Prisoners (Right to Vote)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 17th May 2018.

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Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

6. To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government position is on extending the right to vote to all prisoners. (S5F-02337)

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I have noted the Equalities and Human Rights Committee report, which was published earlier this week. I have been clear that now that the power is devolved, the Scottish Parliament will need to consider how to ensure compliance with the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights. I am not of the view that that should lead to the enfranchising of all prisoners. I am sceptical, to say the least, that complying with the European convention on human rights requires all prisoners to have the right to vote.

As the committee has made clear, further consultation with a wide range of stakeholders, including victims of crime and the general public, is needed. The Scottish Government will respond to the committee’s report in due course.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I welcome the First Minister’s response. As she mentioned, earlier this week, Labour, Lib Dem and Scottish National Party MSPs on the Equalities and Human Rights Committee supported calls to give all prisoners the right to vote. In response to that, the victims campaigner John Muir, whose son Damian was stabbed to death in 2007, said:

“It is an obscenity that this is even being considered and an insult to all victims of crime. My son’s civil liberties died with him on the street—why should someone who has committed murder, or carried out a brutal rape, be afforded the privilege of being able to vote?”

Does the First Minister agree that all MSPs should listen to the victims of crime, such as Mr Muir, and stand up for their rights first?

The First Minister:

I am sure that all MSPs will be very mindful of the views of victims of crime. The comments that I made a moment ago are very clear. I am not making any criticism of the committee—it has considered the issue and made recommendations, as it is entitled to do. The issues are difficult and sensitive. A power that was previously reserved has now been devolved to the Scottish Parliament and therefore we have an obligation to ensure that the laws in our country are compliant with the European convention on human rights.

It is my view that we should not give the vote to all prisoners. I am certainly not persuaded of the case for enfranchising prisoners who are in prison for the most serious and heinous crimes and for lengthy periods. I do not think that that is required in order for us to comply with the European convention on human rights.

Beyond that, the Parliament requires a proper, mature debate. I thank the committee for its report, which will inform that debate. The fact that I do not agree with all the recommendations does not mean that it is not a debate that we need to have. As I said, the Government will formally respond to the committee’s report in due course, but I hope that, as the debate progresses, we will all listen to the victims of crime—we all have a duty to do that. I hope that, together as a Parliament, we can bring the debate to a sensible outcome in due course.

Photo of John Finnie John Finnie Green

The First Minister will be aware that the right to vote is enshrined in the universal declaration of human rights and that many people agree with the Prison Reform Trust, which says that voting is not a privilege; it is a basic human right.

Given that Tom Halpin, the highly respected head of Sacro, has evidenced the benefits of enfranchising prisoners, will the First Minister take the opportunity to ensure that Scotland joins progressive countries such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland in its approach to such an important issue?

The First Minister:

There is a range of arrangements in place across other countries, just as there is a range of interpretations of European Court of Human Rights rulings. Murdo Fraser was right to say that we must listen to the victims of crime. It is also important to listen to those who work with those who are sentenced to prison. I am a huge believer in the importance of rehabilitation and doing everything that we can through our justice system to rehabilitate prisoners and reduce reoffending. That is reflected in many aspects of the Scottish Government’s justice policies.

It is a complex issue. I might be being naive by making this plea at the outset of what will undoubtedly be a sensitive debate in the Parliament. None of us comes at it from an absolutely fixed position: we can approach all the issues carefully and in a grown-up way and come to a balanced outcome.

I have been very clear that I do not support enfranchising all prisoners, but there is a debate to be had before Parliament takes a decision on that. We have the opportunity to have that debate and get the right outcome, for the best reasons. I hope that all of us—regardless of party—take that opportunity.