The claim

“This is potentially costing us £160 million, so we have to come forward with proposals, because I do not want us to spend that money; it is not right.”
David Cameron MP, Prime Minister’s Questions, November 3, 2010

Cathy Newman checks it out

David Cameron’s imprisoned in a legal nightmare. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled the government must end the blanket ban on prisoners voting. If he does so, he faces the wrath of Parliament and, he says, will make himself physically ill.

But if he defies the ruling, he’s in breach of the law and will face a multi-million pound compensation bill from prisoners who say their human rights have been abused. The cost of compensating inmates varies wildly. Last year, David Cameron put it at £160m. Was he right or, as some of his backbenchers suspect, have m’learned friends nobbled him?

The analysis

The Prime Minister said in November that it made him “physically ill” even thinking about giving the vote to anyone in prison. “Frankly, when people commit a crime and go to prison, they should lose their rights, including the right to vote,” he added.

All of which leaves him loath to pay out £160m in compensation claims.

But where did he pluck that figure from? Downing Street has yet to enlighten FactCheck, and no one else seems to have repeated the claim without quoting Mr Cameron.

My colleague Gary Gibbon was told by a government source that fresh legal advice suggests compensation claims now add up to £143m.

Yet, with the government not even offering sums on the back of an envelope for an explanation, FactCheck is left bemused.

As is Labour MP Chris Bryant, who during today’s debate in the Commons over prisoner votes, asked for publication of these elusive figures.

This prompted the Attorney General Dominic Grieve to admit that it was “very difficult to know how much compensation might or might not have to be paid”.

However, for the first time he revealed some of the thinking behind it. “If there were two elections in which the entirety of the sentenced population in the current prison system were to be deprived of the right to vote and they were all to bring a claim, then on that basis I think of about 73,000 people in the prison system in that category and on the basis of around £1,000 to £1,500 worth of compensation and costs that might have to be paid, the Honourable Gentleman can start to work out what the sort of total cost might be,” he said.

By FactCheck’s calculations this amounts to a maximum of £110m – if every single prisoner claimed, which even Mr Grieve said was unlikely.

That’s a fair way off the £160m originally mooted by the Prime Minister. And it’s a few quid short of the £143m figure leaked to our Political Editor.

Aidan O’Neill, a barrister expert in prisoners’ rights, told FactCheck there are so many variables involved that it is almost impossible to put a number on it.

However, to hazard a guesstimate, he suggested looking at a case in Italy, where 1500 euros was paid out, and a case in Hungary which paid out 3000 euros (between £1,267 and £2,535). Both paid compensation only, not legal expenses. Using these figures, if every one of the 73,000 prisoners claimed, the bill would be for £185m – surpassing Mr Cameron’s original estimate.

Many honourable members remain unconvinced. Former Justice Secretary Jack Straw told FactCheck the figures were “a matter untested at present”.

The verdict

There’s probably no shortage of envelopes in the prime minister’s study, and he wouldn’t have found it hard to scribble on the back of one. To be fair, though, there are some hard and fast figures to justify his warnings about the scale of potential compensation claims if we fail to comply with European law. And there’s no shortage of sharp-eyed lawyers ready to pounce.

But it’s rather unlikely that every inmate deprived of a vote would be moved to sue. So while the compensation bill may easily run into the millions, much over £100m seems a bit of a stretch.