Prisoners allowed to vote in Shetland by-election
Prisoners serving sentences of 12 months or less will be given the right to vote in the Shetland by-election on 29 August, after the Scottish Government announced a remedial order to bring voting rules into line with human rights law.
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 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
As the Shetland by-election will occur before the legislation is updated, Scottish Constitutional Relations Secretary Mike Russell has announced he will make a remedial order “bringing the franchise for the by-election into line with ECHR in order to ensure the by-election is secure”.
The order, which comes into force on 2 August, will allow all prisoners serving sentences of 12 months or less, who were a resident of Shetland prior to going to prison, to register for a vote before the 13 August deadline.
“The courts have been crystal clear – the blanket ban on prisoner voting is not compliant with the ECHR,” Russell said.
“Whether people agree with that or oppose it, one thing everyone should agree on is that elections must be compliant with the law. And, unlike the UK Government, who did not rectify this issue for more than a decade, the Scottish Government is legally obliged under the Scotland Act to comply with the ECHR.
“The timing of the by-election means action must be taken now, on a temporary basis, to ensure Scotland does not breach the ECHR.”
The Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill was introduced into parliament on 20 June and will be debated once MSPs return from summer recess.
The order’s provisions will reflect the intention the bill, which proposes to extend the same rights to future devolved elections in Scotland.
Russell said the “temporary” remedial order would be repealed before parliament debates the bill.
“The resignation of the sitting Shetland MSP means that we have to move quickly to bring the resulting by-election into line with the law,” he said.
“This is a pragmatic, short-term solution, and our intention is that bill currently before parliament, if passed, will provide the longer-term solution.”
However, the Scottish Conservatives warned the changes could set an “all-important precedent” which she said could enable “dangerous criminals to vote in future elections”.
“Although there will be little impact on this particular election, this ill-judged move opens the door for prisoner voting more generally,” Scottish Tories equalities spokesperson Annie Wells said.
“That’s not what the people of Scotland want to see, and not what prisoners deserve.”
Wells said: “The fact this is being done without any proper debate or consultation is particularly unacceptable.”
“Victims of crime will be furious that people guilty of assault, domestic violence and serious drugs offences will be able to influence our political future,” she said.
Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Liam McArthur said the move was “a fair and progressive change”.
“Liberal Democrats have been calling for changes to prisoner voting rules for years,” he said.
“The existing blanket ban on prisoner votes flouts international law and impedes rehabilitation. We think it’s important to build civic responsibility among the prison population.”
Ministers are allowed to make a remedial order “where necessary to ensure compatibility with the ECHR”, and this order will be made under the “procedure for urgent cases”, the Scottish Government confirmed.