Devolution of Justice: Wales

Published date : 29 November, 2022
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) not just on securing this important debate, but on finding a topic that manages to unite not just Plaid Cymru and the SNP, but also the SNP, the Alba party and the Democratic Unionist party—


And the Labour party, indeed. That is quite a set of Venn diagrams to pull together.

Before I get to my in-depth remarks, I will address the commonality of the remarks made by the right hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) and the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar). We heard that the debate was on a rarefied topic—the preserve of politicians, academics and the political elite—and that it was all airy-fairy, fey and far removed from the doorsteps of the communities they represent. Obviously, I do not spend a huge amount of time canvassing in either of their constituencies, but I would venture to say that, just like my constituents, theirs are probably very concerned with justice matters and with outcomes.

If this debate is about anything, it is surely about how the best outcomes can be achieved and how the current set-ups, boundaries and the jagged edge, of which we have heard so much, militates against that. This morning, we have heard from a former Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice, the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill), about the benefits that come not just from the separate and distinct nature of the Scottish justice system, but from how the powers of devolution have been used to adapt to particular demands in order to achieve those outcomes, whether those were improved road safety through reducing the drink-drive limit or tackling the menace of air weapons before they were licensed. I could even speak about how the problem of endemic knife crime in west-central Scotland was tackled by adopting a public health approach, which is now being followed in certain measures by the authorities in London. That would not have been possible were it not for the integration not just between the healthcare system and the social services ecosystem, but between the justice system and the policing system.


Of course the underlying problems ought to be tackled, but I suggest the point at issue is how to tackle them and how best to bring to bear the various agencies of the state and the third sector to change that behaviour, rather than sticking a flag on top and saying that this is not something that people in devolved institutions should worry their pretty little heads about.

The devolution of justice has been supported by the Welsh Labour Government through the co-operation agreement signed with colleagues in Plaid Cymru. It follows the central recommendation of the 2019 Commission on Justice in Wales.

My point here is quite a simple one: even in a devolved settlement, there are some powers that naturally sit together. We would not dream of trying to set policies for economic development without looking at education, training and investment in people. We could all hopefully see through the pandemic, even if it was not glaringly apparent before, that the NHS and social care sectors must be considered side by side to ensure we live fulfilled lives and that people are always treated in the most appropriate care settings for their needs. Therefore, I find it somewhat baffling—albeit from the context of being a Scottish politician, as there has always been a distinct and separate Scottish legal system—that we would not consider there to be a disconnect in governance when powers over social aspects are held in devolved Wales and the justice elements are controlled at the other end of the M4.

To take up that point about the disconnect in governance, a sideswipe was taken at proposals to increase the number of Members of the Senedd. I think that needs to be seen in the context of the current boundary commission proposals and the obligation placed on the Boundary Commission for Wales to reduce the number of Welsh seats at Westminster from 40 to 32. At a time when Westminster interest in Welsh affairs is going to diminish significantly, surely it is right to bolster the ability to scrutinise the justice system in the round in Wales.

That lack of control over, and scrutiny of, policing and the justice system from Wales is precisely the issue. Not only is having an executive and legislature without a judiciary anomalous when compared with other countries; as we have heard, it has led to that jagged edge of intersecting competencies and responsibilities between the reserved justice system and key devolved services and institutions. That results in serious disadvantages, including a lack of coherent and accountable policymaking across the jurisdictions, an inability to allocate spending in a co-ordinated manner, and needless complexity that leads to a waste of resources and a lack of understanding of how the system operates.

We can see those disadvantages in the outcomes that I mentioned earlier. It is fair to say that in Wales, those outcomes are particularly suboptimal. Wales has one of the highest rates of imprisonment in western Europe. That fuels a cycle of poverty, as well as mental and physical health problems. Nearly half of Welsh children who are placed in custody are detained in England, far from their homes and family support. There is a chronic lack of community provision for women, which also severs family connections.

It is over three years since the Commission on Justice in Wales published its report. Surely it is past time to take forward its central conclusion that justice should be devolved to Wales. Policies and political sentiment matter. The voice of the electorate matters here. With an increasingly populist and draconian UK Government making decisions on justice matters in Wales, attempts to build a more rehabilitative system—if that is what people want, and quite clearly that is what they are voting for at the ballot box—are always likely to be thwarted.

In conclusion, there is little doubt that, as it stands, the justice system as a whole in Wales—for all the best intent of the committed professionals who are working day in, day out to get the best outcomes that they can—is simply not achieving the outcomes that it should and could. This debate should not be about sticking a great big flag on top and saying, “This is not about the priorities of my constituents,” because constituents will be concerned with the outcomes. They will be less concerned with the structures, but they will certainly be concerned that the structures work and are in their best interests, not just for them but for their communities. This should very much be about what works. We can see what works in legislative and governance terms both in Northern Ireland and in Scotland. Surely it is time for us to consider how best Wales could follow in that direction.

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