Welsh Government told ‘forget about more devolution and tackle the NHS and rising unemployment’
Welsh Secretary David Davies has delivered a stinging rebuke to Counsel General Mick Antoniw, rejecting his call for the devolution of policing and the justice system to Wales and suggesting he should devote his energies to tackling the problems of the NHS and the rise in unemployment.
Mr Antoniw wrote to Mr Davies saying: “I have recently had brought to my attention an answer to a Parliamentary Question given on behalf of your department on May 18 by Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist, who I understand has since resigned from the UK Government. I believe this answer is misleading and would ask that the record is corrected.
“The question was asked by Lord Wigley, and the question and answer were as follows:
Lord Wigley. To ask His Majesty’s Government what approaches they have had from the Welsh Government concerning the transfer of responsibility to Senedd Cymru of (1) the police service in Wales, (2) the prison service in Wales, and (3) the court service and administration of justice in Wales.
Baroness Bloomfield responded: “While the Welsh Government has called for the devolution of justice and policing to Wales, it has not made a formal request for the powers to be transferred. There has been no persuasive case made for how devolution would improve the operation of these services. There are therefore no plans to devolve them.”
Mr Antoniw continued his letter: “The Welsh Government has certainly requested that powers for justice be transferred. The UK Government has been provided with multiple publications which make clear our desired position, from the draft Government and Laws in Wales Bill in 2016, through the original and refreshed editions of Reforming our Union, and Delivering Justice for Wales in 2022. There were detailed discussions through the creation of what became the Wales Act 2017.
“It is of course abundantly clear to you and your colleagues that the Welsh Government is seeking this transfer of responsibilities, and indeed that this position has the support of a settled majority in the Senedd.
“To take one specific example, the First Minister wrote to the then Prime Minister [Boris Johnson] on December 18 2019, immediately following the general election, stating: ‘I would ask you to commit to […] within the next five years, updating the current settlement to ensure the Welsh Government and the Senedd have a coherent set of powers in order to secure the best possible outcomes for the people of Wales and fulfil our shared role in the governance of the UK. This should include devolution of, and fair funding for, justice (as recommended by the Commission on Justice in Wales)’.
“It is not clear to me whether the answer from Baroness Bloomfield was attempting to suggest that correspondence between respective heads of government is not a formal mechanism for making a request, but I would find that a strange position to take. I also believe a great many people would also take issue with the suggestion in the answer that ‘there has been no persuasive case made for how devolution would improve the operation of these services’.
“This does a disservice to the work of the Commission on Justice in Wales, and the more than 200 individuals, institutions and organisations who provided written evidence to it, as well as the 150 participants in oral evidence sessions in what was the largest ever examination of the state of the justice system in Wales. I would therefore welcome a correction being made.”
Mr Davies’ letter of response did not address Mr Antoniw’s call for a correction. Instead he told told the Counsel General : “I am quite surprised you have submitted this application [for the devolution of justice], especially when the NHS in Wales is facing severe pressures, Welsh unemployment has risen and students’ reading and numeracy skills continue to be the lowest, according to PISA [which compares countries’ educational attainment rates in basic skills] in the UK.
“The UK Government has also made its position abundantly clear – that justice in Wales is best delivered via the single England and Wales justice system. In particular, Wales benefits from the economies of scale and shared resources of being part of a larger justice system, including access to the prison estate. The devolution of justice would involve very considerable upheaval of the existing system and create enormous difficulties.
“Despite the abundance of reports that have been produced on this matter, the Welsh Government has not addressed fundamental issues over how such a separate justice system for Wales would operate. It remains unclear, for example, how it would address the prohibitive costs involved, a matter that was not addressed in Lord Thomas’ report [a commission chaired by Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, a former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, recommended the devolution of justice to Wales].
“Furthermore, the reports point to the so-called ‘jagged edge’ interface between devolved and reserved services. We do not agree that the interface between reserved and devolved matters poses practical difficulties for the justice system in Wales.
“Officials at the Ministry of Justice and the Welsh Government have excellent working relationships, including through groups such as the Justice in Wales Strategy Group and the Criminal Justice Board for Wales that allow for collaboration on any areas of the justice system that cut across devolved and reserved responsibilities. In contrast to the way in which the Welsh Government seeks to portray this interface as ‘hampering’ the delivery of justice, the justice system in Wales is performing well across a range of metrics and does so favourably when compared to regions of England in which all services are the responsibility of the UK Government.
“I do believe your time would also be better spent on tackling the many issues facing Wales, including the rise in unemployment. I would therefore stress that any formal request for the devolution of powers over justice cannot be made in abstract of these wider practical questions which have not been addressed.”
It seems unlikely that a future Labour government at Westminster will devolve powers over policing and justice to Wales in the immediate future.
The party’s general election manifesto is expected to include elements from a report written by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, which recommends the devolution of the probation service and youth justice to Wales, but not policing or adult justice.
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