Devolving Policing and Criminal Justice – setting Wales free


“The Welsh government does not have its hands on the political or macro-economic levers to make all the necessary difference. Neither benefits nor pensions are devolved.”

By Nick Davies, Swansea West CLP

Wales is ravaged by the cruelty and inequality of neo-liberalism. De-industrialisation in the 1980s and 90s and then a decade of austerity left communities poor, deprived and with a host of resulting societal problems. This bleak assessment might come as a shock to those outside Wales who know of the Welsh government’s increasing divergence from Westminster orthodoxy.

However, the Welsh government does not have its hands on the political or macro-economic levers to make all the necessary difference. Neither benefits nor pensions, for example, are devolved, and the devolution settlement arrived in 1999 in a country already scarred by the Thatcher-Major years.  

High rates of incarceration are a feature of feral capitalism and the inequality it brings. The rates in Wales are the highest in Europe. Like the rest of the UK, reoffending rates are high with failures of rehabilitation. Despite the recommendations of the Thomas Commission on Justice in Wales (2019) and the views of many members of the Senedd, policing and criminal justice remain non-devolved. There is an obvious need for an imaginative and progressive change of course to reduce offending and prevent re-offending, for the benefit of offenders, their families and Welsh communities affected by crime. The response to this need reveals the political fault-lines running through Welsh Labour.

The 2013 announcement that a ‘super prison’, HMP Berwyn (like HMP Parc near Bridgend, a prison run for profit) would be built near Wrexham was welcomed by its then MP and the then council leader because of the claimed employment opportunities and the boost to the local economy; mass incarceration was therefore seen as a ‘benefit’. However, an unedifying 2019 report by the Wales Governance Centre detailed extensive drug use, prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, weapon finds, and use-of-force incidents by staff. HMP Berwyn prioritises importing of prisoners from England rather than allowing Welsh prisoners to serve their sentence in their local area and, scarcely believably, there are reports of harassment of Welsh-speaking inmates.  

The conservative attitude of some in Welsh Labour remains. Carolyn Harris MP, Welsh Labour’s deputy-leader, when interviewed last year by ITV Wales’ ‘Sharp End’, opposed any devolution of policing and criminal justice. When pressed, her reason was ‘I just wouldn’t.’ There’s an obvious lack here of the necessary imagination and sophistication to seek new solutions when the status quo clearly isn’t working, but there’s a political issue also. Welsh Westminster MPs are mostly suspicious of any further loss of authority resulting from further devolution to the Welsh government, wanting to maintain Westminster as where the ‘real politics’ is. Such an attitude suggests subservience to London and a condescension towards devolved government. It’s on all fours with the UK government, committed to the status quo and hostile to devolution to boot.

Nevertheless, in response to this obvious need for change, moves are afoot. Welsh Labour promised to pursue devolution in its manifesto for the 2021 Senedd election. As well as being government policy it is now part of the current co-operation agreement between Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru, designed to create a ‘super-majority’ to ensure the passage of important legislation on which the two parties agree.

However, while December’s interim report of the Welsh Government- established Independent Commission for the Constitutional Future of Wales recommended devolution of policing and criminal justice, UK Labour’s plan for the UK’s constitutional future (the Brown Commission report), also released in December, in something of an anti-climax only proposed further devolution  for youth justice and probation (progress of sorts, given the appalling mess the Tories have made of the probation service). The response of First Minister Mark Drakeford to the critical reaction of Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price, was that this was a specific first step, part of what would be a process of the transfer of powers.

In many respects, this issue is the entire Welsh devolution issue in miniature: the original devolution settlement was limited and unstable, partly to appease Welsh Labour’s anti-devolutionists. Devolution, once famously described as ‘not an event but a process’ has acquired its own ‘made-in Wales’ momentum, to some extent in response to the increasing decay in Westminster. Mark Drakeford, a strong believer in devolution, but at heart, also a believer in the UK, has to proceed at the pace his own party can tolerate, pushed from behind by Plaid Cymru and opposed head-on by Westminster.

How it plays out depends on when and how the present Tory administration collapses under the weight of its own rottenness, what happens in Scotland – as that has a bearing on the stability of the UK as a political entity, the relative influence of  the devolutionist Welsh government, Wales’ MPs and a future UK Labour government and the extent to which the people of Wales will fight for Wales’ freedom to develop politics made in Wales, for Wales.

  • Nick Davies is a member of Swansea West CLP, a former member of Labour’s National Policy Forum, for 10 years was a Swansea Councillor and is co-author of ‘Clear Red Water: Welsh Devolution and Socialist Policies’ (2009, Francis Boutle Publishers).
  • If you support Labour Outlook’s work amplifying the voices of left movements and struggles in the UK and internationally, please consider becoming a supporter on Patreon.
Featured image: Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand in the City of Westminster. Photo credit: sjiong under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Leave a Reply