As delegates gathered in Swansea to hear Ed Miliband tell Welsh Labour conference that a future Labour government would hand greater powers over policing to Wales, a Cardiff University fringe meeting saw academics and practitioners discuss what future directions the Welsh Government might consider.
Should Policing be devolved to Wales?
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The general consensus among those in attendance was that policing should be devolved.
Effective policing, it was argued, entails interaction with already devolved public services, and devolving policing would see a better reflection of Welsh circumstances. However, this does raise subsequent questions about how devolved policing might be structured, and how to hold the police to account.
Devolving policing would improve accountability. The Silk Commission found the current situation unsatisfactory, noting that “much of policing is funded from devolved sources, yet strategic police policy is determined by Westminster”. The creation of Police and Crime Commissioners was itself an attempt to enhance accountability, although Leighton Andrews stated his preference for scrapping Commissioners in Wales, should policing be devolved.
Such a move was discussed in the 2013 Stevens report, which called for powers over accountability to return to local authorities. However, this seems largely similar to Police Authorities, previously deemed a failure due to their invisibility to the public, and lack of influence.
Decisions on local policing matters should be devolved to the local level, and it would be foolish to return to the days of attempting to steer local policing centrally, regardless of whether that is from Whitehall or Cardiff. However, how this would operate in practice is difficult to comprehend. A force-level policing board with the leaders of local authorities would inevitably lead to competition over resources, rather than proper scrutiny.
Therefore, could the answer be a single operational structure; an ‘All Wales Police Force’?
Alun Michael noted that a single chief constable is difficult to hold to account, and comparisons were made with the difficulties faced by local boroughs in engaging with the Metropolitan Police. However, it seems invalid to compare Wales with London.
Comparisons with Police Scotland seem more logical, where the creation of 32 local policing units, and 353 neighbourhood units, appears to better respond to local need, and increase visibility. While not without its problems, Police Scotland has only been operational for two years – still in its infancy, and difficult to evaluate comprehensively.
A Police Federation representative noted that it would not be beneficial to devolve policing and change the force structure simultaneously. However, given the current democratic deficit in policing, potential structural changes would be a way of demonstrating how devolving policing could ‘add value’.
Ed Miliband promised delegates that an All-Wales policing plan would be created if a Labour government is elected in May. Perhaps this is a small step on the long road to devolution. If so, it is vital that a broader, evidence based conversation on this topic begins in earnest, but equally that an All-Wales force is kept on the table as an option for providing efficient and effective policing to Wales.
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