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Committee demands ‘answers’ over allowing prisoner voting in Shetland by-election

Image credit: Peter Macdiarmid/PA

Committee demands ‘answers’ over allowing prisoner voting in Shetland by-election

A Scottish Parliament committee has accused the Scottish Government of failing to give advance notice of its intention to allow prisoners the right to vote in the Shetland by-election.

Last week Scottish Constitutional Relations Secretary Mike Russell announced he would seek a remedial order to give prisoners serving sentences of 12 months of less, who were residents of Shetland before going to prison, the right to vote in the August 29 by-election.

The Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill was introduced into parliament on 20 June and will be debated once MSPs return from summer recess, but Russell said the timing of the by-election meant “action must be taken now, on a temporary basis, to ensure Scotland does not breach the European Convention on Human Rights”.

Today the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee (DPLR) said it was “seeking answers” about why it was not given prior warning about the order and has written to Russell “calling on him to appear before it to address its concerns”.

The committee said the timing of Russell’s decision meant it had “no opportunity to express a view on whether the use of this order was appropriate”.

DPLR is also seeking clarification on why the Scottish Government had decided to take a different approach from the UK Government in relation to prisoner voting in recent by-elections, and whether there was an option to “retain the status quo” until the bill could be considered by parliament.

“We only received notification of this remedial order the day before it came into effect and this meant we did not have adequate time to assess the proposed change,” DPLR committee convener MSP Graham Simpson said.

“Although we are currently in recess, it is essential for the integrity of the Parliament that suitable scrutiny of any legislation takes place. That’s why it is essential that our concerns are addressed.”

The committee said it was seeking a response to the letter by 23 August.

Responding to the news, a Scottish Government spokesperson said Russell was “happy to answer any questions from parliament on this issue.”

“The Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government are legally obliged to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights, and this remedial order ensures the forthcoming by-election in Shetland is compliant,” the spokesperson told Holyrood.

The UK’s blanket ban on prisoner voting was found to have breached human rights legislation, under a 2005 European Court of Human Rights ruling, but successive UK Governments have resisted changing the law.

However, powers over franchise for Scottish Parliament elections were devolved in 2017, with Holyrood and the Scottish Government now legally obliged to comply with the convention.

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