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Y Pwyllgor Cydraddoldeb, Llywodraeth Leol a Chymunedau

Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee

07/03/2019

Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

Carwyn Jones AM
Gareth Bennett AM
Huw Irranca-Davies AM
Jenny Rathbone AM
John Griffiths AM Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor
Committee Chair
Leanne Wood AM
Mark Isherwood AM
Mohammad Asghar (Oscar) AM

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Amanda Bebb Dirprwy Gadeirydd Cangen Cymru o Gymdeithas y Gweinyddwyr Etholiadol
Deputy Chair of the Wales Branch of the Association of Electoral Administrators
Baroness Newlove Comisynydd Dioddefwyr Cymru a Lloegr
Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales
Elan Closs Stephens Comisiynydd Etholiadol, y Comisiwn Etholiadol yng Nghymru
Electoral Commissioner, Electoral Commission in Wales
Peter Stanyon Prif Weithredwr, Cymdeithas y Gweinyddwyr Etholiadol
Chief Executive, Association of Electoral Administrators
Rhydian Thomas Pennaeth y Comisiwn Etholiadol, y Comisiwn Etholiadol yng Nghymru
Head of Electoral Commission, Electoral Commission in Wales
Rhys George Cadeirydd Cangen Cymru o Gymdeithas y Gweinyddwyr Etholiadol
Chair of the Wales Branch of the Association of Electoral Administrators

Swyddogion Cynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru a oedd yn bresennol

National Assembly for Wales Officials in Attendance

Gwyn Griffiths Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol
Legal Adviser
Hannah Johnson Ymchwilydd
Researcher
Lisa Griffiths Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk
Naomi Stocks Clerc
Clerk

Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.

The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.

Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 10:01.

The meeting began at 10:01.

1. Cyflwyniad, Ymddiheuriadau, Dirprwyon a Datgan Buddiannau
1. Introductions, Apologies, Substitutions and Declarations of Interest

Okay, may I welcome everyone to this meeting of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee? The first item on our agenda today is introductions, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest. We haven't received any apologies or substitutions today. Are there any declarations of interest? No.

I don't know if I need to declare this, Chair, but I'm the UKIP rep on the ElCom panel that sits in the Assembly. We have meetings every six months. 

It's an advisory committee and all political parties are represented on it. 

2. Ymchwiliad i Hawliau Pleidleisio i Garcharorion: Sesiwn Dystiolaeth 5
2. Inquiry into Voting Rights for Prisoners: Evidence Session 5

Item 2, then: our inquiry into voting rights for prisoners, and evidence session 5. I'm very pleased to welcome representatives of the Electoral Commission in Wales and the Association of Electoral Administrators. So, we have with us today Elan Closs Stephens, electoral commissioner with the commission; Rhydian Thomas, head of the commission; and Rhys George, chair of the Wales branch of the Association of Electoral Administrators; Amanda Bebb, deputy chair of the Wales branch; and Peter Stanyon, chief executive of the Association of Electoral Adminstrators. So, welcome to you all. Thanks for coming along to give evidence to committee today. 

Perhaps I might begin with the first question, which is: what are the primary practical electoral issues our committee needs to consider in deciding whether Welsh prisoners should be permitted to vote?

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Cadeirydd, am y gwahoddiad i ddod atoch.

Thank you very much, Chair, for the invitation to join you.

We're very grateful for the opportunity to give evidence. As you would expect, the commission doesn't have a view as to who should be eligible or not eligible to vote. We all recognise that that is a matter for the Assembly and for its elected Members. So, our concern is with the integrity of the process—that that integrity is upheld in all its aspects. Now, I want to say at the beginning that all this, I'm sure, is doable, but it does need to have any concerns addressed from the beginning. We will do whatever we can to help prisoner voting to be efficient and as easy as possible if it were to come into being.

There are, as you noted, quite a number of practical implications for giving persons in Wales the vote. As I said, I think these have to be addressed head on from the start. So, I hope you'll bear with me and I'll just have a minute or two while I run through the headlines, as you've requested.

First of all, I think the eligibility criteria must be clear and well understood. In fact, I think the simpler it is, the easier it is to administer. I'm sure you're going to dig into this later in the committee, but I will just run through the points of eligibility that would be pertinent. Age—and, of course, that also depends on whether young offenders and people over 16 will be able to vote. Nationality—is it citizens of the UK or, as has been sometimes proposed, a wider franchise according to residence? Residency—we are particuarly concerned with the idea that—. I think we would have a view that the prison shouldn't be the place of residence. That would debar people in English prisons. Also, it would have quite in an inordinate effect on the ward in which that prison was held. Bridgend, for example, would be a prime example. And in addition, you may have some views on whether length of sentence is a criterion. So, all of those would need to be very clear to the electoral registration officers from the start.

The second point is that the registration-of-voting processes are well delivered. I think we'll talk some more about this, but my own view as electoral commissioner for Wales is that we may need a designated support and liaison officer in the prison for this process to happen easily, and that may well be within the library service or within the education service. 

Third, which is quite linked, is education and information. What is the political system, especially for young offenders? You know, what is the political system? How do they know about it? Who are the candidates? How do people acquire this knowledge, especially if there is no possibility of internet connection or social media messaging? So, how do we make certain that they are well informed before they cast their votes?

And fourth, which is quite a difficult one, is confidentiality, which of course has been a principle of our system from the beginning. I understand that, apart from letters to solicitors, all letters are capable of being opened, and so we'd have to address how that would happen.

To end, I would say that the most important message I have as commissioner is that ERO colleagues, with whom we are here today, returning officers and their staff really do have sufficient time to plan ahead and to implement the changes so that they run really smoothly, and do not call into question the trust that people have in the system. After all, it is the electoral registration officers and the returning officers who run the elections, not the commission, and we would wish them to be supported as much as possible, both with time and with resource. To that end, legislation should be in place, we think, at least six months before the annual canvas.

As I said, just to end, we stand ready to support with guidance, advice, co-ordination all our colleagues who are electoral returning officers and the prison service, if the decision is made in favour of prisoner voting. Diolch yn fawr. 

10:05

I just wanted to support what the commissioner says. I don't really want to repeat anything that she said, other than to support around that it's a two-stage process. We're talking here about registration and the need to make sure that the processes are deliverable in terms of residency et cetera, and the ability to get individuals onto the register, but also equally of importance is the ability of those individuals to cast their ballot in a secret, fair manner. I think it's been talked about, the risks that are introduced to the process. We've identified the need for there to be good liaison within the prison service because, ultimately, with the statistics showing a significant number of Welsh prisoners actually in English prisons, it means a wider thing than just the Welsh focus. 

And I would just conclude it really is ensuring that the prison service is able to act as a very, very strong partner, stakeholder, in the process: 1, to facilitate the registration; 2, to ensure that those who are registered are fully aware of the choices available to them at ballots if this is where it goes; and 3, that the secrecy of their choice isn't corrupted by other processes that may well end up affecting that ability to have the free and fair ballots in that way. So, they're the elements that we are primarily concerned with. 

Is the biggest practical issue, would you say, the number of Welsh prisoners that are held in English prisons, because we've got figures here that some 37 per cent, 1,740 Welsh prisoners, are held in over 100 different English prisons? So, in terms of the practical issues, would they present the greatest difficulties?

10:10

From an admin perspective, the process is the process, whether that be Welsh based, seeping into England—it's the communication of that process through the prison service as the key stakeholder. Ultimately, a Welsh prisoner being held in an English system has the same right as a Welsh prisoner being held in a Welsh system. It really is about the communication to ensure that the prison service understand what they need to do to facilitate that process. So, an electoral registration officer in Wales will do what they're required to do regardless of where they are actually based.

And the commission would do what it needs to do as well in terms of providing prisoners with that information that lets them know that they can register and take part in this particular election and how to do so. So, there's a different element of communication in terms of the one that we would need to do with the various Governments, the prison service, the AEA and the type of information and communication that we would need to have with prisoners to allow them to know that they can take part in the system and how. The one other thing I'd add in terms of a challenge is the design of a new form. We would need to look at designing a new form for prisoners to register to vote. We have experience within the commission of putting together new forms for different groups of electors, in terms of design and everything else, but there may be some challenges there, especially in that we'd normally use a test and carry out public opinion with that type of resource. So, that would be something that we would need to think about. 

Okay. In terms of the practical considerations, of course, prisoners are eligible to vote. I know that it's a small minority at the moment, but, under the changes introduced by UK Government, some prisoners are allowed to vote. So, all of those practical considerations exist at the moment and have existed for a little time. So, have there been any great difficulties up to now as far as you're aware with these practical matters?

If I answer in terms of the feedback that we've got UK wide, the numbers are very, very small. If I was to do a poll of colleagues across the whole of the UK, there would be one or two individuals registered as a result of the current system. Whether that is a breakdown in understanding what the processes are or a failing in that particular process, I wouldn't like to say, but the system is there, and very, very few individuals are making use of that system at the moment.

In a moment, Leanne. I'll just bring in Elan Closs Stephens first.

The system's been in place for remand prisoners since 2000. There doesn't seem to be any significant problems with that, so that's the plus side. The downside, as has just been said, is that perhaps the take-up is low, although, because of the nature of the registers, it's very difficult to know exactly how many people have voted or not, but we could possibly give an estimate of volume.

I come back to this point about a liaison officer or somebody to support the system. Without somebody taking an active participatory role within a prison to give information about candidates and about the way to vote, then, obviously, take-up will still remain low.

And are you aware as to whether or not there is such a person in place, designated at the moment?

No, I'm not.

I'm not aware.

You're not aware. Okay. A number of Members wish to come in at this stage. Is it on this particular point, Leanne?

Yes, because, as you said, Chair, the system for remand prisoners is already in place, although we've heard evidence from prisoners themselves—remand prisoners—that they had no idea that they had the right to vote. So, there is no liaison officer at the moment, certainly in the prisons that we went to see, and there isn't clarity and there is nobody taking responsibility for it basically. So, do you think—. I mean, obviously, the system, we would say, isn't working. So, what needs to happen in terms of the existing system? We don't need to reinvent the wheel. There's probably a form that already exists for those remand prisoners. What is it that's not working at the moment that we need to put right in order to get the system working to give all prisoners the right to vote?

If I could just kick off. I'm sure there are colleagues with more experience than I have, but having studied this as closely as I could, I think we need to work very closely with prison governors and prison officers, because without their active co-operation this is not going to work. We have experienced—. Over the last two years, we've set up an electoral co-ordination board. Rhys is a member and senior ROs are members and our police liaison are members, and it would be quite easy to set up a similar thing or even to add prison officers to that co-ordination board. I do stress that it has to be a proactive support system that gives information on eligibility, gives information on candidates and gives information on how to proceed to vote. As we say, without that, there is considerable lack of knowledge about the eligibility in the first place, let alone registration.

10:15

That's the problem with remand prisoners as well, then.

On that point, it's going to have to happen, even if we didn't make any additional changes, because my understanding is, if you include the remand prisoners, you include those eligible to vote who are found guilty of civil crimes such as contempt of court or the non payment of fines. If you include those who are now going to be included after the changes announced by the UK Government, you're talking about a third of UK prisoners in UK prisons, including Welsh prisoners. So, whatever happens, there's going to have to be a big change, or it's not going to change the way things happen.

My particular question was focused on your statement that a prisoner's vote should apply in the constituency or ward that is their home rather than the location of the prison. When I've spoken with Welsh prisoners in the English prison estate, they've repeatedly said to me in different meetings—their first call is always about housing or rehousing, their second call is not to go back to the place they came from because there's a risk of falling back into their own 'peer groups and pushers'. We know that there are reciprocal arrangements between local authorities to swap, effectively, because of that very reason. How do we accommodate that?

I think I'd like to ask Rhydian, if I may.

I think it's a matter for Welsh Government and for yourselves as to what the residency requirement would be. What we've said is it wouldn't be practical to allow the prisoner to register at the prison itself because then you would exclude the 37 per cent—or whatever it would be—the figure of Welsh prisoners who are in England. And, as Elan mentioned, you would bump up the numbers and the prison would have a massive influence on the single wards where that prison was based, whether it was Bridgend or Cardiff or wherever it would be. 

In terms of eligibility, there's a range of eligibility requirements that you could look at. One of them would be a declaration of local connection to a previous address. If you look at the situation in Canada, they have a variety of different residency requirements. They range from this one, the declaration to the previous address, to the address of the place of arrest, the court at where the elector was convicted, the address of a spouse or a partner, or a parent. So, there are a range of criteria there.

We just think, in terms of the simplest route, it would be that declaration to the previous address in Wales before incarceration. I think the Scottish Government are carrying out a similar exercise at the moment. There's a consultation on prisoner voting and they've actually recommended that that route be taken, that the residency be based on the declaration of local connection to the previous address prior to incarceration. 

Can I just say, there are no female prisons in Wales so you would exclude all females if you went down the route of registering from a prison, for example? So, that must be considered as well, really, from the female perspective.

A couple of questions. One is on the basis, as you were saying, that since 2002 an element of prisoner voting has been in place and the categories have been expanded as time's gone by. In that long period, why is it is that we haven't got that proactive approach that's already been taken to those categories? Should we be concerned about that? Before the committee even makes recommendations or the Government makes up its mind to go even further, should we be concerned about that? I'd be interested in learning more about that proactive approach, because you've said in your written evidence that you'd be willing to take a more proactive approach. 

My second question is to do with actual registration to vote. We know that, out in wider society, electoral officers go out there and hammer the doors and knock the doors and so on and so forth. Now, would you anticipate, in this proactive approach, that there is a similar approach, not simply to raising awareness of if there were an extension of the franchise, but actually to drive forward registration as well, to encourage active participation?

10:20

Can I—? I think we're talking here about absolutely the difficulties of identifying or getting through the information to remand prisoners, as things stand, to be able to register. It's actually getting the buy-in across Governments and across departments to make sure that—. A classic example recently has been service voters. It's also been with students, universities. So, you have across the UK individual electoral registration officers, all working to the same rules. They've all got the statutory responsibility to do all they can to encourage people to register. That will be done as well as possible in local areas. The commission do a very good job in trying to bring a more high-level strategic understanding of the rights that are in there, but it's also from the top down, to be getting the buy-in from those individual—. So, take the prison service as an example, to get the buy-in from the prison service to actually be supportive of electoral registration, which is a minor part of that role, in the same way as we've seen with universities, in the same way we've seen with service votes et cetera. It's that top-down approach that the knowledge needs to come from within those service areas as much as from the bottom with the electoral registration officers trying to get that information in.

So, I guess my follow-up question would be: would you apply as electoral registration officers, would you apply as the commission, the same sort of diligence and application that was applied outside in the wider population, in terms of that engagement, both with prison governors and so on, on an individual prison basis? Would you have the resource to do that, if the decision was taken? Would you make that happen?

The difficulty with the nature of—

And you're not the registration officer for Shropshire or Ludlow or wherever.

Absolutely, and when it comes to—. The nature of special category voters is that they will not necessarily be in the constituency or electoral area. As we've talked about here, 37 per cent are in England, coming back to Wales as Welsh prisoners. The issue will be that if you have a large prison in your particular local authority area, the expectation is that you will do all you can to raise awareness with that particular establishment, but it may well not then be dragging registrations into your register, because it may well be for somewhere else. So, that's the difficulty of the individual building blocks, and that's where the commission can do, as they do do, as much as they can to bring that wider awareness of—.

We would certainly look to run a public information campaign with new prisoners, and that would normally—. If you look at service voters, for instance, which is another special category of electors that comprises individuals who are based away from their home in a barracks or a base somewhere in other parts of the UK, we have run campaigns previously that have targeted service voters and lets them know, through posters, mailings, through a liaison officer within the barracks, what they can do, what election's coming up, how they can register, how they can vote. We would certainly look to do something similar with prisoners, not just based across the bridge but also in Wales—run a campaign specifically targeting them.

The other elements in terms of the more strategic approach, I guess, would come—. Going back to Elan's point about some of the networks that we've built up, we've got a network of senior returning officers and election managers in Wales. We have a network of political parties, we have a network of deputy returning officers. We would want to bring—. And involving Government as well. We would want to bring the prison service into those networks to make them aware of these changes, what they need to do, and how we can support them.

Can I add to your point? The value of this exercise, I think, whether it moves towards prisoner voting or not, is to shine a light on present practice, and whether that could be made better. So, it has been a very valuable exercise in itself.

Okay, thanks for that. Other Members on registration issues.

Yes, I just wanted—. Just for the record, I wondered if one of you could describe what the arrangements are for people of no fixed abode, to enable them to vote.

There is this form, which is an electoral registration form, which is for someone with no fixed or permanent address. One of the categories here is for: if you're a person who's been remanded in custody but you have not yet been convicted of any offence. But, again, they would have to provide their national insurance number, date of birth, the address where they claim they spent the majority of their time. And this is the downfall, really, because, very often, the NI number is not submitted, so then you have to go down the documentary evidence route, which is a copy of your passport, driving licence—one of the primary documents. And then if that fails, it's then down the route of attestation.

I've been in elections many years and I've never ever given out one of these forms. Sometimes, on the electoral registration forms, somebody will cross somebody out and they might put 'in prison', and we will contact that householder and ask that personal question, 'Have they been convicted or are they on remand?', and encourage them to register them. But that's only if they provide that information on the electoral roll form. If they just cross them out, which is what the notes tell them to do, we wouldn't know. It's only if they offer that information. 

10:25

And the point about no fixed abode is, if you're homeless and not in involved in the criminal justice system, you can still vote. There's a mechanism, isn't there, for designating some other place where you can register to vote from? 

So, what I was trying to establish was that that could apply to prisoners if, picking up on Mark Isherwood's point that some prisoners don't wish to return to the area where they've committed the offence. 

I think if you were using previous address, that's just a measure of attestation that you had, at some point, had a residency. That wouldn't involve you returning to your previous address. This is simply a mechanism to vote rather than a declaration of intent of going back.

The difficulty for a prisoner would be, as Amanda was just mentioning, just the requirement for national insurance number and date of birth—not being able to provide that and having to go down the attestation route, which could make it far more difficult for them to register than an ordinary elector.

And it goes back to the point of why we think it's really important to have that liaison officer within the prison, who'll be able to support the prisoner in finding this type of information, to verify their identity and, even if there was an attestation or something included in the new form, that they could complete that attestation or assist in completing that attestation.

And, if I could just say, if they register via this way, they're tagged on to the end of the relevant register, so they're not there with an address—they're obviously, as other electors, with overseas and service voters, at the end of the register.

I'm just wondering, a vote for people with no fixed abode, but also for the wider prison population if they were given the vote, to what extent, when we look at existing practice with the categories of prisoners that are allowed to vote, but also international examples as well, do we allow choice? From a practical perspective, that your address could be where your last place of residence was, or at a relative's place of residence, or at the court you were sentenced at, et cetera, to what extent, in current practice—? If we were to reflect current practice, what would we do? Would we allow a prisoner to have choice?

I think, in many ways, that would be a matter for yourselves and Welsh Government to—

What about with those on remand—there was someone awaiting sentence currently and so on?

Those on remand are able to register at the prison or at a previous address.

Not that I'm aware of, no.

But they can—[Inaudible.]—current practice then, is it?

I think one of the things we come up against time and time again is the need for—I'm sorry to say it again—support, because the onus is now on the individual to register. In the past, there was a household registration, and in the past, in student numbers, there was a hostel registration and you could imagine that carrying over into a prison situation. But, because it's now individual registration, I do think that some of these people will be, however we regard them, some of the most vulnerable in our society. We all know that there are also levels of illiteracy. So, a form like this, which allows people with no fixed abode to vote, may be too complicated for some people and, therefore, I think, they need to have some designated support. I'm not talking about a full-time person, because we're only talking about somebody designated for a period of time over an election. But that seems to me to be one of the focal points of our testimony.

10:30

Can the form be made simpler? Does there have to be a national insurance number, for example?

Well, as things stand it's the—individual electoral registration introduced that individual element of proof that that individual exists, and that is the route that's taken. There are the, as Amanda has said, routes ultimately to attestation, if someone confirms that this individual is who they say they are, once you've been through a number of checks, but that's the proof that the individual exists as a—the correct word—the entity within the UK. That really comes down to the electoral registration officer then to determine at which address should they then be resident at— 

Sorry to cut across you, but, surely, a prison officer—the prison system knows that the person actually exists because they're in the system. So, is there something on the form that the prison officer or the system could sign to say, 'We confirm this person exists' instead of having to go through having an NI number, which a lot of people are just not going to have?

Under the current system, no, but that's something that could clearly be changed if that was the way that the decision was taken. Ultimately, it's about—the changes to the individual element of registration was simply to provide that evidence of security that the individual exists. So, if there is a degree of security that can be—. It's exactly the same sort of discussions around students, for example, where the same—

Yes, but they're actually in prison, so that's a clue that's there, isn't it, you know? [Laughter.]

Absolutely, I get that, yes, absolutely. So, it would just need that to be another one of the elements—that that would be a satisfactory proof for an ERO to be satisfied that the individual is who they say they are.

Yes, indeed. And this is my final question. It just intrigues me that, if the Welsh Government at some point were to take a view to extend the franchise to a wider prison population, would the Electoral Commission then look at putting any advice or options in front of Welsh Government to say, 'Well, actually, now you've taken the decision, we've looked at international practice and, in terms of registration, for people with NFA et cetera, we think there are several options, and this is best practice' or would you keep away from that? Once the decision has been taken, would you then go and look at Canada and elsewhere and say, 'Well, actually, there are some really good models'?, because at the moment you're hedging a bit and saying, 'Well—'—.

Yes. The answer's 'yes', we absolutely would. A comparison could be votes at 16, where we haven't given a view on the actual policy, but, should that policy come, and it looks like it's coming, we will look at what's happened in Scotland since 2014 and how that was introduced there and our role in it and public information and everything else. So, we would absolutely look to give a guide and steer on policy direction if that were to be introduced by Government.

In fact, we have already asked—Gareth will know—. We've had people down from Scotland to our advisory group and also to our APP, Assembly parties panel, which is the meeting of chief execs of political parties.

Yes. The question I have is to do with registration and if the decision is taken to allow prisoners to vote how we might remove any obstacles if that were to be the final decision. On the issue of registration, I suppose the question I have is: how would somebody go about registering? The current system is that either people will go online or they'll have something through the letter box. Unless the prison plays a proactive role in registering, then it would be impossible for that person to actually register in the first place. I agree with you about not registering people in the prison in which they're held. That would create, particularly in one part of my constituency, a ward that would almost be the prison itself, so big would the prison be compared to the rest of the ward. So, I have sympathy for the idea that a prisoner should be able to register at their last known address, but, of course, if they're not able to register at all because there's no way of them doing it—they can't access the internet, they can't have the forms dropped off to them—then how would we get around that practical problem?

The second question is this: almost uniquely, we have a system where a large number of our prisoners are in another country—in England. Thirty-seven per cent, round about, of Welsh prisoners are in England; all female prisoners from Wales are in England. If the law were to be changed in Wales to allow prisoners to vote—let's say this is an Assembly election, as an example—what sanctions could there be if an individual prison in England said, 'Well, sorry, we're not playing ball. This is not the law in England, so we're not going to follow it'? What avenues might be available to the Government and eventually to the Assembly to actually enforce the will of the Assembly outside of Wales, because of the effect on so many who are held in prisons outside of Wales?

10:35

I think that's almost beyond my pay grade. It's a constitutional issue, isn't it? I mean, I don't know the answer to that, I'll be quite honest. It's a matter to be worked out between the two Governments whether there could be sanctions. What I would urge would be that you do have to have the co-operation of the prison governors and I understand that you've already been to some prisons. I'd be very interested, if this was to come into being, to know more about your experience and about the way in which they viewed this problem. It's complex. Do it, but with goodwill. But as you say, goodwill is not enough if there are people who don't have the goodwill. This is why—although we don't have a view on whether prisoners should vote or not, we do have a view that postal voting is the only answer. I can't see a position where you would expect prison officers in England to set up booths and to organise an election booth. I mean, it might be possible with goodwill, but I doubt it.

I would just add to that: rather than specifically postal voting, absent voting, so that prisoners were able to appoint a proxy, should they feel the need to. They might not feel happy to vote and complete a ballot paper in a prison, so that option should be there for them to appoint a proxy, should they wish to, back home, to complete the ballot paper for them.

To go back to your question—the first point, I think it would need to be a paper-based system. We would need to run a campaign that informed prisoners that there was a vote coming up and how they could take part—register and vote. And then forms would need to be available there at the prison, which could be supplied to the individual prisoner by this person who was tasked with being a liaison of some kind, and we've got models that have been used with other special category of electors, where we could roll that out. I think that's probably the only way that we could look to do it.

The second question is an interesting one. I think the only thing we can say is we would need to work as diligently as we could with all of the groups involved beforehand, including UK Government, the prison service, through these groups and networks that you mentioned, to try our very best if that just does not happen. So, that's all about the work that we put in before such a change is introduced.

Just to come back on that, I don't think there is an easy answer to the second question. It's a unique situation. Most of the other countries in the UK have pretty much a self-contained prison system, with maybe a handful of prisoners outside of that system in high-security prisons particularly, but we have a huge number of our prisoners who are in England. It strikes me that we're in a situation where, unless there is a legal way through this, perhaps arguing that because it's a single jurisdiction, ironically, there might be a way of enforcing the law in England because it's the law in Wales. That's something to be explored. But in reality, it sounds to me as if—. If, for example—and having spent nine years as First Minister, I'm sceptical of what people say and what they eventually do, perhaps—a prison governor or governors decided that they weren't going to allow Welsh prisoners to be able to vote, they could do that, and there's no sanction.

I sympathise with the position. I think it's accurate. As I say, the constitutional issue is not one that we can comment on. And also, I think it's fair for us to say that we run the electoral system that has been put in place. So, when we talk about our national insurance, when we talk about our place of abode, we are running the system that exists. That's not to say that we couldn't give advice on making it better, and do, consistently, and have done—we've offered reforms—but we can only exist within the system as it stands.

Sorry, Chair—I'm going to be mischievous, I'm sorry. So, what advice would you give this committee as to how we could ensure that Welsh prisoners in English prisons were able to enjoy unfettered rights to vote should that be the decision of the Government?

10:40

You can tell he's been a First Minister; he puts you on the spot. [Laughter.] I think there would need to be a discussion with the Home Office and Ministry for Justice on an agreement that prison governors would be able to attest that a certain number of people within their prison were eligible. After that, maybe it would be up to the electoral registration officers to work on that knowledge. But getting that agreement would be step 1.

I just wanted to pursue one or two points, particularly in relation to the current system. You've said in your written and oral evidence that it's very difficult to get hold of people's national insurance number. In my experience, the least literate people can rattle off their national insurance number without any difficulty at all—surprisingly. But obviously there will be some people who don't have that recall. But why would it not be possible to accept—given that you'll be doing a special form, I assume—their prisoner number as the attestation means? Because the prison system must check the immigration status of the individual, and surely they themselves would know the national insurance number. Because there are obviously implications about being in prison and keeping your stamps up to date and all that sort of thing.

And it's very similar with students at the moment. That's the same question you could ask of students. They go through checks in order for them to get their grants, so they've already gone through that process, but yet we still have to register them individually, as the legislation stands at the moment. So, there would have to be a change.

I think the point is that the process that's followed is strictly prescribed. It's national insurance number, and that is one of four documents that are prescribed, and then it is attestation. So, if it was felt that the prison number needed to be added to that primary list of proof, which might be national insurance number or prison number, then that would be absolutely fine. But as things stand, that is not on the list that colleagues are permitted to use as a form of evidence.

And we would certainly agree with that position. That's why I mentioned previously that, if we were tasked with designing a form for prisoners, then we could include some form of attestation in there. What that attestation would be, and whether it's extended—that's something we could consider, if we're tasked with that.

Equally, if the prison system was co-operating, they must know the national insurance number of the individual, and would be able to assist them in filling in the form correctly.

And again it goes back—sorry, Rhys.

As you were saying, it goes back then to having a close liaison with a prison liaison officer to assist in that process.

Fine, okay. But I want to know a little bit more about why the system at the moment is not being picked up. I represent the constituency where Cardiff prison is, where I think the majority are on remand. Therefore, the majority should be able to exercise their right to vote. I wonder if you're able to speak on behalf of the Cardiff electoral registration officer. What would you expect them to be doing to ensure that remand prisoners are able to register to vote?

It would be the same process for any electoral registration officer. As you say, you'd make the relevant documentation available, and assist as best you could any electors who approached you who wanted to register.

We can certainly do more, I think, and look at what we've been doing previously and revise that approach for the future in terms of remand prisoners and other special—. Remand is just one special category of electors. But we don't know—maybe these people choose not to register. They have other challenges and other priorities, and maybe registration at that time isn’t something—. But we can certainly do more, and maybe look at public information and what we can put out there to at least ensure that they do know what their rights are.

10:45

Okay. I think the other complication is that—would you agree that it's very difficult to know how many remand prisoners are voting, because the churn in the system is huge? People move around the prison system, or they go back out on bail, or they simply apply for a postal vote system and their partner brings it in for them to fill in.   

They would apply for a postal vote system or proxy, and therefore they would be in the normal churn of—

If they're on the register already at their home address, they'd be able to apply as any absent voter, wouldn't they? 

Yes, absolutely, and one of the issues goes back to the earlier point about the joined-up governance across the board. Electoral registration officers do not receive any prior indication as to whether someone's on remand or otherwise; equally, when they're sentenced following a case, for example. So, the primary sources are the annual registration canvas each autumn. It's a rolling process, we know that, but, ultimately, as you made the point, it could well be that someone is registered as an ordinary elector but they are on remand. There'll be no records of those, but, equally, as Rhydian says, it comes down to the same issue applying across all special category electors. You have students registered in two addresses or at one, depending on where they're studying, overseas electors, et cetera. It's those sorts of things that make it very difficult for the sort of tasks that Amanda and Rhys undertake on that annual basis. 

It comes back to the point made by Carwyn, really, doesn't it? We have to have some system, some memorandum of understanding, with the prisons themselves, with the Prison Governors Association itself, to find whether they're able to attest to who they've got, and at what point they are coming up to the end of their sentence or whether they're on remand, or something. There has to be some central information fed back to the electoral registration officers. Otherwise, it's an impossible task for them. 

Okay. I think one would like to hope that system exists, but I'm not holding my breath. 

Jenny, do you have further points, or are you satisfied? 

Okay, just to summarise, would it be fair to say that neither the Electoral Commission or the body that represents electoral officers have focused on this issue up until now, so that the information that we might want to find out about how well the system's worked so far is at the moment lacking. Is that right? Yes. Thank you. 

Could I just ask on that? Obviously, as I said earlier, as we know, UK Government has introduced changes to allow some prisoners to vote. We know that guidance was issued but I think it's fairly limited. So, have you had much involvement with UK Government, Home Office, Ministry of Justice around that introduction of the right of prisoners to vote, to make sure it works effectively and smoothly?  

Very limited. In fact, our sponsoring department will be the Cabinet Office, and they worked closely with the MoJ. We were simply advised that prison governors had been advised of the changes, and that was it. So, very limited involvement. 

I think we'd probably say the same. We can check records of co-ordination board meetings of which the Cabinet Office is a member, but the discussions have been very, very limited. 

And I think this links back to Jenny's question, really, that when registration moved to individual registration, there might have been a gap then about how much follow-up we were doing. So, this has been useful. 

Thanks, Chair. I want to go back to this question of co-operation that's needed for Welsh prisoners in England. One of the big problems that people face is they don't have access to news at all. So, Welsh news isn't broadcast into HMP Eastwood Park, for example. Forty-eight per cent of the prisoners there are from Wales, and so they might be able to get all the information leaflets about how to register and the process, but if they don't have information about what's actually happening in Wales, then they are not in an equal place to all other electors. And I'm quite interested in what role you would have. There could be something in this memorandum of understanding idea that you've put forward that guarantees Welsh prisoners access to Welsh news somehow, but would you have a role in regulating or ensuring that that could happen, because otherwise, people are going to be voting without the correct information?

10:50

We do not have that role currently. Our role in terms of public information and the provision of public information is limited to registration and the electoral system, i.e. the voting process—how to cast the vote. In terms of political literature and literacy—

It's much bigger than that, though. Can you see my point?

Yes. I think, all we could do, again, is probably have those discussions with those individuals and organisations and services, such as the prison service, that are able to provide that access to prisoners to ensure, or to try and ensure, that that does happen. There are education courses available in prisons. Maybe there's a way of ensuring that there's an element of citizenship education or political education within those forums. But to answer your question: the commission doesn't have a role in that type of public information, but we'd certainly want to play our part in ensuring that something does happen.

Could I ask for your view, both as electoral registration officers and commissioners on: if there was an extension of the franchise to a wider prison population, whether there should then be, in order to make that real, a very proactive approach to engaging with the prisoner population? Because, as Leanne has just said, there are ways in which you can extend the franchise, but you never make it real. You have homeless people who currently have the franchise on paper, but actually have to access paper forms in order to exercise their franchise—and a printer. So, my straightforward first question is: would you expect that there should be a very proactive role then in reaching out to prisoners to make them aware of their role and actually to use their vote, if possible?

From the administrative perspective, I would say that any change that extends franchise or provides citizens with greater rights should be brought to their attention. The best example I can give you there is the recent changes to anonymous registration, where you're working with the partner organisations, particularly Women's Aid, for example. The extra accessibility to the process was shared through those channels. So, I would say 'yes', but it needs to be done through the stakeholder—through the prison service, as much as anything—

But it's a 'yes' through whatever appropriate mechanisms—

Because it would be no different to any other change elsewhere in the electoral system, where you'd be highlighting a change to a process.

Excellent. And the commission would take the same view—that there should be a proactive approach.

Okay, well, that's fine. In that case, can I just ask you—? There was a worrying response to a previous question, where the extension of the franchise to remand prisoners and another three categories has essentially been, it seems to me, something of a tick-box exercise. Here we've extended it and you've been informed as—. You've been asked to take no active role in promoting this.

As I said, I think there are two answers to that: yes, we could take a more proactive role, and I've already said that we should do so—

No, indeed—this isn't a criticism of you. You've not been asked by the UK Government—

No, we haven't, but also, let's go back to the problem of individual registration. I think it's not a problem—it depends how you view it—but it's a reality. And therefore, the onus changed, really. This made it much more difficult, I think, to have electoral registration officers chase up every single vote. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't have a proactive role in education and information.

But 18 years on from the original introduction of this, at some point, shouldn't successive Governments have been saying, 'Well, we need something of a strategy here now to actually make this work more than simply saying that we've passed the appropriate legislation'? They've not actively sought your help to do this.

Thank you very much indeed, and, Elan, thank you very much for very eloquently explaining the pros and cons of voting rights for the prisoners. The fact is: within a few weeks, we'll be taking the flag of the Commonwealth rather than the European Union, and the biggest democracy in the world, India, has got no rights for prisoners, and every few miles, there's a different language. You just mentioned earlier that you're going to have a different colour of vote for the prisoners here—voting paper, I mean, or something that I heard there. So, basically, on the resources, the Commonwealth, with more than 70-odd territories and countries, will be looking towards us and what laws we are going to make today, after this, to see how Great Britain is doing—whether they can afford it or whether we are right. So, we've got to be careful. There are categories of different prisoners: A, B, C. Who is eligible for voting? Are the resources there and are there fully competent people there to make sure that the right people are given—mental health is a big issue in our prisons. And there is no women's prison in Wales, that was earlier mentioned. So, there are a lot of areas to cover at the moment.

We should not jump into it and have other people laughing about it. We are looking at the Canadian way, but what is America doing? What are prisoner rights there? We've got to be very, very careful before we allow every—[Inaudible.] One size never fits all. Basically, would you be able to put your hand on your heart that you're happy to give every prisoner the vote—to everyone? That's the sort of information I need to know before I give a tick to prisoners.

10:55

You make very good points. As I said at the beginning, really, it is in your hands whether you want prisoners to vote and it's in your hands what category of prisoners are deemed to be eligible to vote. Really, this is a matter for you as elected representatives. All I would say, and I would say it on behalf of the electoral registry, if I may, is that there have been quite severe cuts, as we all know, through austerity, to local government officers. Quite senior, experienced electoral registration officers have left the service through voluntary redundancy and so on. So, I think there is a real need to address the time element and the resource element for electoral registration officers, to enable them to be more proactive in this field and to make a success of it, if necessary, so that we don't have criticism from the Commonwealth or anyone else as to our systems.

May I just ask as well—? In terms of the possibility that some prisoners may be granted the right to vote but not others, one suggestion is that it should be determined on release dates. So, if a prisoner is due to be released within the term of the Assembly or the local authority that the election in determining, would you have any particular issues with the practicalities? Because, obviously, release dates can change. Would there be particular issues for you if that was the deciding factor as to whether prisoners were able to vote or not?

Can I just say—? From the research that I've looked at, when prisoners are coming near to being released, they're very often brought back to a prison near to where they live or the area that they've last come from. So, it might be that they were in Liverpool and they come back down to Bridgend. It's at what point and whether we're informed of that, because if they're voting by post and we've sent that postal vote up to Liverpool, then by the relevant date they've come back to, say, Bridgend, you're into that situation where we didn't know. Somebody needs to inform us as administrators that that person—we need to redirect that postal vote. And of course, there is a cut off of 11 days before a change of address for a postal vote, So, all that would need to be addressed—the relevant timings.

Linking into that, a fundamental thing is the communication of a release date. There's also the fact that, when somebody's released, they're then eligible to become registered as a regular, ordinary elector, for want of a better phrase. It's about the transition period. Is that a brand new application, or is it an automatic transition into being an ordinary elector and then registered in the normal fashion? So, there are a number of factors that will come into that, and that will then go back to the residency requirements we talked about earlier. It's about communication, really.

I would just add that that element would need to be built into any voter registration form as well, and that would need to be attested in some way to ensure that that is correct. It certainly wouldn't be a massive hurdle for us, but on the communication element, we would need to make it very, very clear to the prisoner that that criteria existed.

This all comes back to—this can only be done through the co-operation and engagement of the prison service itself. We need to be with them as colleagues and to co-ordinate their assistance for this to work properly.

Partly following up on Jenny's questioning, data protection rights presumably extend to prisoners. So, if a third party such as a prison authority was to release data such as national insurance numbers on behalf of a prisoner, would not the prisoner need to sign some kind of consent form nonetheless because of their personal data being shared with a third party?

And my second question, I suppose, in that context and more broadly: what consideration within this agenda, in terms of both existing and potential future rights, needs to be given to removing the barriers faced by disabled prisoners?

11:00

If I can answer the first question, which is probably a non-answer, every electoral registration officer has the privacy notice, which confirms they're using the data for the sole purpose of registration. It would need to be the basis of data-sharing agreements et cetera between the prison service and registration officers for that sort of reason. It may well come to a specific statement being signed, but that would be one for the data protection lawyers. It's not an insurmountable barrier—it's purely making sure the correct processes have actually been followed.

That's certainly something that we'd need to consider in terms of even form design and that element. It's something that we consider for other electors, so we would carry out a very similar exercise to ensure that any disabled prisoners were able to fully take part in the process.

Just to say that the commission did have an informal day—that is, a sort of an away day in the office—on disabilities. We shared the day. And we had the Royal National Institute of Blind People for example, and I know you've done a lot of work with Mencap. So, we are aware. This category will just have to be added to the wide range of disabilities that we have to, somehow, help people to vote.

Just one—our allotted time has elapsed, I'm afraid, but just one further question: if a decision was taken to grant 16 and 17-year-olds the vote generally in Wales, do you believe, in terms of prisoners voting, that any granting of voting rights to prisoners should be on the same basis for 16 and 17-year-olds as with older prisoners? So, for example, if it was a limited right based on offence committed, for example, should there be that same distinction for 16 and 17-year-olds or not? Would you have a view on that?

I cannot see any reason why eligibility should be different from that of the wider public.

If you've agreed to a principle that anyone over 16 can take part in a Welsh election, then that should also include individuals in youth offending institutions or whatever.

Okay. Thank you very much. Thank you all for coming along to give evidence today. You will be sent a transcript to check for factual accuracy. Diolch yn fawr.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, John.

Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 11:03 a 11:15.

The meeting adjourned between 11:03 and 11:15.

11:15
3. Ymchwiliad i Hawliau Pleidleisio i Garcharorion: Sesiwn Dystiolaeth 6
3. Inquiry into Voting Rights for Prisoners: Evidence Session 6

Okay then. Welcome back, everyone, to this meeting of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee. We move on to item 3 today, a further evidence session, evidence session 6, on our inquiry into voting rights for prisoners. I'm very pleased to welcome Baroness Newlove, victims' commissioner for England and Wales, to give evidence to committee today over an audio link. Welcome, Baroness Newlove.

Good morning, everybody.

I wonder if I might begin with an initial question, which really is just to seek an overview in terms of your views on this debate as to whether prisoners should have the right to vote in Welsh Assembly elections and local elections in Wales.

Yes. Thank you, Chair. As Victims' Commissioner for England and Wales, I am responsible for championing the needs of victims across Government and also the criminal justice system. I have travelled and do travel around the country; I think I've met 43 police and crime commissioners. I meet with victims as well, and their stories are so important to listen to. I also receive a heavy postbag from victims themselves, from the media that I do. However, I would like to be clear that I'm not a spokesman for victims. I am sure that there will be victims who are both for and against the idea of prisoners getting the vote. So, from my perspective, I should say that I have been campaigning over recent years for victims to have their statutory rights. Many victims tell me that they feel our criminal justice system is all about the offender, and yet here we are today talking about prisoners being given the right to vote, and still no commitment from Government to give victims statutory rights. This means there is a risk that this debate will perpetuate the perception that, as ever, the focus is solely about the rights of offenders and not the rights of victims.

I see. As you say, there wouldn't be any singular view from victims. Obviously, there would be a variety of views on these matters. So, as you say, one issue that victims of crime might well feel strongly about is their own situation in terms of rights. Would there be other issues, do you think, that victims of crime would feel strongly about, in terms of your experience and the views that you've heard?

Well, I think, if I can just add to that—and that's something that we've been discussing, and have been discussing around the country, in a sense; you know, it picked up on what people see and perceive—I do not believe that prisoners being given the right to vote undermines the status of victims, because there is no trade-off between the rights of prisoners and the rights of victims. What, as victims' commissioner, I am saying is that both are entitled to rights. So, it's just that we talk about prisoners' rights all the time within the criminal justice system and do very little about victims' right to live in a society as a free citizen. So, therefore, that ought to include the right to participate. Now, that right to participate in elections and everything; that's where I want to really get the victims' voice over to this as equal parties.

I see. Okay. In terms of the right to vote, would you have a view—would victims have a view, do you think—as to whether that right should be linked to the type of offence, the length of sentence, the release date, or any other factor?

As you might have sensed from my answer just now, I do not support the notion that any serving prisoner should be given the vote. Someone is sent to prison as a punishment for breaking the law, and that is very important for victims to hear that, those directions in court, and to follow through. Because, for them, prison means that, for a fixed period of time, you are deprived of the right to live in a society as a free citizen, and therefore that ought to include the right to participate in elections.

Could I just get you to clarify that? So, do you think that depriving a prisoner of the right to vote is part of their punishment?

No. What I believe—and victims believe—is that, when they're sent to prison, that is the punishment, and, when they're sent to prison, we've also got to understand that they serve part of their sentence within a prison environment, and they do come out in the community where they will have the right to vote there. So, I don't think it should be part of their punishment—prison is punishment. That is separate.

11:20

So, were we to decide to adopt a similar system to that that operates in Canada or Ireland, what impact do you think that would—where prisoners do have the right to vote—what impact do you think that would have on the views of the victims that you're working with?

I think, as my opening speech really said so itself, that it's—the perception is that, again, it's focusing on the offender, and, as far as victims are concerned, the offender goes into prison and that's punishment from the state.

About the opinion of voting, I've not done a lot of evidence, deep-dive evidence, but, from what I can see, that is not right for them whilst they're serving a prison sentence. But, of course, again, as I said, they serve part of their prison sentence within the prison estate; they do come out halfway and that's when they get their rights. So, I think that is where victims would be satisfied, in a sense.

So, you don't think that giving prisoners the right to vote is an important part of their rehabilitation to be an active citizen?

Whilst they're in prison, they're there for a punishment. I think that rehabilitation is very important, but, as to the vote, the right to vote while they're in there, that is part of—. The estate is a punishment—the prison sentence. But, as I say, when they come out and serve halfway, then they have the right to vote then once they're back in the community, because it's in the public interest for them to be rehabilitated whilst they're in prison, to make communities feel safer and in the public interest.

Are you aware that some prisoners already have the right to vote? For example, prisoners on remand, prisoners on sentences for failure to pay fines or for contempt of court.

Yes, I'm aware of that, yes.

But, if they are allowed to vote, what would be the reason why others shouldn't be allowed to vote—you know, without, in any way, taking away from the sentence that has been handed down by the courts?

Well, I think there are two issues here. You're looking at one issue of voting, the right to vote for prisoners, but I think you're missing a very important part for victims, which is that prison is seen as a punishment, and then you rehabilitate them. So, that's the reason why I understand on remand, because they've not been convicted. And you've also got to understand, when they're on remand and they are sentenced, those days are taken off the sentence. So, the whole point of going to prison is punishment, and I think that's more important. And that's why I still push for victims' rights, because we're again talking about offenders' rights and not about the victims' needs and rights.

So, how—in this context, how would you want the victims' rights to be expressed? Do you think that victims should be determining whether a particular individual should be given a right to vote?

No, I think that's completely not what victims want, and, at the moment, victims have a—. We have a victims' code that they're not even aware of. So, I think you cannot put the two together at this stage. I think, for me, it's about having rights for both parties—not a trade-off, but rights for both parties. But I just think that victims see somebody going to prison as a punishment for them to be rehabilitated. And that's why I keep saying—when they do come out of prison, they do have that right to vote when they're serving in the community. But I just don't think—. I think we're missing a point in that, actually, prison is punishment in victims' eyes, and there has to be first and foremost a right for victims to understand what the criminal justice system is directing to that person.

Could I just ask, Baroness: in terms of the changes that have already been made, which include giving the right to prisoners on remand who have been convicted, but who are awaiting sentence, are you aware of victims objecting, opposing those rights?

No, I have to say, as victims' commissioner, I'm not, and I've not, actually, gone in greater detail into that because my main issue is championing the needs of victims within our criminal justice system. And, again, I push for—and would welcome the Assembly to look at this, actually—looking at victims' rights in law, because we have to go that far to give them their legal rights and have a voice properly balanced, and for a fair justice system.

11:25

Thank you, Chair. Baroness, it's great to have you on, expressing something of the voice from the victims' commissioner's point of view, but as you rightly pointed out in the beginning, there will be different views on this from different individual victims of crime. Have you got any advice for the committee on any other ways in which this committee could hear that voice within the evidence that we're hearing? It just intrigues me that there are disparate views on this, as there are in the wider population, but is there any mechanism that we're missing to actually hear those views as we consider evidence?

I think, first and foremost, you've got to—[Inaudible.]—sensitivity of asking that question to vulnerable victims, and also victims fully understanding what is going on in the offenders estate. So, for me, it's entirely how your committee wants to draw questions, draw evidence. But I'm really concerned that victims don't have any rights as it is. Offenders do have many rights, and I just think we need to address that right first before asking that question, because it is very sensitive, you're talking to very vulnerable people, and until we get equal rights for both parties, it's not going to be a balanced answer that you're going to get.

On the basis of what you've said so far, does that imply that we shouldn't be considering the extension of any franchise to a wider prison population until, in your view as the commissioner, there is more adequate representation of the rights of the victim? 

I think I'm not able to give you an adequate answer to that, because, as I say, as victims' commissioner, that's not something that really I go into detail about. And, actually, they have to be aware of what's going on, but actually, it could prove very difficult for them to respond to you. I think I would say, I would welcome the committee also looking at the rights of victims, and I think once they know somebody takes the lead and actually gives them quality evidence, then that would push the Government to ensure that we get a victims' bill of rights and we are given that level playing field. 

Just one final question, Chair, and it follows on from Jenny's question about the view of some that prisoners forfeit their right to vote, they forfeit their right to participate in society when they've broken the law. From what you're saying, am I wrongly inferring here that you are suggesting that there are some prisoners who do, indeed, forfeit their right, and as they approach date of release or under certain offences, then they regain it?

Again, I couldn't give you a substantial answer to that. When they go back into the community, obviously they're residents and they're part of people who can vote in their communities. However, I think it's a question that has many dynamics to it, coming from different angles. But I just think I couldn't really give you a substantial answer, because I am victims' commissioner and my role is about victims of crime. That would have to come from somebody else who looks into prisons, who could give you a substantial answer back. I know when we had a chat yesterday, some don't agree with having the right while they're serving their prison sentence. But that is not my role. My duty is to look at victims of crime and how the criminal justice agencies and the system respond to their needs and support them to cope and recover.

Good morning. Just so that I understand your position correctly, you've been very passionate in your advocacy of victims' rights, and rightly so, of course, because for many, many years victims were the bystanders in a system that involved the Crown and the offender. And I agree with you: I think there's much yet to do on victims' rights. I also agree with you that prison is, at least partially, a punishment, and certainly victims would see it that way. Just to be absolutely clear—and I think you've said this—that it's firstly your belief that prison is a punishment—we've established that—and, secondly, that the depriving prisoners of the right to vote while they're in prison is part of that punishment. Would that be a fair analysis?

11:30

Yes, it is a fair analysis, and actually we've still got a very long way for victims to get these rights. Yes, we are now speaking about victims, but we are still not on an equal level playing field for this, and that is the irritation of victims and the restlessness in that they are not represented. You quite rightly say, the prosecutor represents the state, and this is why we need to ensure that victims know the information that's already out there. At least 80 per cent of victims are not even aware of the victim code. So, we do have a long way to go, and I think that's why I said what I said.

And what you've said, I think, is that if somebody is sentenced to a term of imprisonment, that's when they lose the right—not when they break the law because, obviously, that would mean if somebody had a suspended sentence or a community sentence, then they would also lose the right to vote. Similarly, if somebody has been convicted but not yet sentenced and are on remand, of course, there's no guarantee that they'll receive a prison sentence anyway. So, what you're saying is, as it were, the barrier is prison. If somebody is sentenced to a term of imprisonment, it's only when that happens that that person, you say, should lose the right to vote.

Yes. Can you hear me? Sorry. Yes.

I did, yes. It must be my answer that didn't go through to you.

I agreed with what the committee member just said. My answer is 'yes' to his question.

Just one final question from me, then. As I say, I have no disagreement with you that the issue of victims' rights has not always been at the forefront of the system. That's not what you said but that's pretty much probably a toned-down version of what your belief would be, and I've got no disagreement with you on that. But can I ask this: you are right to say, of course, that victims have rights, but does it impinge on victims' rights if a prisoner retains the right to vote? Does that impinge on a victim's rights in any way?

No, not at all. It doesn't impinge on victims' rights.

I wanted to just explore what rights for victims you want. You've mentioned a bill of rights for victims. We're a committee of the National Assembly for Wales looking at who can and can't vote, so, are there any rights in terms of victims that fall within our remit?

That's a tricky one, actually, and to be fair, we've not really concentrated on that because the specifics are about prisoners' rights to vote, and so, I wouldn't like to give—I don't think I can give you a reasonable answer to that question. Probably I'd be best writing to the committee, if I'm allowed.

Okay. Can I ask you, then, do you see the right to vote as a privilege?

Well, I do, yes, and I have to say, never mind as victims' commissioner, especially in the Year of the Woman and with International Women's Day today, I also say as a woman: yes, it's a privilege to be able to vote. That might not be to do with the committee, but, sorry.

I've got another question about this point you're making about punishment. Do you also think that there should be a victim's right for the perpetrator to be reintegrated back into society? What we know about rehabilitation is that link with society is really important, and some people have given us evidence to suggest that what most victims want is some sort of satisfaction that the perpetrator is not going to commit a similar offence to them or someone else again. So, this question of rehabilitation and the right to vote is something that we've taken quite seriously as a committee. Do you think that that victim's right to the perpetrator being rehabilitated is trumped by the victim's right to see punishment?

No. I think what victims want to see is actually to see prisoners being rehabilitated. That's very important because, as most victims say, they don't want anybody else to become a victim. So, it really is very important, and this is essential to what any government and any society wants—to have a success in rehabilitating. And actually, it's also important for that individual prisoner themselves to be getting out of the cycle and breaking the cycle. And it also reduces the likelihood of them creating the future victims. I have spoken to some ex-offenders who have asked to be put on tag. I know it's a different thing and I'm not digressing, but actually, when they say they want to break the cycle, I think rehabilitation is paramount for them as an individual, to get back and engage with society.

11:35

Do you see any link then between voting whilst in prison and rehabilitation?

I'm not sure that I'm qualified to offer an assessment of how important voting is to the rehabilitation, but my hunch is that working on issues such as remorse, empathy, anger management, vocational skills and literacy—I mean, it has been stated that most prisoners, they've found, can't even read and write, which is absolutely very sad. So, they might have more effective means of rehabilitation.

But this is more about feeling connected to society. I mean, one of the things that we know about people who are in prison and not rehabilitated is that they don't feel as if they're part of society, they don't feel as if they are treated as a citizen. One thing that could perhaps potentially address that is giving prisoners the right to vote—no?

I think you have to step back. That's the whole point of rehabilitation is to feel part of society when you come out and that's why it's very important, while they're in prison, that you look at how they're addressing their issues and their anger management, and that actually they gain again and understand what communities and society expect and also that they feel, as an individual, that they've been welcomed into society. So, I think rehabilitation is paramount and very important for everybody.

Thank you and good morning. What evidence can you share with us about the demographic make-up of victims in terms of, perhaps, age, gender, socioeconomic status or otherwise? Because there are lots of assumptions about who a victim is, but whether there's evidence to give us something concrete to work from. What, if any, evidence exists about the impact of victimhood on the victims' well-being, mental health and future lives? And in that context, what, if any, evidence exists or is suggested about the impact on a victim's well-being and mental health were the perpetrator of the crime to be seen by them to have any further influence over their lives whilst in prison by having a right to vote for the political representation of the victim?

Well, that's quite a long question, so I'll try and answer. I have to say that I would think the prisoners are right across the nation, and as victims' commissioner, that's not what I've actually looked at. I think there is going to be plenty of other evidence from the agencies that deal with prisoners and probation and parole. There have been many reviews. But I think more importantly, for me, again, at the end of the day, all I can put forward is that the rehabilitation is important to victims and should be paramount to the prisoner. So, I can't really give you a substantial answer to that, because that's not in my realm to do that; my realm and my remit under law is to champion the needs of victims and look at compliance with the victims' code.

Would you agree, or do you have views on the position of whether a victim, by definition, has had their human rights breached by perpetrators, particularly convicted perpetrators?

'Breached' is a strong word, actually, and again, I couldn't give you enough evidence to actually substantiate the word 'breached', but I think we have a criminal justice system that is there to support society when there's damage done to them, and victims rely on the criminal justice system. If you look at what I'm saying, 80 per cent of victims do not know that there's a victims' code that is supposed to comply with their needs, within the agencies. So, I wouldn't really—. 'Breaching' their human rights, I think that's a different context and it's for somebody else to give you correct evidence on that basis.

Thank you very much indeed. Baroness, I heard you clearly that the punishment actually is as a prisoner, when they've made some offence during living in the society, and they forfeit the right of freedom when somebody goes to the prison. Have you ever done a little survey on these victims, what they feel about the voting rights for the prisoners?

11:40

No, I haven't, actually. It's not something that has been collated by my office. It's not what we've been writing about, voting rights. Actually, they want the right of the criminal justice system to respect them as human beings with decency and respect, and they are a lone voice within our criminal justice system. That, again, is why I'm asking the Government to do a victims' bill of rights, because you have to understand there are many different victims. There are bereaved victims, there are rape victims, there are sexual abuse victims, and in areas, they're not even having the support that they're supposed to. So, it's a challenge for victims, and voting isn't one of them that comes to the forefront. It's actually delivery of a justice system that sees them and respects them and treats them with dignity.

Thank you. It's a follow-up question to one of our committee members, Leanne Wood's, earlier on. One of the interesting—. We've had two visits recently where we've taken evidence orally from visits to two different prisons, one in Wales, one in England where there's a large Welsh prison population. We've spoken to prisoners, but also to prison staff as well. What would be your response to some of the interesting evidence we've had from prison staff who've expressed the view that they see the extension of the right to vote in prison as part of the rehabilitative process, as part of that citizen engagement that makes it easier for them to interact? We've had, for example, prisoners who've said that what they want to do is not only keep in touch with their children's school, but also keep an interest in the policy that shapes whether there's investment in schools and their local communities. If that view there, that says it helps with the rehabilitation—does not that then help actually champion victims as well? Because if the rehabilitation process is helped, does that not help prevent more victims?

Unfortunately, that isn't in my remit, but I would welcome seeing a good piece of evidence on that. I know that you have to go into prisons, and prison staff, and I think it's their right to give you their view. However, again, for me, rehabilitation is paramount, but at the same time, the victim has no right at all to even have a discussion and has no rights at the end of the day for me to actually question the criminal justice system before they go into prison. So, again, I'm not going to be able to give you a substantial answer to your question. I think that comes from the people who represent prisons, who do reports and look into that, and that's for them to push to Government, to raise that question again.

My apoligies for—just to explore this in a different way, if, in your clear passion, and your right passion, for championing the rights of victims, if we can avoid more victims by a process of rehabilitation that included, as we're hearing from some in evidence, that right to vote being part of that rehabilitative process that leads to better citizens, more rapid rehabilitation, would that not add to your role in terms of championing the rights of victims?

I'm sorry, I don't see why that would add to my championing role for victims, because it depends on what kind of prisoners—what they're in for. That's why I don't do reports on the prisoners. There have to be different elements and colleagues are looking at victims who have suffered domestic abuse, and then you've got prisoners who were the perpetrators of domestic abuse. For me, again, that's not my remit, and yes, rehabilitation is paramount, but what the prisoners state, and what programmes they deliver, and what evidence they support, that has got to be shared, and the evidence has got to be shared by the correct role, and I'm not the correct role for that, to give you a substantial answer. I represent victims who again really want to be rehabilitated, actually, themselves, and they're not getting the services to be able to cope and recover themselves. That isn't my main priority.

Thank you very much. We went to one prison, and I was convinced by one person when he said that he did a crime that was accidental, in his own view, but he wanted to work for the sake of his family, because they're growing up and he would like to see them in the right political direction. So, that actually appealed to me the first time to think of that view. Otherwise, my views are exactly what you're thinking. 

11:45

Again, I can't answer for when you spoke to this prisoner. However, what I would suggest is you need to have a thorough piece of evidence to show that, because at the end of the day that is one voice, and I'd just like to see better rehabilitation reports. That's paramount. But, again, I cannot give you a substantial answer. That isn't my area. I haven't done any report. For me again, it's about rehabilitating victims into a society that understands the damage that has occurred to them.  

Thank you. I think it's just worth noting that I think all of us in this committee would have great sympathy with you in terms of the points that you're making about victims being not aware of the victim charter, and the Government not doing enough to support the rights of victims. But this committee in this National Assembly can't really do much about any of that; those are Home Office responsibilities. But what we're looking at is the right of prisoners to vote in Welsh elections. Now, it's been suggested to us that there's a gap in research on victims' views in terms of prisoners voting. Would you agree that there's a gap in that research?   

Yes, you're quite right—there is a gap in research on victims' views on a great many subjects, actually, including subjects that go closer to the heart of the victims' concerns than prisoners' voting rights. So yes, I would agree there's a gap in research there.  

Okay, everyone. Thank you very much. Baroness, thank you very much for linking with us today to give evidence to the committee on this inquiry. You will be sent a transcript in due course to check for factual accuracy. 

Thank you very much. Thank you, committee, and thank you, Chair. 

Thank you. Bye bye. 

4. Papurau i'w Nodi
4. Papers to Note

Okay, our next item today is papers to note. We have paper 3 before us, which relates to a letter from the Equality and Human Rights Commission in relation to cumulative impact assessment and the briefing that they offered to committee. We will return to that matter in due course as to whether the committee would like to avail itself of the offer. So, is committee at this stage happy to note that paper? Yes. Thanks for that. 

5. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42(vi) i Wahardd y Cyhoedd o Weddill y Cyfarfod a'r Cyfarfod ar 13 Mawrth 2019
5. Motion under Standing Order 17.42(vi) to Resolve to Exclude the Public from the Remainder of the Meeting and from the Meeting on 13 March 2019

Cynnig:

bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod a'r cyfarfod ar 13 Mawrth 2019 yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(vi).

Motion:

that the committee resolves to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting and from the meeting on 13 March 2019 in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(vi).

Cynigiwyd y cynnig.

Motion moved.

Item 5, then, is a motion under Standing Order 17.42 to resolve to exclude the public for the remainder of this meeting. Is committee content to do that? Okay, we will go into private session. 

Derbyniwyd y cynnig.

Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 11:48.

Motion agreed.

The public part of the meeting ended at 11:48.

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