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Michael Russell faces committee questions over prison voting order

Image credit: Scottish Parliament

Michael Russell faces committee questions over prison voting order

Scottish Secretary for Government Business and Constitutional Relations Michael Russell says granting remedial orders to allow prisoners a vote in the Shetland by-election was “the safest thing to do” given MSPs were on recess at the time.

“Something had to be done for the Shetland by-election,” Russell told the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee (DPLR) this morning.

“With the Scottish Elections [Franchise and Representation] Bill already before parliament, I have been very clear that the blanket ban on prisoner voting is not appropriate. In my view… it was essential to ensure ECHR [European Convention on Human Rights] compliance for the by-election.”

On August 1, Russell announced a remedial order to give prisoners serving sentences of 12 months or less the right to vote in the Shetland by-election, to bring Scottish voting rules into line with human rights law.

One week later the DPLR committee wrote to Russell, demanding to know why it was not given prior warning about the order and called him to give evidence before the committee.

Asked today why he did not give the committee warning about the interim order, he said: “I’m sorry I was unable to give advanced warning of our intention to make the order, but I did, as you know, write to you on the day that the order was made, giving you information about it.”

“The reason was the timescale and the nature of the recess, the official notice of the by-election was given on the 15th of July, which meant there was limited time available in order to arrange limited prisoner voting at the election,” he said.

He said he had looked at “three possible courses of action” for the by-election.

“One was to do nothing, that, in my view, would have put Scottish Parliament in breach of the convention, the second thing was to have emergency legislation, and the view members would’ve taken to recall parliament on 1st August.

“Members might not have been sympathetic to that taking place.”

Since the prison voting legislation will need a “super majority”, Russell said all members of Scottish Parliament would have been recalled from their recess to vote on emergency legislation.

“It would require all members present, which would have been difficult to achieve. Some people would’ve been sunning themselves in Lanzarote or on study tours of the Arctic,” he said.

Russell said the Scottish Government estimated “up to five” prisoners, with postcodes in the Shetland area, would have been given the right to vote at the August 29 by-election. However, he said “it would be wrong to inquire” as to whether those individuals actually voted.

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