inmates would be allowed the vote under the Coalition's proposals.

He said: "This is a slap in the face for victims of crime. We have already seen the Conservative-led government break their promise on knife crime. Now they are also giving thousands of offenders the vote. MPs on all sides of the House and the public are right to be angry about this decision."

He accused the Government of "sneaking out" the figures last month on the day the Commons began its Christmas break. Tory MPs also reacted angrily to the disclosure and signalled their willingness to work with Labour on the issue. Philip Davies, Tory MP for Shipley, said: "I have yet to find anyone on our benches who agrees with it. It is totally unacceptable to allow prisoners the vote. The whole point of going to prison is that you lose your liberty; one of your liberties is the freedom to vote."

Mr Davies said he would vote against legislation permitting any prisoners to vote but would also back a Labour amendment restricting the right to criminals serving up to one year in jail. "I will vote with anyone who believes the same," he said.

The Tory MP blamed the Coalition's decision on the influence of the Liberal Democrats. "It seems to be a case of the tail wagging the dog to help Nick Clegg," he said. "The Liberal Democrats are struggling in the polls. If they try to explain this to the public, it will kill them off altogether."

Labour sources said the party had never been happy about the Court's ruling and believed that a one-year limit would be more acceptable to the public as it would stop thousands of robbers and sex offenders getting the vote.

It is unclear when MPs will vote on the Government's proposal, but the threat of a revolt could force ministers to backtrack rather than risk a defeat. Last month, the Coalition backed down over plans to end ring-fenced budgets for sport in schools and to cut the Bookstart scheme which provides free books to young children.