Opinion

The UK Government’s Policing Bill is an attack on our democratic right to protest

04 Apr 2021 5 minutes Read
Gwynfor Evans leads a protest against the drowning of Tryweryn in Liverpool. Images courtesy of the National Library of Wales.

Ann Griffith, Plaid Cymru Candidate for North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner 

The past weeks have brought issues around policing, criminal justice, and our civil rights to the fore.

This began when the UK Government unveiled the new Policing Bill at the start of March, coupled with the death of Sarah Everard and subsequent protests, which has kickstarted a much-needed public debate about the role of the criminal justice system in our society.

As the former Deputy Commissioner and now Plaid Cymru Candidate for North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner, I know first-hand how these issues are playing out in Wales. In particular, I know how disastrous some aspects of the now infamous Policing Bill would be for justice and community safety.

It’s quite clear that the Bill represents a huge attack on our rights to peacefully protest. We must remember that these rights – and indeed our democracy itself – were not gifted to us by the powerful. Rather, they are a result of hard-won gains through years of struggle. We would do a disservice to our forebearers not to protect and build on these rights.

It is only through the successful campaign for women’s suffrage for example, that I am able to vote and stand as a candidate in an election. I am proud to say that one of the early Suffragette marches took place in 1910 in Caernarfon where the crowd heckled the future Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

Fast forward to today and this sort of ‘annoyance’ and ‘inconvenience’ could be banned under the Policing Bill. It is therefore vital that we oppose such regressive measures.

If we look beyond the restrictions on protest, the impact of the Bill on marginalised groups is deeply worrying.

Despite what the UK Government might claim, institutional and structural racism is still prevalent in our society. We know that Black people are six times more likely to go to prison in Wales than White people.

Instead of dealing with this problem, the Bill creates new ‘Serious Violence Reduction Orders’ which would allow stop and search to be used against those convicted of knife crime without the need for authorisation or reasonable grounds.

Whilst this could provide welcome support in reducing serious violence, it would likely disproportionately affect Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people, as we know stop and search has done so in the past.

‘Criminalise’

The Bill would effectively criminalise the way of life for Roma and Traveller communities, despite the fact that they are already being disproportionally represented in the criminal justice system and experience hate ‘as regular as rain’ according to a recent report.

A Conservative law and order bill that criminalises marginalised people is not something I support. Instead we need to work with communities to gain their confidence in the system and root out inequality.

Taking a step back we can see that a decade of austerity and year of Covid-19 has resulted in the criminal justice system struggling to cope.

The UK Government has cut funding to the justice system by around 25%, with the Welsh Government and councils increasingly having to fund a larger proportion of the system.

This has led to a big drop in court numbers, which has particularly affected rural parts of Wales and there have been serious cuts made to the police budget; an eyewatering £33 million a year to North Wales Police as a result of Conservative austerity since 2010.

As a prospective PCC for North Wales, I will push for a fair funding formula so that people in Wales aren’t having to pick up the tab for the UK Government’s neglect.

The Policing Bill will do more harm than good by locking more people up for longer, which will cut our prison and probation services capability to rehabilitate offenders. It will do nothing to break the cycle of offending.

‘Community policing’

I passionately support good, community policing, with a focus on reducing crime and re-offending, not more unnecessary punishment and incarceration.

I also believe that justice doesn’t begin and end in the court room. The current Commissioner Arfon Jones, launched Checkpoint Cymru in North Wales, which diverts low level offenders away from the criminal justice system. We need to build on this early intervention approach by better integrating policing and justice with health and education, to tackle social ills such as homelessness, addiction, mental health crises, and poverty – all of which are the real underlying causes of crime.

The Policing Bill and the decade of cuts shows that Westminster’s approach to justice is fundamentally flawed. We could do so much better in Wales.

If we want a fair, equal, and just system, then we have to vote for it.

The election of Plaid Cymru Police and Crime Commissioners alongside a Plaid Cymru Government in the Senedd would be truly transformative for the system and could provide the change that many are crying out for.

We would push for devolution of power from Westminster to Wales, bringing justice closer to the people, connecting the system to people’s lives by embedding it within communities.

This is the vision I am putting forward for the 6th of May. Together, we can build a fairer and safer Wales.

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