Women in Wales deserve so much better than England’s criminal justice system – it must be devolved
Jane Dodds, Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats
Like so many other women, I was shocked and numb with anger when I saw the pictures emerging on Saturday night of the police action at the Clapham vigil in memory of Sarah Everard.
Sarah’s murder, dreadful as it was, had at least given a moment of hope that male violence against women might be taken more seriously by a political and criminal justice establishment that remains, overwhelmingly, male.
That hope was destroyed as Metropolitan Police officers descended on a peaceful vigil – a moment of quiet commemoration that threatened nobody – brutally to break it up. It was disproportionate, it was unacceptable, and I strongly support Ed Davey’s call for Cressida Dick’s resignation.
Her force’s reaction – and her subsequent inability to understand why that reaction was wrong – make it clear that she is now the wrong person to hold the office of Commissioner.
But I also remembered that less than 48 hours later, the House of Commons would give Priti Patel’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 its Second Reading; a bill whose central purpose is to criminalise protest in England and Wales. A Bill that potentially means that any demonstration deemed too noisy by the police could render its participants liable to criminal prosecution and a sentence of up to ten years in prison; far longer than most rapists serve.
A Bill that will give more powers to a police service that so many women can no longer trust to exercise those powers to keep them safe.
And I reflected how – sadly, but unsurprisingly – it was only outrage at the events of Saturday night that shamed Keir Starmer’s Labour to opposing, rather than abstaining on the Second Reading of this Bill.
And, as the only woman leading a political party in Wales, I reflected on how utterly wrong this Bill is for Wales. I want a Wales where women feel safe, and are not victim-blamed for male violence. And I want a Wales where the police understand that peaceful protest is an absolute right in a democracy, and where they see their role as supporting the right to protest and ensuring that protests are peaceful and safe, not as the people who close down vigils for victims of crime. I want a Wales where we challenge and change toxic masculinity.
And I believe that we can only do that through the long-held Liberal Democrat call for policing and criminal justice to be devolved to Wales. We need police priorities to be set here in Wales, through our Welsh Parliament and with our Welsh police services; we want our police to be properly resourced, and to be empowered to work more effectively with the other agencies, already devolved, that have such a crucial role to play in making Wales safe, like our social services and our local authority housing departments – and our schools, in educating boys to respect women and supporting them to understand what is not acceptable.
We do not accept the culture of failure in dealing with violence against women that pervades the criminal justice system in England and Wales. Most cases never result in prosecution; of those that do, barely two-thirds result in a conviction. Of the 55,000 reported rapes in England and Wales in 2019-20, there were only a little over 2000 prosecution and only 1400 convictions. There were fewer prosecutions and convictions for rape in England and Wales in the year to 2020 than in any other year on record. Where cases are brought to court, the burden on the victims is often unacceptable; all too often women feel it is them, not their assailants who are on trial.
That is not acceptable, in Wales or anywhere else. Women in Wales deserve so much better than the institutional failure of the English criminal justice system. But they will never get that while Whitehall’s complacent attitude to crimes against women is allowed to define criminal justice in Wales.
I believe that if we in Wales have the power to set our own strategy for criminal justice, we will at last be able to turn that tide.
Priti Patel and the Westminster government seem to be obsessed with clamping down on the right to protest. Liberal Democrats, in Wales and elsewhere, believe that the way our criminal justice system fails women is far more important.
And we in Wales want the power to put that right.