Why police and criminal justice should be devolved

Alun Michael argues that Wales needs these powers to enable a joined-up approach to tackling crime

The suggestion that policing should be devolved to the National Assembly has hardly raised a ripple of interest on the streets of south Wales. Nor has it aroused passionate opposition within the police service. Why? Because almost everything that is relevant to the work of the police has already been devolved.

While political power over the criminal justice system, including policing, still sits in Whitehall, the fact is that decision-making about most police activity has now been devolved. Whitehall has handed over the leadership to Police and Crime Commissioners. And the four Welsh Commissioners, despite their political range (two Independents, one Conservative, one Labour and Co-operative) have immediately started to work together on Wales-wide issues, with some excellent and fruitful meetings with Welsh Government. So common sense, pragmatism and purpose have brought about de facto devolution and it’s only a question of when the machinery of government will catch up.

This is only a surprise to those who don’t understand the essential nature and purpose of the police service. I use the word ‘service’ deliberately, because the continental concept of a police force is not very British at all. When he set up first police service, Sir Robert Peel set out nine principles on which policing should be organised. Two of those principles are as central to policing today as they were in Victorian times:

  • The main purpose of the police is to cut crime – which can only be done if you reduce both offending and re-offending.
  • The police are the public and the public are the police – which is a slightly Delphic way of saying that the police can only succeed if they have common purpose with the communities in which they seek to uphold the law.

So how can we fulfil those two purposes? The Justice Select Committee of the House of Commons addressed that question in a major landmark report, of which I was one of the authors.

The first strategic question was whether – if you had the choice – you would continue to pour all the money and resources that go into the criminal justice system into the same things. The unanimous answer from this cross-party committee was ‘No!’

The second question was to ask what makes a difference to levels of crime. Again, after intensive work examining our own systems and looking at other countries, particularly in the USA, the answer was clear. The criminal justice system, including the courts and the police, has comparatively little impact on crime levels. What matters is a whole range of other factors and public services, including education, training, jobs, how we deal with mental health, alcohol, drugs, housing, nurturing healthy communities and many other social factors.

So if the police are to be effective they have to work collaboratively with organisations, which tackle each of those economic and societal issues. That’s why the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act ushered in the Youth Offending Teams and the Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships – renamed Community Safety Partnerships in Wales – which have quietly and effectively beavered away at making the public safer in our communities.

It’s worked across England and Wales, but I suggest that it has worked particularly well in south Wales because it fits with the nature of strong local communities and the style of police leadership in recent times. We’ve also seen strong collaboration between the four Welsh chief constables and their teams, providing a healthy precursor for the arrival of commissioners with the same combination of being both independent in spirit and collaborative in practical matters. And that’s been helped by the style of Government in Wales, with the emphasis on protecting services and collaborative working.

So I agree that it makes sense to devolve responsibility for policing. It will bring together the responsibilities that fit together and enable a joined up approach to be taken to crime reduction and the building of healthy communities – two key purposes of democratic governments which ought to sit together.

And that’s the problem in Whitehall where they don’t sit together any longer. When I became Deputy Home Secretary in 1997, my portfolio included policing, criminal justice, crime prevention and youth justice. And when he gave me that appointment, Tony Blair added “and the voluntary and community sector goes with you.” Reducing crime and creating stronger communities were part of the same strategic task.

That coherence disappeared when John Reid condemned the Home Office as “dysfunctional” and the responsibilities were split between two departments. As the Police and Justice Minister, Damien Green straddles the two departments – as did David Hanson in the past. In England Community development lies with the Department for Local Government, but responsibility for the voluntary and community sector sits in the Cabinet Office.  Responsibilities that should sit together are now in separate silos in the Westminster village.

The proposition that devolution of the rest of the criminal justice system should follow was greeted with somewhat greater scepticism, but I believe that it’s right. A barrister once told me that policing is an essential subsidiary of the court system, but I retorted that the reverse is true. The courts are an essential subsidiary of our system of policing and crime reduction – essential to deal with those who break the law and for the protection of the public, but in truth the means of dealing with the failures of society and its institutions as well as protecting society from some really bad people.

So the criminal justice system is necessary but it’s not the key service for creating safe, healthy communities. It’s the remedial and repair service.

Over recent years the level of crime has come down. That’s not just reflected in the offences that are reported to the police but in the experience of the public reflected in what used to be called the British Crime Survey. It’s based on what people say about their experience and that’s important because we know that many crimes do not get reported to the police patrol variety of reasons.

It’s not happened by accident. It happened because of the strength of partnership working led jointly by the police and the local authority in each area, with other organisations required to be a part of that work. Some key examples show the enormous potential of such an intelligent approach. In particular the work of Professor Jonathan Shepherd, at Cardiff Royal Infirmary and then at University Hospital in Cardiff, shows that a scientific approach to asking why violent incidents happened can enable the police and a variety of partners to significantly cut the number of violent incidents.

That’s why Cardiff is the safest city of its cohort. Our streets may be rowdy and sometimes unpleasant late at night when some of those on our streets have had too much to drink – but that’s not the same as being unsafe. Falling over drunk doesn’t threaten other members of the public in the same way as falling over fighting.

The quality of partnership working by police and medics, street pastors, council workers and community payback workers in the late-night economy is absolutely stunning. It’s not just efficient working, it’s a vibrant partnership of working people who are determined to safeguard their fellow citizens and make the city safer.

There is similar determination in Swansea. It’s just one of the many ways in which a partnership approach to cutting crime creates the headroom to allow the police to do the really tough stuff of tackling crooks, exploiters, people traffickers and terrorists instead of being distracted by needless time in court and time spent picking up the pieces.

Don’t get me wrong. Our police officers are picking up the pieces in every community right across south Wales on a daily basis. It’s just that the volume has gone down and that’s why despite the draconian cuts imposed by the Treasury, crime figures are still going down.

And it’s a two-way process. A violent incident often leads to an extra customer for A&E, and can lead to lengthy and expensive surgery. It can be devastating to the victim and destroy the health and happiness of a family. Every councillor knows the damage done by anti-social behaviour locally and that a reputation for being a safe, crime-free town enhances the chance of attracting inward investment. When he said that “we’re all in this together”, David Cameron was lying – but it’s the truth about community safety and economic development and social inclusion in Wales.

So let’s embrace the concept of devolving policing, and devolving the criminal justice system too.

Since writing that sentence I have thought long and hard about the question of whether it is necessary to devolve policing and criminal justice at the same time. I conclude that it is not necessary. Whereas local operation of the Criminal Justice system – probation, local prisons, offender management – is inextricably linked to operational issues of policing and crime reduction, the actual work of the higher courts, judicial oversight and legislation are not. Just as policing isn’t devolved – except in the sense that it is devolved to Police and Crime Commissioners – and yet local operational activity links directly to services that fall directly under the aegis of Welsh Government. So, too, local court, prison and criminal justice systems can integrate well with local policing.

In my view the courts have a duty to serve that clear policing objective set down by Sir Robert Peel that the first duty of the police is to prevent crime and disorder. You don’t need legislative or ministerial devolution in order for close collaborative working to give the best possible service to the local public.

I have agreed for some years that we should be much clearer about our expectations of the Criminal Justice System. I argued that the Sentencing Council should be given as its key purpose the responsibility of informing and advising the judiciary and magistrates about the effectiveness of different sentences in protecting the public through reducing the likelihood of the offender to reoffend.

Recently I asked the chairman of the Sentencing Council, Lord Leveson, to put more emphasis on informing the courts about ‘what works’ in making offenders less likely to offend again. He responded rather bizarrely by saying that we needed to ask that question of community sentences but not of prison sentences.

As Police and Crime Commissioner I have a legal responsibility under the 2011 Police Reform Act to challenge the criminal justice system in south Wales to be efficient and effective. It’s encouraging that services like probation and the prisons are keen to work with us and very positive about the help they get from services like education, training and health that come under Welsh Government.

So there’s real potential for a successful Welsh model which builds on the strengths of devolution without cutting adrift from the strengths of being part of the United Kingdom. Devolved success depends on recognising that there will always be things that are better done together, drawing on common strengths, mutual support and well-informed challenge. Accordingly, we should:

  • Maintain a joint international presence – the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, soon to be part of the new Serious Crime Agency, has a tremendous international reputation.
  • Maintain a single system for the higher and appeal courts so that we retain the expertise that comes from scale
  • Maintain a single Independent Police Complaints Commission (why not extend that to Scotland as well, to get the benefits of experience and scale) and a single Police Inspectorate.

Thinking further about the issue, it seems to me that we would all benefit by expanding the scope of both the Inspectorate of Constabulary and the Independent Police Complaints Commission so that they cover not just Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as England and Wales, but also to include the Republic of Ireland. Delivery needs to be local, but the maintenance of integrity, high performance and efficiency is a complex concept that crosses all borders. It would not be impossible to develop a collaborative oversight of these institutions and perhaps some others in order to square the circle of local autonomy and consistent high standards.

And above all, we should avoid the mistake that is being made in Scotland where they are nationalising the police. One Chief Constable reporting to one Minister is very risky – and it abandons locality. It’s my view that you need the Chief Constable to be able to have a sense of all the communities policed by the service. South Wales Police is big but not too big. That’s why I opposed the idea of Gwent being absorbed into South Wales in the 1990s. Four forces – even though two of them are very small – give us the right relationship between police and Ministers in Welsh Government, whether formal responsibility for the police is devolved or not.

Welsh Government has shown the capacity for leadership as well as common sense by investing in an extra 500 Community Support Officers across Wales. This has strengthened the bond between devolved and non-devolved institutions and built on our greatest strength in Wales – an understanding that co-operation works.

Alun Michael was elected as the first Police and Crime Commissioner for South Wales in November 2012. Prior to this election, he had been the Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament for Cardiff South and Penarth for 25 years. This article appears in the current Summer 2013 issue of the IWA’s journal the welsh agenda.

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