Hundreds of violent offenders could vote, figures show
Watch Iain Watson's report for Newsnight in full
By Iain Watson
Figures reveal that 1,780 criminals convicted of violent or sexual offences would be eligible to vote under plans to give prisoners voting rights.
The BBC learned last week that the government wants to limit the right to those sentenced to less than a year.
Ministry of Justice figures for England and Wales at the end of 2010 show 1,551 inmates convicted of violence against a person serving less than a year.
There were 229 people convicted of sexual offences in the same bracket.
Labour MP Gloria De Piero obtained the figures, which relate to the number of people in jail in England and Wales at the end of December 2010, by submitting a request to the Ministry of Justice.
The ministry add a disclaimer, saying the exact figures "are subject to possible errors", but the political effects cannot be mistaken.
Time running in out
Late last year, the government inadvertently stoked the fires of a parliamentary rebellion by announcing its intention to give prisoners serving sentences of four years or less the right to vote at general elections.
It was not something Prime Minister David Cameron wanted to do. The thought of it, he said, made him "physically ill".
People serving one year have committed quite serious offence. This compromise could be the worst of all worlds
But time was running out for him to comply with a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights. To ignore it, the government said, would place it at risk of having to pay up to £160m in compensation to disenfranchised prisoners.
The initial court case was taken to the Strasbourg court by John Hirst in 2005, who had been convicted of manslaughter.
By 12 votes to five, the judges ruled in Mr Hirst's favour. The then Labour government initially announced that it would consider giving some categories of prisoners the vote, then delayed the divisive issue until after the general election.
The current government has an August deadline for beginning to comply with the court before it faces calls for payouts to prisoners and former inmates.
That means that it has to introduce legislation to enfranchise convicted criminals before the summer.
This has given those opposed to prisoners' votes a focus - and it has also been something of a rallying cry to those on the right of the Conservative Party who want to tweak the prime minister's tail because they believe he has been too indulgent of the Liberal Democrats.
To increase the pressure on Mr Cameron, the former shadow home secretary David Davis joined forces with the former Home Secretary Jack Straw to force a debate on the issue - this is now provisionally scheduled for 10 February.
It is understood that - facing defeat - the government will allow a "free vote" and not attempt to get backbenchers to toe the official line.
So, next month, it is highly likely that there will be a majority in parliament against giving prisoners serving sentences of four years or less voting rights.
David Cameron says the issue make him 'physically ill'
But the result of this debate will be non-binding on the government. It is still expected to bring forward its own legislation before the summer to demonstrate what it intends to do to comply with the European Court.
So, behind the scenes, negotiations have already been going on to find a compromise.
Privately, at a lunch with more than 20 leading backbenchers last week, Mr Cameron suggested he would be willing to restrict voting rights to prisoners serving one year or less, though some of those present urged him to look at six-month sentences instead.
Influential Conservative backbenchers say that Mr Cameron now faces the biggest revolt of his government - even if he does indeed compromise, and offers the vote only to prisoners serving one year or less, rather than four.
The Ministry of Justice figures may also dissuade Labour MPs from agreeing to a one-year compromise.
Tony Blair's former political adviser at Downing Street, John McTernan, has told Newsnight that the opposition has "the foot on the government's throat on this issue and should keep it there".
The Labour frontbench opposes giving prisoners serving up to four years a vote and while it has not ruled out a one-year compromise it wants the government to show them the legal advice they have been given. Sources say it may well end up opposing votes for any prisoners.
A second problem is that the one-year compromise might not satisfy the Strasbourg court - and there may still be calls for compensation for prisoners serving sentences of one to four years who are denied the vote.
Mr Davis has told Newsnight he would reject the prime minister's new position, and believes many of his colleagues would do the same.
"People serving one year have committed quite serious offences", he said. "This compromise could be the worst of all worlds. One thing driving the government's decision is a fear of having to pay compensation. But if you give way to the court one inch, you give way on compensation."
His position is that the government should deny all prisoners the vote and argue that the European Court of Human Rights has exceeded its powers in trying to foist this decision on a sovereign parliament.
But others argue that this sort of stand-off with Strasbourg could set a dangerous precedent.
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