Wales politics

Around 1,900 Welsh prisoners to get vote in council and Senedd elections

Man in court in handcuffs Image copyright Huw Evans picture agency

Prisoners from Wales serving sentences of less than four years will have the vote at council and assembly elections under Welsh Government plans.

The move, which would see prisoners allowed to vote in Welsh council elections in 2022 and Senedd polls in 2026, would enfranchise 1,900 people.

Extending the vote will send a "very strong and positive messages to prisoners", the Welsh Government said.

Opponents say the plans ignore public opinion.

The changes would also apply to young people in custody serving similar sentences. They would require new laws - and because of this they will miss the next assembly elections in 2021.

Once the proposals are in place Wales would have the most liberal prisoner voting policy in the UK. Scotland's government wants to allow votes for prisoners serving sentences of less than a year.

Under the plans prisoners will get the right to a postal or proxy vote.

A ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in 2007 found the UK ban on prisoner voting "indiscriminate and disproportionate".

In 2017, the UK government relaxed it by allowing prisoners on temporary licence and home detention curfew to vote. Since the ruling, control of Welsh council and assembly elections has been given to the Welsh Assembly.

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Wales' Housing and Local Government minister Julie James told AMs on Wednesday: "Our aim is that eligible prisoners and young people in custody will be able to vote at the next ordinary local government elections during 2022."

But, referring to the next assembly election, she said: "There simply isn't enough time to work through and test with the UK Government, the prison service and electoral registration officers all the new legal and administrative requirements that would need to be in place for an election that was held in 2021."

She said ministers will find an "appropriate" way of changing the law "at the earliest opportunity".

"The first general assembly election at which prisoners and young people in custody would be able to vote, therefore, would be those in 2026," she said.

It follows an Equality, Local Government and Communities committee report earlier this year that saw members split on party lines.

A majority on the body of Labour and Plaid AMs recommended that giving prisoners with sentences shorter than four years "strikes an appropriate balance" as it excluded those sentenced for the most serious crimes.

'Disregard public opinion'

"The Welsh Government believes that enabling at least some prisoners to vote will send very strong and positive messages to prisoners that they still have a stake in society and, in turn, that they have responsibilities towards society as a whole," ministers said in their response to the report.

Members of the committee had visited prisoners as part of their deliberations. In a Senedd debate on Wednesday, John Griffiths said: "One of the most compelling arguments we heard was that prisoners remain citizens of society."

Conservative North Wales AM Mark Isherwood warned the plans would mean giving the vote to prisoners convicted of having a blade or sharp point in a public place; as well as racially aggravated common assault.

Opponents include the Brexit Party. Its South Wales West AM Caroline Jones said: "Once again, politicians are stating that they know what is best, and disregard public opinion. We are put here to serve our constituents, and we simply can't simply ignore their wishes whatever our own personal opinions may be."

Former Plaid Cymru leader and an ex-probation officer Leanne Wood said: "Voting is not a privilege and it shouldn't be seen as such. Voting is something that we should want all of our citizens to be doing.

"For me, this is a question where Wales could signal that we could things differently, more humanely with more compassion."

Changes to assembly elections need a two-thirds majority of the assembly - it is not clear if legislation for this will be introduced in the current assembly term.

As the assembly stands, Labour and other Welsh Government AMs and Plaid Cymru would allow the changes to pass.

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