|Carwyn Jones AC|
|Gareth Bennett AC|
|Huw Irranca-Davies AC|
|Jenny Rathbone AC|
|John Griffiths AC||Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor|
|Leanne Wood AC|
|Mark Isherwood AC|
|Mohammad Asghar (Oscar) AC|
|Bernie Bowen-Thomson||Prif Weithredwr, Cymru Ddiogelach|
|Chief Executive, Safer Wales|
|Darren Trollope||Pennaeth Cynllunio a Chyngor Cymru, Bwrdd Cyfiawnder Ieuenctid|
|Head of Planning and Advice Cymru, Youth Justice Board|
|Gwyn Griffiths||Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol|
|Lisa Griffiths||Dirprwy Glerc|
|1. Cyflwyniad, Ymddiheuriadau, Dirprwyon a Datgan Buddiannau||1. Introductions, Apologies, Substitutions and Declarations of Interest|
|2. Papurau i'w Nodi||2. Papers to Note|
|3. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42(vi) i Wahardd y Cyhoedd ar gyfer Eitemau 4, 5 a 8||3. Motion under Standing Order 17.42(vi) to Resolve to Exclude the Public for Items 4, 5 and 8|
|6. Ymchwiliad i Hawliau Pleidleisio i Garcharorion: Sesiwn Dystiolaeth 3||6. Inquiry into Voting Rights for Prisoners: Evidence Session 3|
|7. Ymchwiliad i Hawliau Pleidleisio i Garcharorion: Sesiwn Dystiolaeth 4||7. Inquiry into Voting Rights for Prisoners: Evidence Session 4|
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 10:30.
The meeting began at 10:30.
Welcome, everyone, to this meeting of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee. Item 1 on our agenda is introductions, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest. We haven't received any apologies. Are there any declarations of interest? No.
We move on, then, to item 2, which is papers to note. We have two papers before us today: additional information from the Minister for Housing and Local Government with regard to our inquiry into the public services boards, and correspondence from Llyr Gruffydd regarding the Public Services Ombudsman (Wales) Bill. Is committee content to note both those papers? Okay. Thank you very much.
bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd ar gyfer eitemau 4, 5 ac 8 yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(vi).
that the committee resolves to exclude the public for items 4, 5 and 8 in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(vi).
Cynigiwyd y cynnig.
Item 3 is a motion under Standing Order 17.42 to resolve to exclude the public for items 4, 5 and 8. Is committee content so to do? Thank you very much. We will then 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 11:00.
The committee reconvened in public at 11:00.
We return to public session, then, for item 6, and this is the third of several evidence sessions for our inquiry into voting rights for prisoners. We're very pleased to welcome Bernie-Bowen Thompson, chief executive of Safer Wales, an organisation that works with victims of domestic violence, rape, sexual abuse, exploitation and hate crime, and also provides resettlement services for women offenders returning to Wales, including those in Her Majesty's Prison Eastwood Park, which the committee recently visited. Welcome, Bernie. I wonder if I might start with a general question, really, which is just to get your overview, really—Safer Wales's overview—on this debate as to whether prisoners should have the right to vote.
Okay, thank you. Thank you for giving me this opportunity. As you said, Safer Wales promotes community safety for the benefit of people in Wales and the surrounding areas. We believe very strongly that voting is a basic human right and that citizens have a right to participate in it. There are crimes that are serious enough to warrant imprisonment. However, those people are rightly protected by law and are still citizens. They still pay tax on savings and on earnings et cetera. Imprisonment is a loss of liberty and not a loss of a person's citizenship. Safer Wales considers that, if we as a nation place a high value on equality and inclusivity, including the active participation of citizens, then indiscriminately disenfranchising a group of citizens who are in prison at a given time undermines these very principles we value.
To look at this, we have to think of why people are in prison and what the purpose is of prison. And so, you can see that the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research identify four main purposes for why people are in prison in modern times: protecting of the public through incapacitation; punishing the offender; serving as a deterrent to offenders and others; and to rehabilitate the offender. So, when we look at public protection through incapacitation, the act of imprisonment to protect the public from serious harm and to stop a person committing further crimes by removing them from communities bears no relevance to whether or not that person has the right to vote. Allowing someone in prison to vote does not disrupt the purpose of incapacitation and, importantly, does not increase risks for protecting the public. When we look at punishing the offender, the principle of delivering fair and appropriate punishment that is proportionate to the offence committed by the use of imprisonment would not in general be hindered by a citizen having a right to vote. There are many people in our prison system serving short sentences for non-violent and less serious offences. This is particularly the case for women, where there are increasing numbers of women being sent to prison in Wales. From the Ministry of Justice figures I identified through the Prison Reform Trust, we have seen an 18 per cent increase between 2012 and 2017 of women being sentenced to prison. In 2017, 54 per cent of these women were sentenced to immediate custody for less than six months for theft offences and 21 per cent for summary non-motoring offences. And those are things that can include offences such as tv licence evasion and low-level criminal damage. In fact, if citizens' right to vote is considered extremely important for democracy, then removing that right is an extremely severe punishment, and in most cases, the punishment is disproportionate to the crime and a serious deprivation to citizens' human rights.
To serve as a deterrent to the offender and or others, Safer Wales, as you mentioned, delivers resettlement services to approximately 1,800 women each year in prison—all the women in HMP Eastwood Park and all the women in HMP Styal who are returning to Wales. In our experience, it is lack of liberty and not being able to readily see the people that you love that is visible and a more tangible punishment and deterrent for imprisonment and for offending. This will serve as a deterrent, more so than retaining the removal of the right to vote. The important aspect of imprisonment is rehabilitation of an offender, reducing the risk of reoffending, and keeping our communities safer. Prison needs to play a vital role in reducing the risk of reoffending, the importance of rehabilitation and reintegration back into society. The right to vote has a significant part to play in this.
As was previously mentioned, when a person is imprisoned, they lose their right to liberty, but they are still citizens. Denying prisoners the vote increases social exclusion and stigmatisation, both of which are barriers to the successful reintegration of offenders. This is an even more acute issue for people who are in prison from a minority ethnic group, as there is evidence that they are disproportionately affected by disenfranchisement. As noted by Liberty in 2016, black prisoners make up 15 per cent of the prison population, compared to 2 per cent in the country in total. This means that black prisoners are over seven times more likely to be barred from voting than white prisoners, further marginalising an already disadvantaged group of people.
The very act of being able to participate in voting positively reinforces a person’s duty as a citizen. People in prison still have an important role to play in the lives of their families, for example. When speaking to women in prison, concerns for their family, their children are commonplace. The ability to vote offers an opportunity for people in prison to think about issues beyond those prison walls, to focus on wider society, and reinforce participation in communities.
If part of the purpose of prisons is to help develop better citizens, serving the purpose of rehabilitation, then voting, alongside reinforcement of citizenship and participation, will help achieve this. In fact, the Supreme Court of Canada has stated that disenfranchisement is more likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy than a spur to reintegration. Depriving at-risk individuals of their sense of collective identity and membership of the community is unlikely to instil a sense of responsibility and community identity, while the right to participate in voting helps teach democratic values and social responsibility.
Safer Wales believes that denying prisoners the right to vote increases social exclusion, reduces opportunities for rehabilitation and reintegration, and weakens democratic engagement. Research by Acharya, Blackwell and Sen showed that even a temporary gap in voting will have a long-term impact on a person’s future participation. They show evidence that disenfranchisement can linger over time, and that the effects of restrictions on voting rights can persist.
Denying people in prison the right to vote does not increase public protection, and Safer Wales believes that it does not increase public protection or deter crimes from occurring in the first place. There is no evidence that it achieves more pro-social behaviour and neither does denying prisoners the right to a vote assist rehabilitation and reintegration. On the front line, Safer Wales is working to resettle women back into communities and is reinforcing to them that they have a voice and that they are able to make positive, pro-social choices. In our experience, the women we work with want better futures for people and want safer communities. Welsh Government has introduced groundbreaking pieces of legislation, such as the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, and we have an opportunity now in Wales to increase democratic participation for people to contribute to the future.
Bernie, thanks very much for setting out very clearly the position of Safer Wales. I'm not sure if there's anything left for us to ask you now, but I'm sure members of the committee will find some questions for you. Jenny.
Some of the prisoners we've met, in both Eastwood Park and in Parc prison, have argued that there should be a restriction on the right to vote of people who have committed certain crimes, for example, terrorism or offences against children. Is there any merit in that argument? I mean, you've given a very clear view on what Safer Wales thinks, but some of the prisoners we met admitted that before they came to prison, they thought prisoners shouldn't have the vote, you know, and I'm sure that reflects the views of people in the wider community. So, I just wondered what your view on that was.
I think there are two things there. One is that there is a great piece of work for us to do on raising awareness of voting and participation and actually how that contributes to rehabilitation and engagement in communities.
In terms of particular offence categories, what we do see across England and Wales is different patterns in terms of sentencing patterns. Therefore, you're not equating one equal set with another equal set, even on the same offence type. So, it can be quite arbitrary if you look at it from that view. Similarly, when you're looking at length of sentence, again, the same applies.
In terms of retribution, just deserts, and whether the punishment is proportionate to the crime that's been committed, Fergus McNeill wrote, when he was giving evidence in Scotland, that for political crimes punishment by removal of the right to vote could be considered feasible and logical, resulting in disenfranchisement becoming a political punishment. So, that's about the type of crime. If the crime is a political crime, then that could be considered as just deserts. However, even with that, Safer Wales doesn't believe that that responds to the rehabilitative purpose of imprisonment.
So, the other thing that I think is really important is that the majority of people in prison—the vast, vast majority of people in prison—are serving sentences of less than five years. So, when we are looking at our cycle in terms of voting, then there will be people who will miss out purely because of the timing that they've come into prison, and some may miss out more than others. There's evidence that, if you look at patterns of when there are opportunities to vote on different matters, in some years we've had more opportunities to vote than others. So, when you balance all that out, you're actually denying someone's participation even further.
Jenny, just before you go on, I think Huw would like to come in at this stage.
Thank you, Chair. The prisoners that we've heard from—both at Parc and HMP Eastwood—it was striking how consistent and compelling their views were. Many of them started from the point of view that said, 'This should be pretty much universal.' They wouldn't have maybe used that word, but they would say, 'It's for all prisoners; you should just extend the vote.' But then when you got into the detail of it, they absolutely went into the territory of saying, 'Well, actually, maybe there are certain offences or certain lengths or whatever.' Would it be your view, from your engagement with those people serving time at Eastwood, for example, that there is a case indeed to granulate the approach to this, not to simply universally extend the franchise? Based on what you were just saying, but also your engagement with prisoners, is there a case for saying that there are different types of offences, there are different lengths of sentences?
For the vast majority of the women we work with, there are huge levels of complex needs. For many of those women, they have huge histories of adverse childhood experiences and vulnerabilities as adults as well. I think we have a lot to learn from that and a lot that can help create the society we want to see, one that prevents that happening. In terms of the women who we work with, for many of those women, they've not been given an opportunity for agency themselves. So, actually, part of our role has been to try and increase that and encourage women to feel able to do things, to act, to participate.
So, the reason why—. I know I'm not answering you directly, but the reason why is because I think it's more complicated than a direct answer. I think asking somebody if they believe they have the right to vote is one thing, but when you're asking people, 'Do you have the right to decide upon how you want the future for your children?', you may get a different response, and, 'Should you be able to participate in that?' Sometimes, it's how the question is asked and how people consider engagement in voting to be.
I guess I'm asking, Chair, for this committee, what credence we should give to the first-hand views—albeit with all of the provisos that you're saying—that say to us, 'Yes, definitely extend the vote. However—.' How much credence should we give, as a committee, to that 'however'? You're saying—.
I feel torn, because there's a big part of me obviously that is—. If you're picking up that the women are saying that, you have to consider that and you may want to consider a stepped approach. However, I think there's really a responsibility here to clearly identify what it is we're trying to achieve. And if what we're trying to achieve is for people to feel able and to be enabled to participate, and then when they do return back to their communities that they feel part of that community because they've participated in it, they've understood some of the decisions, some of the direction of travel, then that is a really important leadership question as well. And it will take extra work in the prisons to work with people who maybe have never voted before, or who've never felt part of that system, to participate. What concerns me is that you may be hearing, as well, words of people who've maybe never felt able, for whatever reason, to participate too. So, I do think the leadership of this is about what you want to achieve. I certainly know what Safer Wales wants to achieve.
You, obviously, do a lot of work with the victims of crime, and I just wondered what you can tell us about what they would think about enfranchising prisoners.
Many of the people we work with have been victims of crime. Some of those have been victims and also have been involved in the criminal justice system. I'm just saying that, because, sometimes, a victim of crime can also offend and I think it's important to recognise that.
In terms of victims of crime, I've never heard a victim of crime, when you ask them what they want, talking about the removal of the right to vote, but I have heard them say they don't want that crime happening again, they don't want it happening to other people, and I think that's really important. I think the narrative is a very different thing—how it's communicated—about giving people rights if they're in prison. But, actually, the victims that we work with and have worked with previously, they want to stop the bad things happening, they want to stop the crimes from happening again, they want to make the community safer. Yes, they also want punishment, but the biggest thing is not having that crime happening again.
Just to follow the point—. Forgive my voice, by the way. Just to follow the point you made about deprivation of the right to vote not being foremost in the minds of victims, I suppose it wouldn't be, would it? I mean, the first thing that you would look at is you would want the danger removed and also an element of punishment, I suppose, inevitably. Have you ever asked anybody who is a victim? If you haven't, then I understand why. But have you ever asked anybody who is a victim whether they think somebody should be allowed to vote if they're in prison?
Off the top of my head, not directly. And the reason I'm saying that is that I could go back to the teams and try and find out, but not off the top of my head.
For the reason, when you ask victims what they want, it tends to be exactly that—it's 'I want to be safe; I don't want it happening again.' And that's true—. Safer Wales has been around for 20 years, and we used to provide target hardening services to people in homes who've been victims of hate crime, domestic sexual violence—a real variety—burglary. And the common theme is, 'I want to be safe now. I don't want this happening again to myself, my family, my community.' So, it's never really come up, but we haven't explicitly asked that, that I can remember. I'm sure someone will say, 'I did.'
Very much following on from Carwyn's question. Victims of crime, whether they're survivors or the family and friends of non-survivors, have had, by definition, their human rights denied to them by a perpetrator or perpetrators. How do you respond to concern that giving those perpetrators any further say over their lives might psychologically add to their trauma rather than their recovery?
I think there are two things to consider there. One is we're not talking about offending, we're talking about imprisonment, in that sense. And the reason why I'm making that distinction is because there will be people who are offending who are not in prison, who are still able to vote. So, there will be victims of people who have committed an offence, but they're in the community. So, straight away, there's a difference. In terms of people in prison who are not able to vote and are denied the right to vote, I think the important issue there is, actually, it's the removal of their liberty—they're not able to have that day-to-day contact with family members, with loved ones, and that's quite a significant punishment. That's the punishment that's visible and tangible for the people who we work with, hence why there's not often a conversation with our teams around rights to vote in that explicit way.
So, in terms of the trauma for victims, I think there is work to be done. I think there is work to be done on what role could voting play in terms of reducing the risk and enabling rehabilitation in the future, so that victims understand the reasoning for why a decision around voting is being taken. And it's that communication that's important. The trauma that victims experience as a result of an offence is huge, and can be extremely debilitating, and it's important that victims are engaged, and are communicated with, and are able to have full understanding of the direction of travel in a case. I mentioned earlier that sentence lengths and sentencing patterns are slightly different across areas. A similar argument could be made, 'Well, there's a difference in a county in north Wales compared to a local authority in south Wales', for example, or between one in England and one in Wales. It's important that the response to victims is an understanding of what that means, that it is a removal of liberty, that people will be worked on to try and reduce the risk of them ever committing that crime again—even, where it's at all possible, offering opportunities for restorative justice where it's appropriate. There are lots of other aspects to supporting and reducing the trauma of victims than voting for prisoners, and having that full conversation and dialogue, I think, is important.
Thank you very much, Chair. And, Bernie, thank you very much for that initial all-round statement—wonderful. But the fact is, I picked out two or three points that you mentioned: BME communities are 70 per cent more in prison and 18 per cent of women in prison. They're in the prison in the first place because of a violation of, in your words, social responsibility—they violated that. And also democratic engagement. If they start giving them the vote—. So, basically, this is a new culture in prison you want to create. This is what I feel, and the thing is a new atmosphere in the prison. So, are you prepared, at the moment that—[Inaudible.]—because in the free world they're not giving votes up to a certain number or percentage. So, how can you improve voting by those people, who are therefore—[Inaudible.]—longer term or medium term—[Inaudible.]
In answer to that, I think the reason why there are disproportionate numbers of people from minority ethnic groups in prison is much more complicated than, 'They've just committed an offence.' There are huge links between imprisonment and poverty, social exclusion, even in terms of the types of crime that are more likely to be identified and someone ending up with a prison sentence. There are many, many more reasons why that figure is disproportionately high, so I think we need to be careful about saying, 'Oh, it's because of this', because it's for hugely complex reasons.
In terms of the culture in prisons, there is a recognition in prisons, rehabilitative prisons—it's not an unusual language that you hear within prisons that actually a focus on rehabilitation is key, and a recognition in that focus on rehabilitation is the complex needs of many of the people who are serving a sentence in prison. Looking at the women's prison, for example, the numbers of women in prison who have got co-occurring mental ill health and substance misuse, who have got really significant problems, the levels of self-harm that we're seeing in prison—it's much more complex than thinking, 'Oh, they've not participated.' And actually, in terms of the culture of prisons, for many years now there's been work towards establishing a more rehabilitative culture, working with prisoners to try to work with them to develop skills, develop strength, so that when they do come back into communities, they have more resilience and they are better able to be more active participants and active citizens in our communities. I think I mentioned earlier that I think it's not as simple as just giving a vote and putting a ballot box there, but that, actually, it's about citizenship—it's about citizenship and encouraging participation in community. And I do think that that's something that could be added to the work that's already being done around focusing on how you rehabilitate prisoners. It's not unusual for the prison service to see themselves as rehabilitative. It's been a long time since prisons have just been punishment. It's not the only reason for prison.
Thanks for your evidence. I agree with everything you've said so far, and I think the reason that it probably hasn't come up with your victims is that most people don't care about actual voting: it is about rehabilitation and getting to that point where people are not going to commit the same offences again. I used to be a probation officer, and I can identify with that feeling of prisoners being outside of society and the need to rehabilitate to get back in. But, of course, public opinion is a very different matter, as you, no doubt, will be aware. So, I wonder if you can give us some ideas as to how public opinion on this issue can be reconciled with the human rights obligations and rehabilitation that you've talked about.
I think this links a bit with what I was saying earlier to Huw about actually having a really clear purpose of why we're doing this and a real clear understanding, and the narrative has to express that, and that takes quite an amount of leadership, really. We see this in south Wales as about increasing community safety and reducing reoffending and trying to reintegrate people who have been in prison back into their communities so that they can actively participate. So, it's communicating the narrative of why you're doing it to try and mitigate against a reactive response, and that might—. I remember many years ago now with race hate crime: in community safety, we were told, 'You have to reduce crime', but, actually, there were certain crime types you'd want to see increased reporting of. So, the narrative seems counterintuitive, but, actually, it's important about getting the understanding out there as to why we're looking to increase reporting.
No, I agree.
—on Facebook after I went to Eastwood Park, and the comments were a fascinating read. What was very interesting was the gender divide on the question, because it was a women's prison, maybe, but women seemed, on the whole, to want those women to have the vote, whereas a lot of the men who were commenting were saying very, very different things, and I just wonder if you'd had that observation, and, if you have, is there anything you can give to this committee in terms of how we publicise this work that can, perhaps, address some of those divides on the question.
I haven't, but I wouldn't mind gathering some thoughts on, to be honest, because I think—
Yes, you could certainly do that, Bernie, and then write to us subsequently. That would be fine. Okay.
Because I think there's a much deeper reason there around the response and—
Yes. Thank you.
Yes. The other question I've got is: justice is not devolved and so prisoners voting in Assembly or local elections wouldn't be voting on the issues that actually affect prisoners, their quality of life, the terms and conditions within the prison, unlike the situation in Scotland. So, do you think that's a problem?
I think it's disappointing in some respects, but also, although people in prison would not be voting on issues necessarily around prison policy, prisoners, prisoners would be able to vote on issues that do affect them and do affect their families, and do affect the communities that they're returning to, and those are devolved issues. When you think of things such as health, housing—some of which are also delivered in prison from local authorities. Prisons still have to comply with the Welsh legislation—around the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014, for example. Education and social care—they're all matters that are of real importance to the people we've worked with over the years, whether that be for their children or their family members, or whether that be for when they return to the community.
Could I just cut across you there? In terms of education provision in the women's prison in England, who is responsible for that, because there's no Welsh language input there, there's no Welsh information, so is it the English authorities responsible for that education?
So, when I was talking then about education, I was meaning more generally in the community. In terms of in the prison, it is generally, although there is some provision of Welsh language but it could be better, considering that we're talking nearly half the prison population there are returning to Wales. In Styal, it's a much smaller number. I certainly think there's more that could be done.
In terms of the question as well around prisoners not being able to vote on issues regarding prison policy, for example, in our experience women do not want children and young people to experience the adverse childhood experiences they've experienced, and they do not want them to experience violence against women, domestic abuse, sexual violence, for example. So, I think it is really important that they are able to have a say on that, because they do have opinions, and they want more opportunities for future generations. So, all of that would encourage that longer term thinking, that participation.
Just a question from me, Bernie, on 16 to 17-year-olds. Is there anything specific to say there that's any different to what you've already said, or would you say everything that Safer Wales believes on these matters applies equally and in the same way to 16 to 17-year-olds?
I think what I would say is I welcome what's happened in Wales in terms of putting children first in relation to young people in the criminal justice system. We've seen the outcomes of that in terms of the numbers of young people in prison, and the reducing number. I think voice is important to shape our services, and voting enables that and is one mechanism to facilitate that. If 16 and 17-year-olds have the right to vote, then the same would apply.
On the issue of registration, Chair, perhaps that's a better question to ask the next witness, rather than this one; I don't think it would be a fair question particularly to ask of Bernie.
It's up to you—you can try. I may not be able to answer. [Laughter.]
It's to do with where prisoners might be registered, really. One of the issues that I've been wrestling with is, if we go down the line of seeing prisoners vote, where might they be registered, which I think is a more difficult question than how might they be able to vote. So, for example, are they registered—? The easiest way is to register them all in the prison they are resident. Of course, that will mean every female prisoner from Wales wouldn't have the vote, that's the problem, and it would increase hugely, for example, the number of voters in certain council wards, including my own council ward—tenfold, probably. That leads us on then to: does that mean, then, they should be able to register their last-known previous address? Of course, many of them have no fixed abode. Or the court where they were sentenced. Of course, if we see a move away from sentences of six months or less, that means it'll be Crown Courts, not magistrates' courts where those sentences will be given out, so, again, a very small number of constituencies in Wales would actually be affected.
And the second point, then, is the issue of the unique problem we have in Wales, in that we share a prison system with England, unlike in Scotland where most prisoners are in the Scottish prison system. We know that nearly half of the prisoners in Eastwood Park are Welsh. How would we be able to, as it were, get the English prison system, if I can put it that way, to co-operate in registering prisoners and allowing prisoners to vote? I'm not quite clear that we have the power to do it.
So, in terms of the first part of the question in terms of where should a person be registered, I think registering in a prison is not going to be helpful in terms of registering that that would be where their vote would affect, because a lot of people don't return to that direct community anyway. So, the conversation I was having around citizenship participation is reduced, really.
Certainly, people's last address, I think, is probably the most sensible way. And for people who haven't got a fixed abode, a local connection—we've used that time and time again for housing policy. I know it's—[Inaudible.]—one, but it's a concept that is well understood across Wales—that people do have certain local connections so you can attach a location or a place to them for the purposes of—while they're incarcerated. I think we must remember that, for many people, that incarceration is relatively short term.
On getting prisons in England to co-operate, I think there's been a real shift in recent times towards collaborative working and I would hope that that would continue. I think it would be very difficult if Welsh Government were wanting to look to increase voting for people in prison to say, 'Actually, all women in prison would be denied the vote', just on equalities grounds. It would be questionable that all women would be denied the vote just because they are situated in prisons based in England. So, I think there's a greater opportunity for collaboration than there is for dissent on that. In terms of the practicalities of making that happen, the operational practicalities I can see would be quite a challenge, but then that shouldn't stop us trying to aim to achieve it.
Bernie, thanks very much for giving evidence to us today. I'm afraid we haven't any further time. There might be one or two points that we might want to raise with you in correspondence, but thanks very much for coming in. You will be sent a transcript to check for factual accuracy. Diolch yn fawr.
Okay. Thank you.
Welcome to the committee, Darren. I'm pleased to welcome Darren Trollope, head of planning and advice Cymru for the youth justice board for England and Wales. And this is the fourth evidence session of our inquiry into voting rights for prisoners. Darren, I wonder if I might begin just by asking you to give us an overview, really, of the youth justice board's position in terms of whether prisoners should have the right to vote.
Yes, of course. Good morning, and thank you for the opportunity to discuss this important subject. First, I'd like to say a few words about the youth justice board, our purpose and our role. The youth justice board is a non-departmental public body, which is responsible for overseeing the youth justice system in England and in Wales. Our primary function is to monitor the operation of the youth justice system and the provision of the youth justice services. Within England and Wales, we're also responsible for using information and evidence to form an expert view of how to get the best outcomes for children who offend and for victims of crime, advising the Secretary of State for Justice and those working in youth justice services how well the system is working and how improvements can be made, identifying and sharing good practice, promoting the voice of the child and participation, commissioning research and publishing information relating to good practice. We make grants with the approval of the Secretary of State for the purposes of the operation of the youth justice system, and we provide information technology-related assistance to the operation of the youth justice system and services.
The youth justice board itself is a panel of experts that are appointed by the Secretary of State for Justice, and they have set seven priority programme areas, each with a dedicated programme of work, for these justice board officials to take forward. They include the development and implementation of national standards for youth justice, improving local practice, improving resettlement and transitions, both into and out of custody and across services, safety and education in custody, reducing the disproportionality of children from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, serious youth violence, and secure schools.
I should point out that since 2017 and the creation of the Youth Custody Service in England and Wales, the youth justice board no longer has responsibility for the secure estate.
We note with interest the recent announcement about the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Bill, which seeks to lower the voting age to 16. That really provides the context for our advice, in that we consider voting rights for all children who are in, or are at risk of entering, the youth justice system, a very small proportion of which are in custody. Our remit is 10 to 17-year-olds. So, I can’t advise on over-18s, and, likewise, because of the creation of the Youth Custody Service and their remit, I’m not able to advise on the operational matters within the secure estate.
Having said that, we welcome the focus that’s been placed on children in the youth justice system in this inquiry. Children are often overlooked in such policy matters. We believe that there should be equal opportunities for children in the youth justice system, and in that regard, we see no distinction between those who are in the community or in custody.
In this session, I hope to describe and aid the committee’s understanding of the importance of a child-first and rights-based approach to youth justice, the youth justice system, and the size of the custodial cohort, and the broader contextual policy considerations, specifically the vulnerability and complex needs of children in the system, and the importance of responding to those needs in the development and mentation of a policy.
So, what you would say then, Darren, what the youth justice board would say, is that it’s that rights-based approach that should determine these matters.
And you would see the right to vote as part of that rights-based agenda, then.
So, does that mean that, in your view, there wouldn’t be any merit to the argument by some people that it should be restricted to people—or that some people shouldn’t have the extension of the franchise, those who'd committed certain types of serious offences, terrorism, offences against children, this sort of thing?
Well, I think there’s little evidence to support such claims for children, especially in Wales. In terms of offence type, it’s very, very rare that you see terrorism-type offences from children in Wales.
So, we don’t see any evidence to support that children’s rights in this matter should be restricted based on either offence type, sentence, outcome or duration of sentence. Within the youth justice system in Wales, the prevention and pre-court diversion approach that is in place across the whole country has led to significant reductions in first-time entrants to the system and to the use of custody. So, when we consider this policy, it’s key to remember that the majority of children in the youth justice system are actually in the community. In fact, in 2018, less than 5 per cent of sentencing outcomes for children resulted in a custodial sentence.
In terms of severity of offences, the most serious or indictable offences, or the more serious offences for children, on average, the sentence duration for those is 17 months. So, again, I think there's limited evidence to suggest that the children who partake of their right to vote shouldn’t have the opportunity to receive the benefits of their choice.
Okay. Thank you for that. I don’t know how much contact you have with victims, but would you have any insight into what victims might think of giving young people the vote?
Youth justice is delivered through a multi-agency partnership—the youth offending team. Each local authority has a statutory responsibility, or the chief executive of each local authority has a statutory responsibility, to establish such a team. One of the key elements within their way of working is restorative justice, which is involving victims in the approach that they take, and a desistance approach, which is a strength-based approach involving victims and the child themselves. So, quite often, through that approach, you see changes in perception.
Yes, thank you very much. I agree with much of what you've said in terms of your view on this, but obviously public opinion can be a different matter. Can you tell us how you think public opinion on this issue can be reconciled with human rights obligations, particularly in terms of children's rights?
I think it's key to remember that children in the youth justice system are vulnerable, both through their contact with the system and through their background. They have significant complex needs and are often victims themselves of serious crimes and exploitation. So, very much I think the focus should be on education and understanding to raise awareness of those issues and to change the perception of children in the youth justice system to one that is more positive.
I completely understand what you're saying there, although research has shown that when adults have been provided with an opportunity to see how a restorative approach to justice can work, that has changed perceptions.
Just before you go on, Leanne, I think Huw would like to come in here, Huw.
It's to follow up on Leanne's point, which is: for good or bad, we're not a royal commission, we're not a group of independent, impartial, balanced observers who are coming to—[Interruption.] Well, we're not, because we are politicians elected by people out there who express their views very clearly to us. If you look at the history of debates around this over many, many years, it's been steered by the exceptional cases, including around children, and that has tended to lead to this balancing—sorry, not balancing—. It's actually setting victims' rights against prisoners' rights, not just in the concept of voting, but generally, and that's the sphere that we're in. Now, what would you say to those who say that, actually, that is where you should be, you should be on the side, as we've seen repeatedly in the Scottish Parliament, the UK Parliament and elsewhere—debates that have said, 'On balance we come down on the side of the victims, so we don't give anything—voting rights or anything—to prisoners.' Because that's the difference between this and a royal commission. Out there, we'll get, as Leanne has remarked earlier on, kick-back instantly.
Absolutely. But I think that in terms of this policy, providing children, and especially those within the youth justice system, with the right to vote is a really key and powerful element in rehabilitation. I think having the right to vote enhances their capability to make an active contribution to society. It helps increase social inclusion. So, those are key elements of desistance practice and constructive resettlement approaches that are advocated by the youth justice board. In terms of those approaches, desistance is about understanding the wider social context for the child. It points to the importance of trusted professional relationships as a medium for change, but it focuses on individual empowerment and enhanced social inclusion, instead of simply focusing on risk and producing reoffending.
Constructive resettlement similarly is a collaborative approach with the child, both in custody and following release, to build upon their strengths, the aim being to shift their identity from one of pro-offending to pro-social. That necessarily then can result in a reduction in reoffending, but resettlement is a positive developmental approach. It's in line with the 'child first' principle and our vision—the youth justice board's vision—that children should lead a crime-free and safe life and make a positive contribution to society. So, in answer to your question, I think that it's vital in rehabilitation to have these voting rights and I think that breaking down the negative perception of children is a matter of education, and, if adults are provided the opportunity to be involved in the process, they will see.
I'm with you on that. Can you give us the soundbite that translates that into persuading public opinion? Sorry, Leanne—back to you.
I can give you one now, because it's a false dichotomy, isn't it, to compare victims or put victims and criminals against each other, because, as the previous witness just told us, a lot of people who are perpetrators are also victims. So, if you think about violent crime, who are the most likely people to be victims of that? Young men between age 18 or 16 and 24. But that group is also the people most likely to perpetrate violent street crime. So, they're often the same people, aren't they?
They are indeed, I think.
There's also a common interest in reducing reoffending and future victims of crime. Carwyn.
I'm just slightly concerned, really, that, in your last answer, you focused—properly so, given the board's remit—on rehabilitation. We didn't hear much about victims. I suspect I know what the answer to this question is, because it's not a question I'd expect to be asked anyway, I suppose, but the issue for me is we do need to take victims' views into account. The system has changed hugely over the past 20 years to do that, whereas certainly up to the mid 1990s it was simply a system that pitted the Crown against offenders, because it was breach of the Queen's peace, and the victim was, in some ways, a bit part player in that. We have moved on from there. Has it ever been the case that any kind of research has been done or any questions asked of any victims as to whether they would want those who have caused them harm and who get imprisoned to be deprived of their right to vote?
Not that I'm aware of.
Okay. Leanne. Oh, sorry, Mark, yes, on this point. [Interruption.] Is it on this point, Mark, or—?
Okay. Is it problematic that, given that the young people, children, who are incarcerated don't fall under the Assembly's responsibility, will be voting in Assembly and local government elections, they won't have a say on the policies that affect them in prison, unlike in Scotland? Do you think that's a problem?
The youth justice board doesn't see that as problematic. Being in custody and justice not being devolved doesn't prevent children in custody from having a say on the services that they receive. User participation is a key element throughout the system, I think. Youth justice is delivered in partnership between non-devolved and devolved agencies, at the heart of which is the youth offending team model, which is made up by statutory partners that include health, social services, education, police and probation.
Does it cause problems that the responsibility for some of those different services lie in different places, then, do you think?
It can lead to a complex delivery and policy landscape, but, actually, at the heart of practice is a child-centred approach. So, the holistic approach that's taken in that multi-agency, multidisciplinary setting, with the child at the centre of what they're trying to do, actually cuts across some of that.
Thank you, yes. To go into custody, my understanding is that a child has to have done something fairly serious, because the courts would seek to avoid having to place a child in custody, except as a very last resort. As children ourselves, but also as parents, most of us accept that bringing up children is about not boundaries but expanding those boundaries and the balance of rights and responsibilities until we have, hopefully, responsible young adults in our families. But when we visited, during an inquiry on the youth justice estate by a predecessor to this committee, a number of establishments, including Hillside near Neath, we met a lot of children and young people who, on the face of it, were just that: they were children first. But, behind them, particularly at Hillside, I remember hearing from children themselves how, for the first time in their lives, they were having their achievements recognised, rewards, congratulations for taking part in gardening schemes or woodwork projects or art projects and so on, and wanted to tell me all about it: 'Come and see, mister, come and see what I've done'. I also heard that, when a lot of the young people arrived there, they were medicated. Up to that point, medical interventions had focused on medicating the problem, and they'd had to wean them off the medication and to start actually tackling the psychological causes that might be behind some of these behaviours. But all of that's leading me to ask the question: should we be linking this to the engagement of the young person in their own rehabilitation processes rather universality from the outset—so, a progressive system, where this is part of the rights and rewards that come from progression?
Yes, absolutely. I think a recent report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Probation, I think it was, supported just that approach in terms of individuality, tailored approaches, working with the child in terms of celebrating their strengths and achievements. For children in the youth justice system, I should point out that, despite the reductions in first-time entrants and the use of custody, what that has left is a cohort of children who have deep-rooted serious problems and complex needs. So, those problems can include mental health conditions, cognitive disabilities, problematic drug or alcohol use—they have a background of emotional trauma and adverse childhood experiences. Several studies also show that they have links with other vulnerability factors, such as neglect, being in the care system, and speech, language and communication issues or disengagement with mainstream education. Those complexities—. The youth justice board, in partnership with Welsh Government and Public Health Wales, through the All Wales Forensic Adolescent Consultation and Treatment Services, and, more recently, the south Wales police and crime commissioner, has developed an enhanced case-management approach, which is an innovative approach that recognises the prevalence of attachment trauma and the complexities and difficulties in the lives of the children, and responds to that from a developmental basis. So, it's individualised, it's based on the child's need, it's led by forensic psychologists, multi-agency formulation—so, it's identifying all key life stages and events that have led to that child making self-harming decisions, including criminal behaviour, and tailoring an intervention and sequencing in an intervention plan appropriately. So, evaluation of that approach has shown it to be really effective in helping to reach those hard-to-reach children and to achieve positive outcomes for them.
Darren, just to be clear, then, are you saying that, if 16 and 17-year-olds generally have the right to vote in Assembly and local elections in Wales, that those who are in custody should only have the right to vote if they show by their behaviour and progress whilst in custody that they deserve that right? Because I think that's what Mark is suggesting.
Not at all. I wouldn't say such a thing.
I would say that those complexities, actually, are a key factor in considering this policy, and, with equal opportunities, all children in the youth justice system have the right to vote. That implementation of the policy should be child-centred and developmentally appropriate to the stage that that child is at, both in their cognitive ability and their emotional ability. So, it's vital that they are provided with equal opportunity, but they need the additional assistance to be able to understand what that right means and to make fully informed decisions in order to have meaningful participation.
Yes. Sorry, I'm being a bit dense here, but, just to be absolutely clear, what you're saying is that the principle is that the vote should be extended according to the ability and the capacity and the support given to that individual to enable themselves to make use of that franchise. You're not in any way suggesting that youngsters, many of them on short sentences, could be somehow given and then taken away the vote, depending on their behaviour and their progress from week to week, from month to month.
Not at all. No. They should get the vote, but they should be supported to be able to make a meaningful vote.
You're not talking about excluding anyone on the basis of cognitive ability or anything else.
No, absolutely not—just that the support services around them need to understand that and support them.
Yes, thank you. Two questions from me, really, to do with registration. The first one is that one of the issues we're wrestling with is where prisoners would be able to register to vote. Now, I suppose the easy way of doing it is to say that they all register in the prison—or the young offenders institution in this case—where they're resident. But, of course, that has a particular effect on some constituencies and some council wards and that would mean that no female prisoners who are imprisoned in England—because all of them are imprisoned in England from Wales—would be able to vote. Excuse my voice. So, the first question is: how could we get around that issue?
The second issue is, of course, that, uniquely, we're in a situation where we share a jurisdiction with England and share a prison system with England, which means, of course, that many Welsh prisoners are actually serving their sentences in England. Now, I look at your paper and there are 25 young people in custody who potentially could vote and, of them, eight of them are in England. So, we're not talking about a huge amount here, I suppose, in this case. But, given where we are in terms of the single jurisdiction at the moment, how could we be sure that prisons in England would co-operate in, first of all, registering young people to vote, and, secondly, in terms of allowing them to vote once they've registered?
As I said earlier, it's not the youth justice board's remit to comment on the operational matters in the secure estate—that, I would recommend, would be through negotiation with HM Prison and Probation Service or the Youth Custody Service. However, we are aware that there are processes that enable adults to vote if they're on remand. They could be starting points for such processes, but, again, it would need to be tailored to be appropriate for children. You rightly point out the very small cohort that are in custody; the latest numbers we have are from December 2018. It's 26 children, the majority of which are in Wales in HMPYOI Parc or in Hillside. However, there are, I believe, 16 who are in England currently.
We have, in the past, when the youth justice board was responsible for the secure estate, set up operational agreements with Werrington Young Offenders Institute, which is where the majority of children from north Wales are placed, and that is an enhanced service specification to ensure that, as much as possible, their rights are met in terms of Welsh education, curriculum and other matters, and that may be a similar approach that will need to be taken.
Okay. Well, Darren, thanks very much for coming in today to give evidence to the committee. You will be sent a transcript to check for factual accuracy. Thank you very much. Diolch yn fawr.
Thank you very much.
Okay. We will return to private session for the last item on our agenda today.
Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 12:03.
The public part of the meeting ended at 12:03.