The UK government was strongly criticised in a Welsh policing and justice conference this morning.

Panellists, including Counsel General Mick Antoniw and former Chief Justice Lord John Thomas, said Westminster’s attitude to Welsh justice and devolution is “irrational” and marked by “narrow-mindedness” and “ignorance”.

Meanwhile, the Welsh Government intends to launch an initiative in spring 2022, exploring how a devolved Welsh justice system might work.

The conference was jointly hosted by Plaid Cymru and Labour MPs Liv Saville-Roberts and Anna McMorrin, in an apparent show of unity following the recently ratified Labour/Plaid co-operation deal.

The MPs, Counsel General and Lord Thomas, who chaired the landmark Commission on Justice in Wales, were joined by representatives from justice trade unions, as well as Dyfed-Powys Police Commissioner Dafydd Llewelyn, to discuss the past, present, and future of Welsh justice and policing, two years on from the Commission.

Devolved justice Lord Thomas, who chaired the Commission on Justice in Wales

There were no panellists representing prisoners, young people, or marginalised groups. The discussion largely centred on the delivery of justice services in Wales and did not take feedback from those who had been in contact with the justice system either as a victim or offender.

In his speech to the conference, Lord Thomas said that the pandemic had “vindicated” the Commission’s conclusions two years ago, showing the “real need” for Wales to have its own institutions.

“The government in London believes that justice is an island in isolation,” he said.

“Justice is central to every aspect of society.”

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Making reference to policy discussions in which Wrexham was mentioned as “the epitome” of a rural area, Lord Thomas added that legislation was being written for Wales with little understanding of the country.

“I'm afraid the ignorance of the demography and needs of Wales that pervades in Whitehall has to be experienced to be believed,” he said.

“It is a sad commentary on the treatment [of Wales], particularly at the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office, that things haven't gone much better in 200 years.”

Devolved justice Counsel General Mick Antoniw says devolved justice is "not a matter of if, but when" (Source: Huw Evans Agency)

Welsh Counsel General Mick Antoniw, meanwhile, expressed confidence that devolved justice was not a matter of if, but when.”

He said: “This should not all be about who controls or owns justice, which is often how it is presented.

“It's really about how and where justice is best delivered, and how it can be delivered better.

“Justice, for me, is not about laws, courts and punishment for offenders.

“It is about people, families and communities, and it can't be seen, in my view, in isolation from socioeconomic issues - Those ones we all know about: Poverty, inequality, housing, education, health, social services, and so on.

“Putting forward the case for reform and devolution often meets with an almost knee jerk and irrational opposition from the UK government, which I think is, for political reasons, not even prepared to contemplate the discussion.”

Devolved justice Dominic Raab is the third Justice Secretary for England and Wales since 2018 (Source: PA)

Next spring the Welsh Government intends to run a project exploring how devolution could “lead to a much stronger, more effective and more progressive service,” Antoniw added, advising that the project would go on to envision how a devolved Welsh justice system would be structured.

He said that such a system would see housing, health and education as “integral parts”, and would be underpinned by “consistent policies [tackling] the problems that lead to so many young people, families, and children ending up in the justice system.”

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Despite this progressive rhetoric, Antoniw reiterated his government’s commitment to policing – highlighting the 600 Police and Community Support Officers funded by the Welsh Government, and the fact that 40% of policing costs are raised or contributed to in Wales.

Asked how the government intends to pursue devolved justice in the face of Westminster’s open resistance to the idea, the Counsel General said: “I think the ultimate leverage is to be able to show not only how we’re adding value to what is already there, but to show how it could be so much better.

“The strength of argument is overwhelming, and I see more and more support for [devolved justice].

“I think we need to show the structures that we can create, and what it would look like - and then I think we just have to pursue it, because ultimately it is a political decision that we have to win.”

 

Speaking after the conference, attendee Leena Farhat, a former Senedd candidate for the Liberal Democrats, criticised the all-white panel’s apparent inattention to the specific issues faced by BAME people, prisoners, disabled and LGBTQ people, adding that she felt “ignored” during the event.

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