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Politics / Shetland by-election first to give prisoners the right to vote

A NEW chapter of human rights history will be written at this month’s by-election when for the first time anywhere in the UK some prisoners will be given the right to vote.

The move has been welcomed by some of the candidates standing in the by-election that has been called following the resignation of sitting MSP Tavish Scott.

The change in the franchise for Scottish Parliament elections follows the 2005 European Court of Human Rights ruling that found the UK Government’s blanket ban on prisoner voting is a breach of human rights.

However, this breach was not rectified before powers over the franchise for Scottish Parliament elections were devolved in 2017.

Constitutional relations secretary Mike Russell has now issued a temporary order making the Shetland by-election on 29 August the first that gives prisoners who are serving sentences of 12 months or less the right to vote.

In order to do so they have to register to vote before 13 August. The Scottish Government said that it is estimated that the change in the law will affect fewer than five people.

Russell said the courts have been crystal clear – the blanket ban on prisoner voting is not compliant with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

“Whether people agree with that or oppose it, one thing everyone should agree on is that elections must be compliant with the law,” he said.

“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“The Order will then be repealed prior to the full parliamentary debate on legislation to put in place a long-term solution to the issue.”

Reacting to the change, independent candidate Ian Scott said that “as a matter of principle” he had always believed that “our political process should be open to everyone”.

However, Conservative candidate Brydon Goodlad said he was opposed to the move.

“Our view is that prisoners should not be given the ability to vote in elections or referendums.

“When someone commits a crime serious enough to result in prison time, they should also lose the right to vote.”

Both Lib Dem candidate Beatrice Wishart and SNP candidate Tom Wills didn’t respond directly but through their party headquarters.

The Lib Dems justice spokesman Liam McArthur said the party had been calling for changes to prisoner voting rules for years.

“The existing blanket ban on prisoner votes flouts international law and impedes rehabilitation,” he said

“We think it’s important to build civic responsibility among the prison population. This is a fair and progressive change.”

A spokesman for the SNP added: “The Scottish Government has taken the necessary legal steps in order to comply with the European Commission of Human Rights.

“Prisoners are protected under the ECHRR, who have ruled the current blanket ban on voting by all prisoners is untenable.  It is estimated that this change, which is necessary by law, will extend the franchise to less than five people.”