AROUND one in eight Scottish prisoners will be given the right to vote under plans SNP ministers admit will be “an unwelcome change” for many people.

The Scottish Government suggested prisoners serving sentences of less than 12 months could be re-enfranchised as they launched a public consultation on the issue.

The Scottish Tories said no prisoner should be allowed to vote.

If adopted, the plan would see around 1000 of Scotland’s 8000-strong prison population able to cast a proxy or postal vote during a Holyrood or local election.  

Votes would be cast based on prisoners’ home addresses, not the prison address.

Prisoners serving longer sentences for more serious offences would lose the right to vote, while those on remand, parole and home detention curfew would continue to have it.

The idea of a partial ban on prisoner voting follows the current blanket ban on prisoner voting being deemed a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Although it has suggested only prisoners serving less than 12 months should be allowed to vote, the Scottish Government is now asking for views on the appropriate cut-off point.

Earlier this year, Holyrood’s Equalities Committee recommended the ban on prisoner voting should be removed “in its entirety”.

However Constitutional Relations Secretary Michael Russell the government disagreed.

He said: “It is clear that the blanket ban on prisoners voting is no longer fit for purpose as it is not compatible with human rights law.

“Having considered the report and taken into account international practice, the Scottish Government does not take the view that all prisoners should be given the vote.

“We favour allowing only those prisoners serving short sentences to vote.

“I consider that this approach would strike the appropriate balance between the right to vote and the aims of preventing crime by sanctioning the conduct of convicted prisoners, and of enhancing civic responsibility and respect for the rule of law.

“I recognise that for many people giving any prisoners the vote will be an unwelcome change and there will be concerns about the feelings of the victims of crime.

“This is why restricting voting rights to those with short sentences strikes us as a reasonable and proportionate response.”

“In an open and democratic society, even long-held views need to be reconsidered from time-to-time.”

The Scottish Tories said they wanted the blanket ban to remain in place.

MSP Annie Wells said a recent report by Holyrood’s equalities committee correctly identified “significant logistical difficulties” with voting in prison, regardless of the length of sentence.

She said: “Our focus is on ensuring that victims are the centre of our justice system, not the criminal. Along with the presumption against sentences of less than 12 months, this proposal is another soft-touch justice message from the SNP.

“Our message is clear. If you break the law and require to be removed from society, you will not be allowed to vote.”

But LibDem MSP Liam McArthur the end to the blanket ban was “long overdue”.

He said: “The change in heart by the SNP is welcome, after they voted down Liberal Democrat amendments that would have given some prisoners on short term sentences the vote in both the independence referendum and the last Holyrood elections.

“A blanket ban isn't fair, progressive or in the interests of rehabilitation. Opting to alienate people rather than invite them to be more engaged and aware of their responsibilities as citizens is not in society’s wider interests either.”

Scottish Green MSP Patrick Harvie added: "The blanket ban on prisoner voting is arbitrary, pointless and inconsistent with human rights.

"The Greens have consistently made the case for change, and we welcome the fact that this issue will now be formally on the agenda. The consultation should be focused on achieving consistency in terms of justice, rehabilitation, and democratic participation."

Most Council of Europe states allow all prisoners to vote, with a partial ban the second common option, and only a handful of countries having a blanket ban.

Although short sentences are defined as less than four years, the consultation said fixing the voting threshold at 12 months or less would align with court sentencing powers.

Summary sheriff  and JP courts can impose a maximum jail sentence of 12 months.

While solemn sheriff courts and the High Court, which deal with more serious offences, can impose higher sentences.

The consultation said: “It is estimated that around 1000 prisoners would be enfranchised if the threshold sentence length was 12 months or less.

“A threshold for 6 months or less would allow around 480 prisoners to vote.

“Prisoners will not be entitled to vote in person. Instead, they will need to register for a postal or a proxy vote, in a similar way to remand prisoners who are currently eligible to vote.

“Prisoners would be registered to vote by declaration of local connection to a previous address or local authority, rather than the prison address.

“This would avoid the potential for large numbers of prisoners, registered to the prison, to cause distortion to voter numbers and electoral results, especially for Scottish local elections given the smaller sizes of wards.

“This approach would also avoid the impracticalities of having to deal with ballots from wards and constituencies all over the country in one polling station located in a prison.”

The consultation, which runs until March, also dismissed other voting ideas, such as giving judges the discretion to make disenfranchisement an option at sentencing (judges did not want the power); linking the franchise on the type of crime; and giving prisoners the vote at the end of their sentence.