MSPs bid to extend vote to refugees with ‘groundbreaking’ legislation

16/01/2020
Alasdair Clark

Refugees living in Scotland could be given the vote for the first time with the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill

  • Bill which extends voting rights to refugees moves to final stage in Scottish Parliament
  • Amendment to allow refugees to stand for political office unsuccessful 
  • Scottish Refugee Council welcomes “huge step” by MSPs 

REFUGEES seeking safety in Scotland will be able to vote in the country’s elections for the first time ever, with a Scottish Parliament Bill extending the franchise moving to its final stages. 

MSPs have now heard the Bill at Stage two, and if passed by parliament at the final stage as expected it will give voting rights to anyone with refugee status in Scotland. 

Scottish Green MSP Mark Ruskell had hoped to amend the Bill further by extending the franchise to asylum seekers who had not yet been granted refugee status, but MSPs did not support this. 

A second amendment which would have allowed refugees and asylum seekers to stand for election was also unsuccessful. 

Laying out the Greens’ approach before his amendments were turned down, Ruskell said: “Our approach, especially to those who have fled war, famine or persecution to come here, should be to ask them to pull up a chair.”

Speaking to CommonSpace, the Scottish Refugee Council welcomed the Bill. 

Lorna Gledhill, policy officer with the charity, said: “This legislation addresses a long-standing democratic deficit, whereby thousands of new Scots – including those who have sought refugee protection – have been unable to participate formally in Scottish democracy.

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“The Bill already seeks to give the vote to all those granted refugee status. We are disappointed that the Scottish Greens amendment to include people with pending asylum claims has not passed. However, the proposed extension of voting rights to people with refugee status is nevertheless a huge step and one we are pleased to see.

“We firmly believe that everyone who makes Scotland their home should have a say in how the country is run. Their lives are shaped by policies set in Holyrood and local government; they should have a say on how that happens, like everyone else.”

Explaining why the Scottish Government had not supported moves to extend the franchise to those who had not yet been granted refugee status, a government spokesperson said: “This groundbreaking legislation will underline the reputation Scotland has already established as a welcoming nation.

“The Bill, as introduced, enables foreign nationals to vote for the first time, giving them a voice on matters which affect them.

“The Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill already makes provision to give the vote to all those granted refugee status.

“We have examined proposals to expand the franchise for those with a pending asylum claim, but electoral registration officers have highlighted practical concerns over obtaining residency information and in ensuring that those whose claim is refused, or who leave Scotland, can be removed from the electoral register.”

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The news comes as the Senedd in Wales officially backed a Bill today [16 January] which will give 16 and 17-year-olds in the country the vote. 

Scotland led the way in the UK as the first country to introduce votes for 16 and 17-year-olds for the Scottish independence referendum and all Scottish elections. 

Welcoming the Welsh decision, Willie Sullivan from the Electoral Reform Society told CommonSpace: “Now that Wales has introduced votes at 16/17, Westminster looks even more isolated and outdated on this issue. It’s a real injustice that over 1.5 million of these young people will continue to be denied the vote in Westminster elections, and it’s time to equalise the franchise. We’ve seen just how much young people care about politics and want to be heard – they can no longer continue to be refused a voice.

“The government must get on with fostering civic participation and building a united franchise for the 21st century.”

Image courtesy of Andrew Cowan/the Scottish Parliament 

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