PRISONERS were handed the right to vote in Scotland without Holyrood’s approval because it was “essential” to comply with human rights rules, Scotland’s Constitutional Relations Secretary has said.

Michael Russell apologised to MSPs for failing to give them advance notice of the move ahead of last month’s by-election in Shetland – but insisted this was not possible due to the tight timescales.

It is not known whether the fewer than five prisoners affected exercised their right to vote.

Denying prisoners the vote dates back to the 1870 Forfeiture Act, and is codified in the 1983 Representation of the People Act.

READ MORE: Shetland by-election: Lib Dems hold off SNP 

However, the European Court of Human Rights ruled against the blanket ban in 2005. The issue was devolved to Scotland in 2017.

The Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill was introduced in June to comply with the court ruling, and seeks to give short-term prisoners the vote in council and Holyrood elections.

This has yet to pass through Holyrood - but last month, Scottish ministers used a Remedial Order to extend the by-election franchise to prisoners serving sentences of 12 months or less for the Shetland by-election.

The Scottish Tories said the "ill-judged move opens the door for prisoner voting more generally".

Mr Russell was quizzed on the decision by the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee, where he insisted the tight timescale and summer recess had curtailed the notice given to MSPs.

He said he wrote to the committee on the day that the order was made, adding: “I have been very clear, as have all my colleagues, that the blanket ban on prisoner voting is not fit for purpose.

“That’s also the legal situation with the ECHR. It is not compliant and compatible with the ECHR as it applies to Scottish Parliament elections.

READ MORE: Concern over rush to give prisoners vote in byelection 

“Under those circumstances, in my view, it wasn’t optional, it was essential, to ensure ECHR compliance in relation to the by-election.”

Mr Russell said ministers had been forced to make a decision “in a very short period of time”, and did not make it lightly.

He said the Scottish Government was faced with two other possible courses of action.

It could do nothing and be in breach of European rules, or it could enact emergency legislation, which would have required recalling Holyrood during recess.

The latter move would also have needed a “super-majority”, meaning two-thirds of MSPs would have had to back it.

Mr Russell said this would have been difficult to achieve, adding: “Some people may have been sunning themselves in Lanzarote, or on study tours of the Arctic.”

He said the Shetland order is time-limited, and so does not pre-empt the legislation going through Holyrood.

But a similar move may have to be made again if another by-election is held before the legislation passes.

He said: “My absolutely full intention would be to make sure that there was full scrutiny of any decision we took in the normal timeframe.

“But if another byelection were to take place in the recess, then we may have to apply the same remedy.”

Mr Russell also argued there are people on temporary release who can vote “whose crimes were very much more serious than anybody who is enfranchised as a result of our proposals”.

The Shetland by-election was sparked after former Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott, who had held the seat since the start of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, announced he was stepping down. 

The party's Beatrice Wishart fought off the SNP to keep hold of the seat last month.