|Carwyn Jones AM|
|Gareth Bennett AM|
|John Griffiths AM||Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor|
|Leanne Wood AM|
|Mark Isherwood AM|
|Mohammad Asghar AM|
|Dr Greg Davies||Cydymaith Ymchwil, Canolfan Llywodraethiant Cymru|
|Research Associate, Wales Governance Centre|
|Dr Robert Jones||Cydymaith Ymchwil, Canolfan Llywodraethiant Cymru|
|Research Associate, Wales Governance Centre|
|Mark Day||Pennaeth Polisi a Chyfathrebu, yr Ymddiriedolaeth Ddiwygio Carchardai|
|Head of Policy and Communications, Prison Reform Trust|
|Gwyn Griffiths||Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol|
|Lisa Griffiths||Dirprwy Glerc|
|1. Cyflwyniad, Ymddiheuriadau, Dirprwyon a Datgan Buddiannau||1. Introductions, Apologies, Substitutions and Declarations of Interest|
|2. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42(vi) i Wahardd y Cyhoedd o Eitemau 3 a 7 y Cyfarfod||2. Motion under Standing Order 17.42(vi) to Resolve to Exclude the Public from items 3 and 7 of the Meeting|
|4. Ymchwiliad i Hawliau Pleidleisio i Garcharorion: Sesiwn Dystiolaeth 1||4. Inquiry into Voting Rights for Prisoners: Evidence Session 1|
|5. Ymchwiliad i Hawliau Pleidleisio i Garcharorion: Sesiwn Dystiolaeth 2||5. Inquiry into Voting Rights for Prisoners: Evidence Session 2|
|6. Papurau i'w Nodi||6. Papers to Note|
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 10:31.
The meeting began at 10:31.
Welcome 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've had two apologies from Huw Irranca-Davies and Jenny Rathbone. Are there ay declarations of interest? No.
bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o eitemau 3 a 7 y cyfarfod yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(vi).
that the committee resolves to exclude the public from items 3 and 7 of the meeting in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(vi).
Cynigiwyd y cynnig.
We will move on to item 2 on our agenda today, which is a motion under Standing Order 17.42 to resolve to exclude the public from items 3 and 7 of this meeting. Is committee content so to do? Okay, we will move into private session.
Derbyniwyd y cynnig.
Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 10:31.
The public part of the meeting ended at 10:31.
Ailymgynullodd y pwyllgor yn gyhoeddus am 10:51.
The committee reconvened in public at 10:51.
Welcome. This is our first evidence session with regard to our inquiry into voting rights for prisoners, and I'm very pleased to welcome Dr Greg Davies, research associate with the Wales Governance Centre, and Dr Robert Jones, also research associate with the Wales Governance Centre. Welcome to you both.
I wonder if I might begin with a few general questions, and, firstly, to ask you for your overview in terms of your approach to the debate on prisoner voting and whether they should have that right. Could you tell the committee about your general approach to these matters?
Yes, okay. So, we are arguing that the Assembly should legislate to give at least some, ideally all, prisoners the right to vote. We base our position on a set of legal, political and reintegrative arguments. I'll just take you very quickly through the legal and political arguments that we've put forward.
So, legally, we feel that the UK Government's attempt to resolve this issue is insufficient. Allowing prisoners released on temporary licence falls considerably short of addressing the blanket ban on prisoner voting under the Representation of the People Act 1983, which has been repeatedly found, both in the UK and in Strasbourg, to violate the European convention on human rights. Just to illustrate the point: by our estimate, the reforms introduced by the UK Government would only enfranchise five additional prisoners in Wales in the context of UK and Welsh elections. We also feel that legislating to give prisoners the vote would be far more consistent with the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights and wider international law on the right to participate in elections.
Politically, our view is that legislating to give prisoners the vote would be consistent with the Welsh Government's commitment to promoting human rights in Wales, as evidenced by the Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011 and the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.
Yes, and just to pick up on that point and move us into the reintegrative argument, we think that the extension of the franchise would play a key role in that process, and I'm sure we can get to talk a little bit further about that as we proceed.
One of the main arguments, of course, is to try and overcome what we refer to as the 'civic death of the prisoner', and just to put this, again, into a much broader context, as Greg has already outlined, we of course support the extension of the franchise, but I think it's important that this is viewed as part of a much, much broader package about how the Welsh Government can help to reintegrate prisoners in general. This is about houses, this is about education, this is about health, and this is about substance misuse. In our viewpoint, the extension of the franchises should be part of a package. In and of itself, I think there will be questions about its impact. I think we think this should be part of a much, much broader think about how we look at reintegration.
And then, just finally, as a point about our evidence and our appearance here today, we think that it is important that we contribute to a more informed and evidence-led debate on this subject. That is why we, as academics, whose research expertise is in—in Greg's case—exploring human rights and—in my case—looking at imprisonment in Wales—they coalesce nicely on these issues and it is about starting that debate for a more informed process.
Greg, that figure you mentioned of only five prisoners in Wales gaining the right to vote, if the situation in England was replicated in terms of Assembly and local elections—that is a bit surprising, I think. The right to vote in England now includes prisoners on remand, for example. Presumably, there are a lot more than five prisoners on remand in Welsh—
That figure is based on the 100 additional prisoners that the UK Government estimated would be enfranchised as a result of the reforms that it started to introduce around late 2017. So, using the Welsh data on prison populations, we came up with the estimate that, as a result of the UK Government's reforms, only five additional prisoners would be enfranchised.
Right. Well, maybe we can have a look at that, because it may be that that initial assessment, then, has been superseded by a slight widening of those enabled to vote in England, but we will check that, because, as I say, it's surprising, in terms of remand prisoners being included, that it would only be five. We can give that further consideration.
Public opinion on this issue: what's your view on the argument that public opinion will be very different to what might be perceived as the human rights obligations on Government with regard to these matters? Would you see a clash there?
So, I think that, again, I would come back to the point that we just made, really, and the contribution that we think this makes to a more enhanced and evidence-led discussion. We're under no illusion that the viewpoints set out in this evidence do not chime with public opinion on this, but the evidence was never supposed to chime with that. As Greg has outlined, this is based on legal arguments, political arguments and reintegrative arguments. But what I would say is that our express aim—again, to reiterate—is to have a more evidence-based and informed debate and discussion.
The importance of that I think has been established in research on sentencing. So, Professor Julian Roberts at Oxford in 2004 did a piece of research that showed that the more information the public have about a sentencing or a case, the less punitive they became about that particular case. So, our argument is, if we have a debate and discussion where people have taken full account of the legal, political and reintegrative arguments and still arrive at a decision where they don't agree, well, that's a better place than if they haven't considered those arguments in the first place. So, again, I think that, in terms of public opinion and the role of it, our thought process on that is to try and make that a more informed debate. It's not about convincing people, it's about making that a bit more informed.
You drew a parallel, I think, Greg Davies, earlier on with housing, health, substance misuse and other programmes. My understanding is that those either relate to a prisoner's experience whilst in prison or preparing to reintegrate the prisoner after release from prison, but not about bringing what their life outside prison would be like inside prison, which is what this is about—it's about having the right to vote, as if a member of the general population, whilst still a prisoner, which doesn't apply to housing or what have you. I would welcome your views on that.
Secondly, there has been much evidence over the years suggesting that rehabilitative and reintegrative processes for convicted criminals, or people who have issues in their lives, generally require the process to begin with some restriction of liberty, effectively, or restriction of rights, and then gradually extend that, hopefully, towards an outcome that delivers a happier person with greater well-being, who is able to reintegrate. But to simply give everybody, regardless of circumstance or conviction, the rights they would have had if they hadn't committed whatever crime it was could actually reverse the process.
Okay. Could you just—? On the first question, what is it explicitly that you are asking about the health and the education?
The other issues you referred to either relate to the prisoner's experience whilst in prison—so, they might be accessing substance misuse rehab programmes, or they might be receiving health treatment because they need it while they're in prison, or if it's housing or other—education or otherwise—that might be also engaging with their move on when they move out of prison, hopefully with outreach provision and probation services to support them. But we're talking here about something that happens outside being taken inside, which is completely different to either of those other circumstances.
I'm not entirely sure—I'm probably not following the logic entirely, so you have to forgive me. My standpoint would be that, on those issues that you've mentioned and the importance of extending the franchise, if you look at the prisoner surveys that are done by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons, whenever they go into any prison, many of the issues raised are those that you've mentioned about health and education and housing, and of course we know that health boards are responsible for physical and mental health care in public sector prisons, and education is a Welsh Government responsibility in prison. Housing, of course, again is another issue.
I took some notes. So, for example, the Swansea survey: 43 per cent of prisoners identified that they had a mental health problem; 33 per cent, so a third, said they were feeling depressed or suicidal; a quarter had housing issues; 28 per cent had money worries; and 19 per cent, so one in five, had physical health problems. So, I think that, in terms of the vote and enfranchising Welsh prisoners to vote in National Assembly elections, our viewpoint would be that, though criminal justice, of course, and the criminal justice system is a non-devolved matter, because so many of those areas and those issues are devolved and, by their own admission, are so important to them as problems, we think that there's that clear relationship then between their investment in that political process and the impact that decisions made by that accountable body have on them throughout the course of their sentence.
Can I say as well—? I'm not sure if exactly the point you're making, Mark, is about certain circumstances on the out being the same on the in, but I would say that the probation service is designed to try and keep those links with the community. So, if somebody is receiving treatment, say, for a substance use problem before they're sentenced, the probation officer will try to keep that service continued when they go in, because the last thing you want is a break in that kind of service because that can interrupt any good work that's been done up to then. So, the point of linking probation with the prison service is to try and ensure that continuity right throughout—. They call it seamless sentencing. So, you should be able to access exactly the same types of services on the inside and on the outside, so I don't think your point is valid in that sense.
Yes, well, we don't really want a debate between committee members—
—in our evidence-taking session. But, Leanne, in any event, I think it's timely to move on to some of the arguments for and against.
Okay, yes. So, carrying on with the theme of rehabilitation—I come from the probation service so that's where I'm mostly coming at this from—we had a discussion with some prisoners in Parc last week, and one of the discussions that we had with them was whether or not you should differentiate who should get the vote and who shouldn't. Should there be a right for people who got shorter sentences and should you exclude longer sentences? Should you exclude certain types of offences? One prisoner suggested that offences against the state or against democracy should be excluded; others suggested sex offences. There's a whole moral maze, potentially, to get into there. So, do you have a view on whether or not the right to vote should be linked to the type of offence, length of sentence, release date or any other factor at all?
So, I'll start with offence type, then, and share the joy here. So, the answer to that, on offence type, is 'yes'. I think, in answer, we kind of qualify this. Let's take the elephant in the room, and that is that for anybody convicted of a very, very serious or violent offence—for example, we'll take murder as the extreme example or a violent offence that causes serious injury with long-lasting effects—then there is an argument there that that individual forfeits their right to the vote. The just deserts movement: they committed that offence, it's an awful offence that has devastating effects on an individual and family and community, so therefore they forfeit that right. That entire position is, as I've already said, based on the just deserts movement—the eye for an eye et cetera, et cetera. Now, without getting too philosophical, that perspective, the retributionist viewpoint, comes from the ontological thought, which basically tells us—and we're looking at punishment—to forget the effect it has on the individual, we don't care about deterrents, we don't care about rehabilitating, the key, here, in punishment, is the act. We need to take the act, that's key. Now, what follows on from that, then, is that there's a fit between the punishment and the behaviour. What other academics have argued, and we put this in our evidence, is that the loss of the vote is a political punishment, so to apply that—and again, we're talking about violent offences, offences that can have devastating effects on people—there's no fit. So, even within the aims of retributionist punishment and philosophy, there's no marriage there; they don't fit. Applying a political punishment to an offence that is not political by nature—it doesn't quite fit. So, what we extend from that is that if an offence can be determined as being political in nature, then the loss of the vote, in a sense, makes sense.
Now, as part of our evidence when we submitted to the Welsh Government's consultation in October 2017, we FOI'd the Ministry of Justice to ask how many people from Wales were in for electoral offences and there were none at the time.
The other issue is that—and this was explored by Bennett and included in our evidence—in order to justify that eye for an eye, that fit, what would then have to happen is that there would have to be a deliberate case to show how particular crimes were political. So, if a murder was committed on the basis of it being political, or if fraud was, you'd have to then establish that, otherwise the aims of that philosophy are completely redundant and don't support—. We think it's arbitrary, then, to take away, based on the evidence—
Thank you. There are two difficulties. First of all, what is a serious offence? Is causing death by dangerous driving an offence of violence? Is causing death by careless driving whilst unfit through drink and drugs a serious offence? It's a very difficult line to draw, isn't it? You know, burglary: arguably, if you burgle someone's house and there's an elderly couple inside and they're frightened, well, to me, that's a serious offence, even though there might not be physical violence involved. So, I think you're right to identify the difficulty there.
But I think we have a contradiction here in the sense that it's very difficult, I think, to define what a political offence is and, secondly, you then run the possibility of an anomaly, and I'll give you an example of one: in the 1960s and 1970s, Cymdeithas yr Iaith had a campaign of damaging signs and that was directed against the state, it was to get the state to change its way of working and to change its mind. Now, many of those people went to prison for a month or two. If we started looking along those lines, they would be deprived of the right to vote, but somebody who had a life sentence for multiple murders would still be able to vote, so I think there's a fundamental difficulty there with doing that.
Yes. And, hopefully, our evidence expresses that this isn't easy. The other issue we looked at was terror offences, again, which could be construed, of course, as a crime against democracy, a political offence. I think at the time, there were six people from Wales in prison for that offence. Do you want to cover sentence?
Well, I think that's a way of avoiding these issues, so yes, absolutely. But, again, we're also mindful that these are—. One of the things we're desperate for, really, is not these kind of controversial soundbites that everyone gets to vote, because it looks like you're completely dismissing the importance and the severity of potential offending behaviour and the impact it has. The examples you've just given are further examples, so that would—. Extending it to all prisoners would help to overcome these issues, without question.
Thank you. I've been a police witness a number of times both through work and as a private citizen, and I know what's in your mind at that stage are the human rights of the victim, and, often, I've not been the victim, I've been speaking as a witness on behalf of other victims. But, drawing on your point, you're sort of juxtaposing punishment with rehabilitation; my understanding is, rather, we're talking about a process that goes: punishment, protection, rehabilitation, reintegration. It's a continuum, and about how this might fit into that continuum, rather than having it as a 'yes' or a 'no', and it's either punishment or it's rehab.
I think therein lies the problem. I forget the Act—the criminal justice Act, and I forget the section, but if you looks at the aims of imprisonment and the aims of punishment, you have incapacitation, you have punishment, you have deterrents, you have rehabilitation. Now, there's an inherent contradiction between those things. That's actually—. As I say, it's in the criminal justice Act. So, this is, in a sense, part of the problem. We try to punish people but then try to rehabilitate. We try to rehabilitate and we try to deter. There is a fundamental problem here.
And I just think this is, again—. In a sense, to come back to the beginning, the Welsh Government has now established that it is currently working on two blueprints on its own penal policy, what it thinks penal policy in Wales should look like. And I think that these arguments should fit as part of that much, much broader discussion about what penal policy should be about, what it should look like. I think that there is a considerable body of evidence to suggest that the UK Government's approach to penal policy is not working very well. So, therefore, there is huge scope here to think about how Wales could do that in a different way.
That includes—to pick up on your point—the position of victims. Rightfully, the voice of victims is something that features as part of this debate, which is absolutely right, but the criminal justice system at this moment has an awful lot to do to include and empower victims within all of its processes. So, again, this isn't just about an individual issue; this is about a broader package. This is about: how do we rethink reintegration? How do we rethink the aims of our criminal justice system, but also how do we rethink how victims are dealt with and treated by the criminal justice system at present? So, again, this is about using this issue to think through all of these questions as, indeed, the Welsh Government begins to think through its own policy.
Okay. I think we probably need to move on. Leanne, perhaps the last question, though, on judges might be—
Yes, okay. The question is about whether or not courts should have the right, as part of the sentencing process, to remove the right to vote, but I think you've given pretty much a sound philosophical argument for that not to happen. But do you want to add anything to that at all?
In principle, it could be a way of removing the element of arbitrariness involved in the current disenfranchisement under the 1983 legislation. But I suppose the risk is that if it's left to judges, there's still scope for arbitrariness. So, I think it would need the clearest possible guidelines from the Sentencing Council for England and Wales, and there's also an issue about legislative competence as well, I think. I think empowering—please correct me if I'm wrong—but I think empowering judges in Wales to be able to strip convicted persons of the right to vote would be a matter of criminal justice policy, which isn't currently devolved.
So, they wouldn't be able to do it just for Wales and not in England, then.
I don't think they would be able to do it in relation to Wales until justice is devolved.
And if they did, you would also have the issue that if Welsh people are sentenced in England, the judges then—how are they aware? Are they made aware? How does that then—? So, yes, there's an issue.
I think on that point, the practical issue has been identified. Secondly, of course, you've got this problem with judges having to operate their own discretion. I think that's very, very difficult, and I think you're right—it could be done for Wales, but we couldn't do it for Wales. That's the issue.
Very, very quickly, you mentioned the issue of victims' rights—very important. Historically, it's something the system has not responded well to until fairly recently, but what's that got do with prisoners voting?
I think it comes back to the question we mentioned earlier about public opinion. And I think that some of those concerns emanate from offering the prisoner the right to vote being somehow an affront to a victim of a serious offence. You mentioned a robbery offence or a burglary that has a devastating impact. I think there may well be a perception from the victim that that is somehow unfair. Now, that isn't, in a sense, our argument; we think that if extending the franchise can be used as a broader reintegrative mechanism as part of tackling housing, education and health—again, it's not in isolation—we think, looking at this through victimology, it would be a good thing, because improving reintegration reduces reoffending. Reducing reoffending reduces the number of victims you have in your communities and your society. So, we think it's an important consideration, so that our evidence isn't a reckless statement that voting rights should be extended. But, again, I think that has to be part of a broader conversation about how victims are included in the justice process more generally. I don't know if you want to add to that.
Okay. Carwyn, do you want to move on to some of the practical considerations?
Yes, thank you, Chair. One of the issues that we're having to wrestle with, if we move beyond the issue of the principle of prisoners voting, is how they can be registered. We're in a unique position in that we don't have a self-contained prison system, by and large, as Scotland does, by and large, and so does Northern Ireland. And, so, we can't control the registration of all offenders who might have an address in Wales, because we know that 36.5 per cent of them are in England. So, really, it's a question of where could people register. Now, I know you mention in paragraph, I think it's 3.3, the issue of declarations of local interest, and I was just intrigued to understand your definition of what that means.
And the second point is: presumably, if we were to move down the line of prisoners being able to register in Wales when they are resident in English prisons, we would need the co-operation of the English prisons in order to do it. So, two questions.
Yes, sure. In terms of establishing local connection, address prior to custody could be one of those ways. Another way, and this is from memory, so, forgive me, is when—with the priority need Order for housing, one of the conditions in order to be eligible for the services provided by the homeless person's priority need Order, was that they had to establish local connection. And there were two ways of doing that. One, if they had lived in Wales at an address—and, again, I'm completely guessing, but I think it was three years. Or another was that if they have a relative or loved one who had been there, I think, for five years. So, I think, in our evidence, our way of putting this was that local connection has been used within Welsh Government policy before. So, that might be one way of speaking to service providers about how effective that was. Of course, I remember one of the big issues we had at the time is that many service providers didn't actually know where Welsh people were. Welsh people were in 103 prisons in England at the end of September, and you get—. So, there are all kinds of logistical issues with that. But I think that could be used—I use the word 'could' there—as a model.
But, in terms of the logistics, in terms of English prisons, that was something that those involved in the delivery of housing services faced a lot. As soon as the policy was introduced, they wrote to all governors in England, and I think they said they went to Scotland as well, to raise awareness that Welsh prisoners had different housing entitlements to English prisoners. Of course, the inspectorate of prisons described it as a model for English authorities to copy, but again, that information, getting out there was very, very difficult. So, it's a bit of a non-answer, but I think there are a number of difficulties. But the local connection, including TSS, the transitional support service, which was funded, as you'll know, for quite some time—that used local connection as well. So, that could be used as a way to establish that.
But I will just say that the data on where Welsh people are is absolutely key. And, also, how accurate is the—? This is something from the Ministry of Justice that I think is paramount. It's impossible to plan any policy, particularly this, if we don't have any information on where Welsh people are in the prison estate.
Just finally, you mentioned that, in order for a declaration of local interest to be effective, there would need to be evidence that somebody had lived in a particular area for a certain number of years, almost creating a kind of quasi-citizenship.
That was the model used with priority need, but then—. So, there is that issue. The other problem is, of course, that if somebody hasn't got a fixed address, they'll go down as their committal court. So, someone's committal court might be used as their address. So, again, we talk about the need for data, but when you get that data, we then need to home in and see what that really means. So, it's not easy, but I think that's a start, and I think speaking to people who are involved in the practice of delivering housing services in TSS, they may be able to help us to understand—you understand—what are the logistical issues of using local connection as a way to reach out to Welsh prisoners. There was a report into TSS that said there are problems spreading the jam far enough across England. There are people on HMP Lewes, in Brighton, they're up in the north-east—it's not just the north-west of England and the south-west. We're talking all over the place here. So, just more problems to pound through.
Specifically on this issue, speaking with prisoners in Altcourse a few years ago, they told me—the Welsh prisoners; it was in Altcourse a few years ago—that their personal priorities were housing on release, and not going back to the area they came from, because they didn't want to get back in with the same—their term, 'peer groups and pushers'—finish quote. And we also know that many councils have reciprocal arrangements with other councils for that purpose—so the person with local connection might work with the council to relocate, and vice versa. How would that fit into the local connection model?
If people didn't want to return to a particular area, you mean.
If they didn't want to go back where they came from, because they felt that would damage their rehabilitation, and therefore their council was working with them to relocate them elsewhere.
I think—at some point, I suspect that the individual prisoner would be consulted on where they feel they reside, I suspect. Trying to identify where they are first is the first step. Now, where they feel that they are from, I suppose that's a different issue. Again, it's another important consideration. And, frankly, on the practical side of it, we've only suggested local connection because it's been used before. But I think that that would have to be a conversation with the prisoner, if, based on this anecdotal evidence, there's some truth in that.
Okay. If we move on, in terms of method of voting—in person, by post or by proxy—what are your views on that? And could you state them succinctly, because I'm afraid we're rapidly running out of time?
Okay. I think postal—again, I think in our evidence we've suggested postal. Of course, the logistics of prisoners being in England would necessitate that. But it may well be the case, in Wales, that they do it in person—the prison has a sufficient number of Welsh people in that prison to sustain that. So, it may not be one or the other—it may be both, depending on dispersal of prisoners.
Okay. And the current system that we briefly mentioned earlier, which England have introduced, in terms of voting on remand, do you consider that to be fit for purpose, and could that be extended to more prisoners?
I don't know enough about it to comment, really. I think that, if there's research on it, then that would be my first port of call—to look at what the research shows. But, without knowing anything about how it's working, or its aims, it would be incorrect of me to comment.
Thank you very much, Chair. Thank you, Greg, and thank you, Robert. Every prison has got a different culture. Cardiff prison is very harsh. I've met some prisoners; they're locked in most of the time—a very uncomfortable place to go for prisoners. We went to the prison in Bridgend last week—it was a very relaxed atmosphere; they were partly in and out. And there's Usk prison, where the prisoners get newspapers and television, and it's an open prison. So, there is a different culture in prisons. So, political awareness may be different in different prisons. So, I'm not talking about One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest—that sort of thing. But the fact is the vote is a very precious thing—you are actually voting on how your city and how your country is run. So, they are totally unaware of it. So, the practical implications of the political awareness, and how political parties can convince them, or canvass them, in the areas—are you going to put a polling booth there, and people go to their hustings, and all this radio information inside, or newsletters or whatever way you are going to use? I think it varies from prison to prison, and it is impractical—impractical.
I think the challenges you raise there are, for me, a part of what the benefits of this are—is that it gets people thinking about prisoners as an important group in society. Of course, there are difficulties in getting information through and including and engaging with them, and I think that's part of the potential of this issue, that there's no longer a reason for them to be forgotten and to be marginalised and excluded. We then have to come up with creative, though notwithstanding difficult, solutions to try and engage and include and involve them. Clearly, it'll present practical challenges for candidates and political parties, the Electoral Commission perhaps, of course the Prison Service, but there are ways of getting information to prisoners. They have radio, they have I think it's a monthly newspaper, Inside Time, and some prisoners do of course have televisions. So, there are ways that this could happen. While of course they are by definition incapacitated and outside of society, they are still of course part of that society.
Now, unfortunately, because of the reliance on short-term sentences, of course people are coming in and out all of the time. So, again, I don't want to cast this image of prisoners as banished and cut off and marooned and they know nothing about society. We know that that happens, that's the aim, but a part of me sees that this is a challenge and part of the benefits of this is to begin to include and extend these arguments to them. What a nice thought that they wouldn't actually be just ignored; they could actually be included as part of this.
Robert, what you just said—you understood my question—prisons vary from service to service, in quality to quality. So, that is what—. The prisoners are not the same. You mentioned earlier that only some prisoners—you said in your earlier statement—are going to be allowed to vote, not all of them. So, how do you categorise them and how do you come up with that sort of, 'Yes, you're allowed, and you're not allowed'? We know if somebody is on short-term imprisonment, yes, for a petty little crime, yes. But I think that legal system is going to be changed soon. Short terms are not going to go to prison any more. Because we are the worst in the world—Europe, rather—putting more people in prison, which is the first thing to discuss. With the voting rights, I personally think it's people who have a free will, a free mind, and they know how to run their own society and country. That's what it is; that's fine.
Just in terms of engagement, as Oscar raised, there would be issues as well of course for Welsh prisoners in English prisons. Any thoughts on that in terms of the engagement, raising awareness, and—?
Only to extend what I've just said, really, that, again, it's challenging but it's part of that recognition and awareness. I think when people are aware that they're having to try and canvass people in Hull then they may be aware of the issue of distances and dispersal. I suspect, before some of the Welsh-only data came out, people didn't really understand the dispersal. So, again, I just—clearly, logistical issues, but I think it's a generally positive part of that engagement process.
The only thing is, with canvassing, would there be any—? Can you see any problems with prisons—prison staff, governors and so on—having an issue with all parties sending material in? Would there be any problems, because some parties are regarded as extremist, so how would that work?
They are. They are. I think it would have to be a conversation you'd have with HMPPS really and their existing rules on what comes through the door. There are vetting procedures now already in place, but that's really not a question I can answer, I don't think.
Yes, just a couple. Last October, according to the youth justice board, there were 27 children and young people in custody from Wales; 25 of them were over 16. So, in accordance with your proposals, would they extend, if the franchise in Wales is extended to 16 and 17-year-olds, to that age cohort?
Yes, that would be our position, that we would ask the Government to consider extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds, yes.
And, on the same basis, or would you think that would need to be done differently?
What do you mean—in terms of how you would do it?
Well, for example, the proposals here presuppose better preparation in school, enabling young people to have a better understanding of their rights and responsibilities as to democracy in Wales.
Yes. Many of the arguments that apply to the extension, if you like, in the free world, to quote Neil Young, I think would apply to those in the secure estate as well—yes, the same arguments.
Right, and, finally, your published research last year, showing, I think, the highest imprisonment rate—in Wales—in western Europe, a high level of racial disproportionality amongst the Welsh prison population, the number of sentences, I think, in England falling 26 per cent since 2010, but rising 0.3 per cent in Wales, but shorter sentences in Wales, interestingly—. But, having said all that, even within England, a disproportionality. So, it wasn't a simple Wales/England thing—it was different geographical pictures in different parts of the UK. And, as one of the hundreds of thousands of pepople who, for example, live very near to Merseyside and Manchester, on a west-east crime continuum, what lessons, if any, do you think we could draw, in this context, from the findings of that report? Or is the geographical distribution of crime and conviction so varied that simple borders on a map shouldn't be the overriding factor?
No, I think that borders are important, of course, because certain policies and certain areas are contained within those borders—health, education, housing, substance misuse, as we've already established. In terms of the report and the significance of it in relation to this issue—I think we've already talked about the wider problems with reintegration and probation and the community sentences, et cetera. But let's just—. If we just accept that all countries in western Europe had a ban on voting for prisoners, this data would show us that there is a problem, but it was an even greater problem in Wales, because Wales has the highest rate of imprisonment. So, I think that's what it tells us. If there was a ban across western Europe, the data show that it has a disproportionate effect on prisoners who are from Wales than it does from any of those other countries. So, the fact that this committee is exploring this issue, of course, with that data in view, I think, is key. We have a problem in Wales—. And in England and Wales—there's no doubt that England is included, but we have a problem in Wales with imprisonment, as that report has shown, and the next steps are to think about why and to explore what the reasons are. So, I think it naturally flows that this issue is—like I've said, it's disproportionate in Wales than it would be in any other country.
But it is proportionate to certain parts of England that had similar pictures.
There are—. If you go on a hyperlocal level, absolutely, but, if you look on a hyperlocal level in Wales, there are parts of Wales that have a much higher rate than—I think it was 154 per 100,000. So, once you start—. Absolutely, once you start looking at the geography of justice—for example, if you look at Liverpool and look at Manchester, and you can whittle it down to even smaller areas—then, absolutely, there are areas that have very, very high rates of imprisonment. It's the same with Scotland and it's the same with our analysis in Northern Ireland. But it would also be the same in Wales. And I think that's the next step—once we've framed the Welsh picture, looking at communities within Wales, then what are the rates of imprisonment within these different communities.
I've started, but it's not published. I started probably about a year ago.
Yes, it is interesting. England's picture is also very, very interesting. There is a clear theme and I think you can imagine what that theme is.
Thank you very much, Chair—a very interesting point. You are sitting in front of four different parties represented here. We disagree to agree; we agree to disagree—arguments, reasoning, debates, questions, answers. If there's a debate in a dining room in the prison, with prisoner 1 standing for one view and another for another, I can imagine what would happen there. And the second is influence by the probation officers and the prison officials to influence the prisoners which way to vote, which can be an influence and very serious, and that can have a very different effect on the voting system altogether.
Okay. Was the first bit a question about tensions between prisoners? Is that—
Okay. Well, I'm sure you can imagine that that's something that prison staff and officials have to deal with in a range of different ways. There's really interesting work on what they call 'postcode pride' in London. So, you'll see lots of young people who are imprisoned and have to maybe be moved to different prisons because you keep people from different postcodes away from one another. There's all kinds of—. Mainly within the young—you're talking about the youth estate it's more of an issue. But I don't think this would be anything that is particularly pertinent. They still have political views, I imagine. They can't vote, right, but I imagine that someone will still support a particular standpoint. I don't suppose, because they haven't got the vote, they'll be like, 'Well, there's no point commenting on Brexit because I haven't got a vote.' They still have views. I'm sure they still air their views and their tensions. So, I don't think it would be a particular problem in that respect, but, again, I think that's something to speak to the prison service about—that would be a much better step than with me or Greg.
Okay. Could I just—? Time is defeating us, I'm afraid, but just two other matters, quickly. Going back to 16 and 17-year-olds, is it your view that you might have one system for 16 and 17-year-olds in terms of their right to vote, and perhaps a different one for adults? Or do you think that they should be on the same footing?
I don't really have a view on that. It would be wrong of me to—. I don't know, to be perfectly honest.
No, okay. And just finally, going back to victims of crime, is there anything you would add to what you said earlier in terms of how the voices of victims of crime might be heard in this debate?
What, in terms of what the committee could do, you mean, to—?
Yes. Well, the reason I mentioned it is because we were talking about public opinion, and they're obviously very often closely linked. My go-to would be to look at the research on the voices of victims, the concerns of victims, but, again, we'd come back to the point that our evidence, based on the legal, political and reintegration principles, supports the extension of the vote to all prisoners. But, as part of that process, I think that it's important to just consider how victims may feel about that process, and explaining the arguments and the justifications for it is key to keeping them involved and engaged so that they don't feel affronted by something that may be perceived as an extension to a group of people who some may feel have forfeited that right.
Okay, well, thanks very much for that. Thanks for coming in to give evidence to the committee today, You will be sent a transcript to check for factual accuracy. Diolch yn fawr.
Thank you. Diolch.
Okay. The committee will break very briefly for a five-minute comfort break.
Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 11:37 a 11:43.
The meeting adjourned between 11:37 and 11:43.
Okay, welcome back to committee for our second evidence-taking session with regard to our inquiry on prisoner voting. I'm very pleased to welcome Mark Day, head of policy and communications for the Prison Reform Trust. Welcome, Mark. Perhaps I might begin, Mark, with a few general questions, and firstly an overview, really, of your approach to this debate on prisoner voting.
Certainly. Well, the Prison Reform Trust's view is that all prisoners should be enfranchised, and that's based on two basic principles. One is that people are sent to prison to lose their liberty but not their identity as citizens, and the other is a principle that has been affirmed in the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, that voting is not a privilege, but is in fact a right. So, looking at the blanket ban in the UK as it currently stands, we believe that it is an outdated ban based on this concept of civic death that goes back to the Forfeiture Act 1870. Its consequences are arbitrary and disproportionate. It works against the principles of rehabilitation and reintegration, and there is simply no evidence that it acts as any kind of deterrent.
Okay, thanks for that. That's very clear, Mark. What's your view on how public opinion might be reconciled with those views on the presumption that there might be a degree of difference of opinion amongst the general public?
Well, in liberal democracies such as ours, respect for the will of the majority, I think, has to be balanced against measures to protect the rights of individuals, and that's particularly individuals from groups such as prisoners who experience discrimination, and also often come from backgrounds of disadvantage. I think politicians themselves have a responsibility to take a lead in explaining to the public why it's important to uphold fundamental rights, even when that decision may be unpopular. And I think, looking at the Welsh Government consultation, it was actually welcomed that 50 per cent of people who did respond to that consultation did want to see prisoners enfranchised. I think I'd also look at the example of other countries such as the Republic of Ireland, which did get rid of their own ban on prisoners voting with very little public fuss. So, I think it can be done and I think politicians have an important role to play in upholding various fundamental rights.
Okay. Do you see any issues, Mark, in terms of the fact that prisons—criminal justice isn't devolved to the Assembly so that, if prisoners were given the vote and they were voting in local elections or Assembly elections, they wouldn't be voting on matters of prison policy?
Yes. As we said in our evidence, we would prefer all prisoners in the UK to be given the vote, but I do think that enfranchising prisoners in Wales would be a really important step.
There are plenty of devolved areas in Wales such as health and local authority resettlement services as well that do impact directly on prisoners and that Welsh Government has direct responsibility for. I think as well, in lieu of prisoners not being able to vote directly on prison policy, there are other ways in which prisoners can and, indeed, are engaged in aspects of the running of the prison regime. That can be through involvement on prisoners' councils in prisons, which look at the day-to-day running of establishments, also through initiatives such as our own, the Prison Reform Trust's prisoner policy network, which is a network of prisoners across the country, and we involve them directly in consulting on prison policy through Government consultations, through themed consultations with those groups. And we know that Ministry of Justice officials have reacted very positively to the findings of those.
I think it's also important to say that prisoners are also people; they're not just concerned with what's going on in the prison, they're concerned with their local communities, they're concerned with their families and the policies that are affecting them as well. So, I think prisoners would take an interest even if they weren't able to vote directly on penal policy.
In that work that you do with prisoners through that network, Mark, has that included views on the right to vote?
Not as yet. We have just begun the consultation. So, we did a paper that went to over 1,000 prisoners who contributed, looking at what incentives work in prison and that was deliberately picked to coincide with a consultation that the Ministry of Justice was doing on what is called 'the incentives and earned privileges scheme' in prison, which is the way of encouraging good behaviour in prison. So, it was simply asking prisoners, 'What works as a good incentive in prison?'
Diolch. I come from a probation background, so the whole restorative, rehabilitation side of things is really important to me, and I think it's the key argument for the devolution of criminal justice so that we could do it completely differently here. So, the right to vote comes in in that context, for me, anyway. Do you have a view about whether or not the vote should be linked to the type of offence that people commit, though, or the length of sentence or any other factor, or is the link to rehabilitation important to be extended to all?
In some countries in the Council of Europe, this approach has been taken. I think if we take the link to sentence length first, we would have some problems with that. I think the principle that prisoners remain citizens holds good for all prisoners, not just those who may be on a shorter as opposed to a longer sentence. And I do think if you begin to use sentence length as a measure of entitlement, it begins to bring in problems of arbitrariness around the impact. So, whether or not the right to vote is taken away will depend upon the date of sentencing and also the timing of elections, and this is a particular problem for people on a short sentence who may be sentenced just across an electoral cycle and therefore miss the right to vote.
So, I think the other issue is around different sentencing approaches in different areas of the country, so there is a sentencing lottery. So, something that may attract a certain length of sentence in one area we know will attract another in another. So, it is still, I think, an arbitrary distinction on sentence length. On offence, I think it's about it being proportionate. In some countries, the right to vote is taken away for certain what are termed 'crimes against the state'. And I can see an argument for that, as it being a fair and proportionate response to a particular offence. I guess one example could be electoral fraud. But I would, again, have some reservations about saying that any serious or violent offence would automatically mean that the right to vote was taken away. I think that doesn't really meet the test of proportionality, and also brings in that problem of arbitrariness again.
Okay. Some people have told us that, contrary to the view that you just put, when you go to prison, you lose your liberty and you therefore lose that basic right to vote as well. How would you address that argument?
Well, again, I think that relies on that sense of forfeiting a right and retribution. It relies on a sense of the punishment of fitting the crime. And it comes back to this problem of the arbitrary impact of such an approach, and I think also in the European court judgments, what they found was that the ban was general, automatic and indiscriminate. So, it was very much saying that the punishment wasn't fitting the crime—it was a ban applied to all people, regardless of the circumstances, by simple dint of the fact that they had received a custodial sentence. For instance, if you say that anyone who breaks the law forfeits their right to participate in society, well, people who are on a community sentence break the law, but they don't have the right to vote taken away from them.
And I think I'd make the very basic point that prisoners do still, in fact, continue to contribute as citizens—as parents, in the work they do in prisons, often working for the good of other prisoners. Also, some on release on temporary licence do pay taxes in jobs. Now, the Government has actually moved to change the current ban to say that people on temporary release can now vote. But I think these are all aspects of prisoners acting as citizens, which we should encourage. We shouldn't discourage them from that by taking away their ability to exercise civic responsibility.
I think I know the answer to this last question, but I'm going to ask it anyway. Do you think it would be a help or a hindrance for courts to have the ability to grant the vote or not?
Some jurisdictions do have that discretion. I think it would be simpler not to have it, so that you simply didn't have a situation where the right to vote was taken away by imposition of custodial sentence. I think it's an unnecessary and additional punishment to what is already the main punishment, which is the loss of liberty. But for certain types of crime, there may be an argument to be made that courts could have discretion, but that would be, I think, offences around crimes against the state.
But then you get into the difficulty of defining them, potentially, as well, don't you?
Thank you. We know that under the 1983 Representation of the People Act, prisoners who are unconvicted, remand prisoners, but also prisoners who've been convicted of civil crimes, just not paying fines or contempt of court, retain the right to vote.
We also know that—. I've seen figures suggesting that maybe 10,000 to 12,000 people fall into that category across the whole of the system, and a similar number are foreign nationals who wouldn't have the vote anyhow. But amongst the rest, in addition to those where things like community rehabilitation or restorative justice are practical options, there are the hard core who have permanently denied other people their right to human life, for example, or their right to dignity and respect through rape or abuse and so on. So, where do the human rights of the victims fit into this, not necessarily in terms of a permanent ban on voting, but to incorporate this into a continuum where the public expect to see a withdrawal of civil rights, and punishment, alongside protection, rehabilitation and eventual planned reintegration?
Well, prison does punish and the punishment is the loss of liberty. And the views of victims are quite rightly reflected in the process of sentencing, in terms of the length of the sentence or the tariff that is imposed. But the withdrawal of the right to vote is an additional punishment on top of that, and I think there is a principle that once people are in prison, and they are sent to prison for punishment, that once they are there, then prison should do what it can to rehabilitate. And that's not only for that prisoner's benefit, it's for the benefit of society as well to ensure that there aren't future victims.
Now, I'm not claiming that restoring the right to vote will have any impact on reoffending. We simply don't know that. There is no evidence to show that. Equally, there is no evidence that the ban on voting acts as any kind of effective deterrent. But if we follow through the principles of rehabilitation and reintegration, surely encouraging people to act responsibly by exercising their civic rights is a good thing, and it's something that I think victims would be supportive of as well. When you do poll victims, the primary thing that they say is that they don't want to be a victim of crime again and they don't want others to be victims of crime. So, I think it's important that we listen to victims and we don't adopt the victim's view in order to pursue certain views that are unconnected to what victims are actually telling us they want.
And how would you respond to the evidence we received last week, when we visited Parc prison, from the cohort of prisoners who were most engaged, and from, I won't say who, but members of the staff, that the majority of prisoners wouldn't consider this any sort of incentive or being relevant to their broader approach to rehabilitation?
Well, I think symbols do matter. And I think the withdrawal of the right to vote says a lot to the people who it is subject to. It's about setting expectations. I think if you set the expectation that you want people to participate, be members of their community, you're raising the bar—you're raising the bar to which they hope they aspire. If you take that away from them, you're lowering the bar of their expectations. You're telling them you don't want them to behave like members of society; you want them to behave differently.
Now, as I said, it's very hard to evidence the impact of this on actual rates of reoffending and rehabilitative outcomes. Equally, there is no evidence about its deterrent effect either. But I think it comes down to the same principles that were laid out in the Woolf report nearly 30 years ago about what constitutes a decent and humane prison. We need prisons that are safe, but also fair and just in their treatment of the people in them. And I think it's part of that argument.
I just wanted to be clear about what you were saying just a little bit earlier in terms of incentives and whether you felt—. I know what you're saying—you've been very clear that you think prisoners should vote. But in terms of incentives, is there a case for saying that prisoners should earn the right to vote as they progress through the prison system as an incentive? First question. Second question, then, is: if that's right, are there then problems created because the right to vote would be determined by the discretion of prison staff?
I'll start by answering your second question, which is, yes, there would be problems, and therefore I don't think it's a good way of determining the right to vote. We've just had a review of the incentives and earned privileges scheme and how it operates. We know from our own consultation with prisoners that there are deep concerns about how it works in practice. Just as an example, one of the problems with it is the racial disproportionality we see—so, far more black, Asian, minority ethnic prisoners end up on the basic regime, compared to white prisoners. It's disproportionate in its outcomes. Prisoners experience it as an unfair system, and that it's largely about punishment, not about reward. And so I think to link it to that, without sufficient safeguard—and bear in mind that this would be putting prison staff in charge of the exercise of fundamental rights—I don't think it's the way to go.
Yes. In your paper, you said that, as a trust, you don't have expertise in electoral administration, of course, and I understand that, so I'm not going to ask detailed questions about that. You also deal with the cross-border issues, and you say you'd rather see the franchise extended to all prisoners in the UK, which you've been very clear about. And you've identified the potential for cross-border problems. In terms of how prisoners could be registered, what views do you have as to how that could be done? Just to explain, we have an unusual situation, or a unique situation, in Wales, in the sense that we don't have our own self-contained prison system, nor do we have control over our own justice system—yet. And so, as 36.5 per cent, roughly, of our prisoners are in prisons outside Wales, it would mean having to register them and obtain the co-operation of the prisons in England in order to do it. So, what views do you have—I don't expect a detailed answer in terms of electoral law—but what views do you have in terms of how we might be able to resolve the difficulties of registration?
I'm not sure I feel qualified to answer. I can appreciate that there are complexities here about how you would set up a system that would marry up, particularly prisoners from Wales who are in English establishments. I think that the fact that there are already procedures in place to enable remand prisoners to vote, and that there is an ability to establish local connection to an area, or register at your home address, possibly gives a way through into seeing how it might work. But, obviously, it would rely upon the co-operation of establishments in England with Welsh electoral cycles and processes. I think it's perhaps not a question for the Prison Reform Trust to answer.
Thank you very much, Chair. And thank you, Mark, for telling us all this information regarding the prisons. But my point is very clear—I want to make myself clear on this point. In a free world, we get leaflets, flyers, a knock on the door by activists, and hustings, tv debates, and, finally, manifestos. So, there's a lot of information there before somebody makes his or her mind up about voting. That information is definitely not siphoned through prison, and the prisoners haven't got—. Prisons have different categories for their punishment, and information definitely will never go to those prisoners, which we are hoping to have, before they put their—. According to you, it's a civic rights, and for me it's a democratic right for a person to vote—big difference. So, how are you—[Inaudible.]—for prisoners to have proper information and to be aware enough of the political system? People live in different areas and vote in different areas, or whether they vote where they are in prison—information is definitely very crucial in any election, which I think will be problematic.
You raise an important point, and I think there are challenges with how the outside world communicates with people in prison. I think, just looking at existing policy, current prisoners who are entitled to vote and are registered are entitled, therefore, to receive electoral literature, and to make contact with electoral agents. So, there are routes by which prisoners can already make contact with people involved in the democratic process. There are other ways in which political parties and candidates might seek to communicate with prisoners. There is a very good paper called Inside Time, which is the national paper for prisoners; there's also National Prison Radio. We often write and contribute to both, and they're a very, very good way of communicating with prisoners.
Can I ask, when you say 'national', what nation are you talking about there? Is it just Wales? Or is it the entire prison network, which would cover England and Wales?
I believe it is England and Wales.
I'd be happy to confirm that.
So, there are routes in. Obviously, prisoners can get letters through the post, so that it is another way. I think one of the big restrictions, actually, is prisoners' access to information and communications technology. So, it's welcome that one of the things that the Government in England and Wales is looking at, in terms of the new prisons, is much better access to ICT in prisons. Now, quite rightly, there are restrictions on, for instance, prisoners having regular access to the internet, but there are now more and more technological solutions in place that do allow secure access to the internet for prisoners and secure access to certain sites. I think it's in this type of technology that some of the solutions might lie.
And, finally, thank you. Chair, do you also recommend having a polling station in the prison or just postal votes there?
[Laughter.] I think we would probably follow the recommendation of the Electoral Commission, which, in its original response to the Ministry of Justice consultation in 2009, said that a postal system or proxy is probably the best way of managing prisoners voting.
Thanks, Chair. Thanks for your evidence so far, Mark. It's very interesting, and I think we all find it's an interesting inquiry that we're doing. It's just one question—we did a visit to Parc prison last week, we had a meeting with various people. The staff was one meeting, and there was an issue raised on the canvassing issue that some parties might be regarded as being too extreme for the sake of the rehabilitation of the prisoners, in terms of extremist views. So, do you foresee any problem with any political parties actually being able to canvass prisoners?
Well, I think that you raise an interesting point. When it comes to access to a prison, security is always someone who has a stake in this and so, if any particular security issues were flagged in relation to any one individual, then, quite rightly, that would be taken into account, in terms of their access to the prison. So, I think it's certainly a question that security may want to have a view on. At the same time, there is obviously the question of how you balance that against democratic rights of association and representation. I don't think I have an answer to that one. It's a challenge, but I understand the point you're making.
Thank you. The youth justice board told us that, as of last October, 27 children from Wales were in custody, 25 of them were 16 or over—16 or 17. Do the views you've expressed extend to that age group as well were, as anticipated, the voting age to be reduced in Wales? And, if so, should it be on the same basis or should there be differences in the way we approach this?
As an organisation, we don't have a view on whether the voting age should be extended. That's outside of our remit. I think if it were to be extended, then we would see no reason why it therefore shouldn't also be extended to 16 and 17-year-olds in custody.
And, given the adjustments posed in Wales to better engage young people so that they have a better understanding of how democracy works in Wales, the rights and responsibilities that run alongside that, have you given any consideration to whether and how we should reach young people in custody on a similar basis?
I think we need to be clear about who is in custody in this age group; they are very, very damaged, often, come from backgrounds of great disadvantage, and that disadvantage is social, economic, and emotional as well. So, I don't think that's a reason not to extend the vote to them. There are two things going on: one is the point of whether or not the right should be extended, and if it is extended to 16 and 17-year-olds in the community, then there ought to be parity. But let's not make any mistake, there will be a very big task of engagement. These are people who will have been outside of mainstream provision in terms of education, health, and so, getting them involved in the political process will be a great challenge. That's not to say that that shouldn't be a challenge that shouldn't be undertaken. It's hard because it's a slightly hypothetical question at the moment, and I would hope if it was to happen, then there'd be a process of learning through doing as well. It would be a challenge, as well, if and when the vote, I presume, when it's extended to 16 and 17-year-olds, it will be a challenge overall to see how that goes and how we engage with that age group. I think there'll be learning to be had from that task, and children in custody will be no different.
Finally, in terms of prisoner voting, what, if any, conclusions do you believe can be drawn from the research published by the Wales Governance Centre last week, which said that Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in Europe, although convictions had fallen since 2010 as a percentage, and in that 26 per cent it had gone up in Wales, 0.3 per cent, et cetera, and that sentences, nonetheless, in Wales, were shorter on average than elsewhere. But it also found that if you went beyond national boundaries, England didn't present a consistent picture; there were some areas showing similar findings and so on. So, what, if any, lessons can be learned, you think, in this context from that?
I think it was a really important, interesting piece of research that the centre had conducted. Just to put the findings in context, the UK overall—and we're talking about the separate nations: England, Wales, and Scotland—when you look at rates of imprisonment compared to Europe, are right at the top end. So, we're talking about variation within the UK, but overall, at the top end in Europe.
In terms of what might be causing the variation within, I think further research is needed to tell us that. You would need to look at things such as the impact of sentencing guidelines and whether there was a different response to those guidelines in different parts of the country compared to others. As the centre said in the research, you need to look at some of the socioeconomic factors as well, which might be going on, to explain some of these differences.
But to go back to the argument about voting and the arbitrary nature of its impact and the debate around sentence length, I think that rather highlights the point and the problem that if you go down this route of trying to create entitlements based on quite clear, defined criteria according to sentence length, then you're going to get these arbitrary impacts because of differential rates of use of different types of disposal.
Okay. Just finally from me, Mark, in addition to what you've already said, anything in particular in terms of how we might ensure that the voice of victims is heard in this debate?
As I said earlier, I think when you actually talk to victims, their primary concern is that they don't want to be a victim again, and so, what they're interested in, as well as seeing justice done, is also seeing things done to ensure that people are rehabilitated and that they don't on to reoffend. I think, in franchising prisoners, while I would never claim that we can show it would reduce reoffending—the task in evidencing that would be huge, and anyhow, it may be minor or non-existent at all—it is still part of an overall approach that values a focus on reintegration, rehabilitating the individual, and ensuring they play a part in wider society. That more general point—we know that is backed up with evidence. If you do that, you're more likely to have someone who's less likely to go on to reoffend.
I think more generally in relation to victims, the criminal justice system needs to be better at giving offenders an opportunity to take responsibility for themselves and for others, and also giving them a chance to make amends to victims too. There are some good restorative justice schemes in prison. There's some limited use of restorative justice in terms of involving victims at the sentencing stage and as a disposal. Certainly, much more could be done with initiatives such as restorative justice to give offenders the opportunity to make amends.
Thank you very much, Chair. Thank you, Mark. When we went to Bridgend prison last night, we met about a dozen prisoners there but only two made me convinced to even consider—one point was that things never stay the same and should move on. That's fair enough for development needs. One was very convincing, which Carwyn also noticed—that they only wanted to work for the sake of their family. That's a very strong argument. The rest were all totally not that convincing. So, if prisoners themselves are not very convincing for this voting right, why are you pushing for it?
I think it goes back to something I said earlier. It's as much symbolic, it says a lot about what we think of people in prison and whether we think that they have a stake and a part to play in society. I do think that feeds down to how prisoners see themselves. On your wider point about, 'Is this an engaged population who would take part in elections?', we know that a lot of people in prison come from a background of disadvantage and that they have been excluded from various mainstream services. So, they're unlikely to be as engaged in politics as perhaps a middle class person who has never seen the inside of a police cell would be. I don't think that's an argument for saying they shouldn't have the right to vote. It's not what we would say to other disadvantaged communities who are less likely to vote. Let's not forget that many of the people in prison come from those communities, disproportionately from black and ethnic minority communities, disproportionately from disadvantaged communities as well. They're not a separate community, they are part of our community. So, I think overall, if we are clear and we want to follow through on really engaging with these hard-to-reach communities, prisoners ought to be a part of that.
Mark, thank you very much. Thanks for coming in to give evidence to committee today. You will be sent a transcript to check for factual accuracy. Diolch yn fawr.
Thanks a lot.
The next item on our agenda today is papers to note. We have two papers. One is the Government's response to our inquiry into high-rise private residential buildings in Wales and fire risk. That was, in fact, the response as well to our report debated in Plenary last week. The other paper relates to our post-legislative inquiry into the Violence Against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015, and that's in response to correspondence from our committee requesting an update. We will schedule that for consideration at a further meeting, if committee is content, along with other relevant developments. Okay, thank you very much for that.
We did, in fact, resolve earlier to move into private session for the remainder of this meeting, so we will now do so.
Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 12:19.
The public part of the meeting ended at 12:19.