Confusion reigns at Holyrood over prisoner voting rights

Confusion reigns at Holyrood over prisoner voting rights

by Murdo Fraser
article from Friday 18, May, 2018

SHOULD prisoners be given the right to vote in elections? That was the issue considered by the Scottish Parliament this week, following a report from the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, published on Monday.

A majority of MSPs on that Committee, representing the SNP, Labour and the Lib Dems, stated that the current ban should be lifted for all prisoners, regardless of the crimes they had committed or their length of sentence. The SNP Committee Convenor Christina McKelvie said that prisoner voting was a fundamental issue which struck at the heart of questions such as the purpose of prisons, and the rights and responsibilities of the citizen.

The two Conservative members of the Committee, Jamie Greene and Annie Wells, both dissented from this recommendation. They also expressed concern that, in its consideration of the issue, the Committee did not hear from one single victim of crime to get their view.

There is a history to the issue. It was ruled in 2004 that a blanket ban on all prisoners voting meant that the UK was in contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights. In response, a compromise was proposed which would allow a limited number of prisoners the vote, predominantly those held on remand or serving short sentences. This was deemed sufficient to meet the requirements of the court ruling. The matter has now been devolved to Holyrood, and it is up to MSPs to decide how to take the matter forward.

The MSPs in favour of lifting the ban argue that prison should be about rehabilitation as much as punishment, and by excluding prisoners from voting we will simply alienate them further from society. Those on the other side of the argument say that those who have committed a crime serious enough to be sent to prison have broken their contract with society, and should as a result lose the rights that other citizens have to participate in the democratic process.

When I raised the issue at First Minister’s Questions on Thursday, I quoted the views of the campaigner John Muir, whose son Damien was stabbed to death in Greenock in 2007. In response to the Committee’s Report, he said that it would be ‘an obscenity’ to give prisoners such as his son’s killer, and those who had committed other serious offences such as murder or rape, the right to vote, and it would represent an insult to the victims of crime.

The First Minister’s response was that she did not support enfranchising prisoners who were in prison for the most serious and heinous crimes, and are perhaps in prison for lengthy periods of time. However, she did not criticise those MSPs, including those from her own Party, who had contributed to the Committee report calling for precisely this to be done.

The Green MSP John Finnie argued thereafter that the right to vote was enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and that voting was not a privilege but a “basic human right”.

Whilst Nicola Sturgeon’s response to me was welcome, nevertheless it does leave a number of issues unresolved. If we are to give some prisoners the vote, but not all, at what point do we draw the line? How to we ensure that those who have, as the First Minister stated, committed “serious and heinous crimes” are not given the same democratic rights as law-abiding citizens?

And where does this leave those SNP MSPs (including the First Minister’s own Parliamentary Liaison Officer Gail Ross MSP) who seem to have broken with SNP parliamentary tradition and exercised some freedom of thought for once? When the Scottish government makes a decision on this, will they be whipped into line, or will they stick to their guns and vote according to their own views?

Nicola Sturgeon expressed her desire for a mature debate around these issues, and I am sure that is something that everyone would agree with. But in having that debate, we need to ensure that the voices of victims of crime are heard loud and clear, and not ignored as they were by the Equalities and Human Rights Committee.

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