Scottish independence: Prisoner vote ban challenged

MSPs have voted against prisoners being given the vote in the Scottish independence referendum - pictured HMP Barlinnie. Picture: PA
MSPs have voted against prisoners being given the vote in the Scottish independence referendum - pictured HMP Barlinnie. Picture: PA
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A BAN on prisoners voting in the independence referendum is to be challenged in court, a human rights lawyer has said.

MSPs yesterday rejected moves to allow some inmates to vote in next year’s plebiscite, despite concerns that a blanket ban breaches European law.

But lawyer Tony Kelly, who helped spearhead the slopping-out compensation drive for Scottish prisoners, said the matter would now end up in court.

“The fact that these amendments have not been accepted means that the bill remains, in relation to this particular provision unamended, and there most certainly will be a challenge,” he said.

He said he had already been approached by prisoners and an application for a judicial review would be lodged at the Court of Session after the bill was passed into law.

Mr Kelly is the brother of Labour MSP James Kelly, who was among those who voted down the moves to have the franchise extended to prisoners at Holyrood’s referendum committee.

A 2004 European Court judgment ruled against any blanket ban on inmates voting in normal elections. But the SNP government insists referendums are exempt.

Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said a legal challenge to government legislation was “always possible”. But she added: “We don’t believe a challenge to this would be successful.”

She told MSPs the referendum bill had gone through all the “normal processes”, including legal checks, and been certified with “legislative competence”.

She went on: “The government does not believe that convicted prisoners should be able to vote while they are in custody. We hold that view for reasons of principle, law and consistency.”

The Greens and Liberal Democrats lodged amendments to the bill that would have given the vote to short-term prisoners.

Green leader Patrick Harvie warned the row would end in a messy court battle.

“I regret the fact that we seem likely to have, instead of a couple of weeks of unfortunate headlines in the newspapers about prisoners getting the right to vote, instead of that we’re probably going to have months of legal process,” he said. “I think that’s a shame.”

Lib Dem MSP Alison McInnes said the existing blanket ban violated prisoners’ rights. “We know that ruling does not apply directly to the referendum, but falling back behind that argument I think is weak,” she said.

But James Kelly told MSPs: “What’s missing in this debate is the voice of victims of crime.”

The Lib Dems and Greens lodged various amendments that would have given a vote to some prisoners: those with a sentence of less than four years, those serving less than six months and those with less than six months of a sentence left. They were all defeated.