The Welsh Conservatives have said Welsh Labour-led Government and Plaid Cymru plans to extend the franchise to more prisoners “ignores the rights of victims” and the role of prisons as the “deterrent, punisher, and reformer” of criminals.
The comment following the Equality, Local Government, and Communities Committee’s recommendation that the Welsh Government and National Assembly legislate “to give all those Welsh prisoners who are serving custodial sentences of less than four years the right to vote in devolved elections”.
They also called for 16 and 17 year-olds in custody to have the vote, if the voting age is lowered for the rest of the population, on the same basis as prisoners over 18 years old.
The Welsh Conservative AMs that serve on the committee – Mark Isherwood and Mohammad Asghar – did not endorse these two recommendations, and believe the status quo is sufficient.
Despite advocating extending the vote for rehabilitation reasons, the Committee admits in the report “that the empirical evidence to support this theory is limited”. The report also notes that when Cardiff Prison took steps to encourage prisoners on remand to register to vote at the last election, not one took up the opportunity.
The report follows a vote in January where the Welsh Labour-led Government supported a Plaid Cymru debate in which both parties argued for giving prisoners the vote, though the wording made no distinction between any prisoners.
The Welsh Conservatives argued against the proposal given that the 2016 Assembly manifestos of Welsh Labour, Plaid Cymru, and the Welsh Liberal Democrats made no mention of giving prisoners the vote, and so have no popular mandate.
The other arguments made included polling shows that the proposal is widely unpopular in Wales and across the UK, the move pre-empted the conclusions of the Assembly Committee’s inquiry, and the decision ignores the experiences and trauma of victims.
Replies to a Welsh Conservative online survey saw 94% of respondents disagree with the move to give all convicted prisoners the vote, with only 4% saying they were in favour.
The main reasons given against such a move were a custodial sentence means the right to vote is surrendered alongside their liberty, and the inability to act responsibly in society means they do not deserve a say in how it is run.
Commenting, Mr Isherwood – who is also the Shadow Communities Minister – said:
“The Welsh Conservatives could not support extending prisoner votes because it flies in the face of natural justice – not just for victims, but society as a whole. Being imprisoned means the restriction of liberty and people believe this means giving up the vote until their release.
“It is staggering to see Welsh Labour, Plaid Cymru, and the Lib Dems promote this policy despite not having consulted the law-abiding citizens of this country at the ballot box. Maybe because they know just how massively unpopular it would be?
“The focus should be on balancing punishment in our prisons with rehabilitation to ensure criminals can reform and reintegrate into society – something having the vote while in prison had not demonstrated – while giving justice to victims.
“Meanwhile in Wales, health boards are in special measures, councils face budget cuts, and public infrastructure plans like the M4 relief road are being scrapped. Yet Welsh Labour and Plaid, when they’re not calling for a second EU referendum, want to give prisoners the vote. They need to start listening to the people of Wales, and stop ignoring them.”
Baroness Newlove, the Victims Commissioner for England and Wales, told the Committee:
“I do not support the notion that any serving prisoner should be given the vote.
“Someone is sent to prison as a punishment for breaking the law, and that is very important for victims to hear that, those directions in court, and to follow through.
“Because, for them, prison means that, for a fixed period of time, you are deprived of the right to live in a society as a free citizen, and therefore that ought to include the right to participate in elections.”