On 24 October, the Commission on Justice in Wales published its report outlining that Wales should be granted full control over its justice system, including over police, prisons and the appointing of its own judges.
The proposals conclude that the people of Wales are “let down by the system in its current state”.
Current power-sharing arrangements between Westminster and Cardiff are a source of huge confusion and have done little to help those in Wales who seek legal aid or justice. Through the current system of devolution, rural areas of Wales have effectively become ‘advise deserts’ where people struggle to receive legal support.
Family justice is one particular area that suffers as a consequence of the jagged devolution scheme. Family justice matters, especially regarding children, are held by Westminster, whilst matters such as health and social care are granted to Wales, resulting in huge confusion in the legal system. This has contributed to the increase in the number of children in care, rising by 52% since 2003.
Wales needs a clearer, more pertinent form of devolution in order to tackle its problems with justice, policing and prisons.
Both Scotland and Northern Ireland enjoy clearly devolved justice powers, including national police forces, civil laws, prisons and courts. There is no reason Wales should not also enjoy these powers, especially as solving the cocktail of challenges that faces Welsh justice will require greater local and regional power.
For instance, there are currently no female prisons in Wales. Women from South Wales who are incarcerated are sent to HMP Eastwood Park in Gloucestershire, while those from North Wales are sent to HMP Styal in Cheshire, requiring long and expensive transportation to the facilities.
Greater local authority would mean an opportunity for Wales to experiment in creating a more tailored prison, justice and policing system – one that cannot be achieved under the yolk of Westminster. The opportunity to trial justice policies should be seized upon.
The Northern Irish system reinforces this argument. Through clear control of their system since 2010, Northern Irelands has constructed a prison system more akin to the Scandinavian system (including shorter jail times on average), resulting in a considerably smaller share of the population being incarcerated compared to the English and Welsh system.
This differing system can explain why Northern Ireland has a prison population rate of 81 per 100,000 of the national population in 2018 compared to England and Wale’s 140. Local administration of prison systems has led to Northern Ireland boasting, in this sense, a more successful prison system than Wales’ current system, especially notable given its more turbulent past.
Aside from effectively ‘freeing’ funds that would be allocated in the event of higher prisoner populations, less overcrowding in prisons results in, on aggregate, safer conditions for both prisoners and wardens.
More devolution isn’t just popular in economic theory, but also in practice. A relative majority of those asked about devolution in Wales in April 2019 supported further devolution. 27% of those asked desired more power, 25% were content with the system and only 4% supported less power.
Politicians in Westminster should not shy away from allowing each nation of the United Kingdom to have equal and clear responsibility over policies.
Further still, each country should be given full fiscal responsibility over their prison and justice systems, include tax levying, rather than remaining reliant on Westminster for funding. Beyond being a symbolic move away from centralised power, devolving such responsibilities would help fortify the creation of a devolved justice system, and is indeed the norm in most European countries where local and/or regional governments have more control over both raising tax revenue, and its spending.
In Wales, 20% of tax revenue is now overseen by the Welsh Government according to the Institute For Government whilst 59% of spending is controlled by Wales. In order to complement this more crystalline adaption of justice devolution, Wales should be granted full fiscal responsibility over its policing, prisons and court expenses.
It might seem counter-intuitive but if we are to remain a United Kingdom following Brexit, one of the best ways to ensure a bright future is to give increased power and decision-making to local and regional authorities.
Suggested further reading:
‘Federal Britain: The Case for Decentralisation‘ by Prof Philip Booth