Time for Justice to be controlled in Wales

Rhys ab Owen argues that Welsh Government’s recent proposals for the devolution of justice in Wales fall short of the mark.

This week we have seen the Welsh Government put forward their approach to what the devolution of justice should look like in Wales.  Whilst I welcome this move, in truth it is long overdue.

The document published by Welsh Government is 161 pages long and yet it is still short on detail.  There is no timetable for when justice should be devolved, it is light on accountability measures and provides little in the way of commitment.

Much of the document, fairly, points the finger at the UK Government, but too often it hides behind the UK Government and uses it as an excuse for a lack of ambition.  We all know Boris Johnson is not an ideological creature. If the case was made that devolution of justice would help him then it would be devolved in a heartbeat, so why aren’t we making that case?  Why aren’t we showing Westminster why justice should be devolved? Why aren’t we showing the Welsh people the great strides we would make, not the ones we’d ‘explore’ or ‘look into’?

Indeed, when faced with areas where change can already be made, the Welsh Government are tentative, standing back rather than pushing forward.

Welsh control of justice and policing would allow us to align other devolved areas that are so closely associated with the justice system such as health, education, and housing. 

A perfect example of this is the Law Commission report into Welsh Tribunals.  The report’s recommendations were known in 2020 and yet they still have not been implemented.  Indeed, when referenced in the report the Welsh Government state that while they agree with the ‘broad thrust’ of the recommendations there is ‘still some thinking to do’.  This is hardly the language of the radical reformers Welsh Government often like to characterise themselves as.

This was a true shame as the implementation of the Law Commission’s recommendations would have been a historic moment, granting Wales our first appellate system in centuries.  It would have been a perfect step towards building a fairer and more accessible justice system in Wales, a system which currently fails large swathes of our society.  Instead, these recommendations sit on a shelf.

And whilst I of course welcome initiatives such as the pilot Women’s Centre in Swansea, they again lack the ambition necessary to right the wrongs of the Welsh justice system.  The centre will not open until at least 2024 and the five-year pilot will only involve women in the Swansea area. What about other women across Wales who are being sent to prisons in England far away from their homes? Also, will this be a real alternative to custody or just a different form of community order?

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My party, Plaid Cymru, continues to press for full devolution of the criminal justice system – the police, prisons, probation, and the courts – so we can make it fairer and more equal. After twenty years of devolution, it is an anomaly for the Senedd not to have full control of criminal justice matters.

We support the creation of a separate legal system in Wales. Welsh control of justice and policing would allow us to align other devolved areas that are so closely associated with the justice system such as health, education, and housing.  We would be proactive in ensuring justice is both devolved and fair for the people of Wales.  We would push forward where others stand back.

Our aim would be to create a Welsh justice system focused on establishing problem-solving justice initiatives that tackle the root causes of offending and issues at an early stage, focusing on prevention rather than retribution.

And if I was in the Counsel General’s shoes, I would have unveiled a blueprint, with a firm timetable on when these areas would be devolved and, crucially, how they would be improved once devolved.

Last Tuesday, Mick Antoniw described the devolution of justice as ‘inevitable’. Unfortunately, this document leaves us woefully underprepared for it.

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Rhys ab Owen MS is a Plaid Cymru Senedd Regional Member for the South Wales Central Region.

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