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Policing- Welsh control or Labour compromise?

21/02/2013

Shadow Local Government Minister Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM writes from the Senedd

Who is in charge of Welsh Labour? Is there actually, in practice, such a party as Welsh Labour? No matter how many times they adopt Plaid Cymru policies- something I warmly welcome- these questions remain unanswered. Even in an increasingly devolved Wales, it is still possible for the First Minister to set out a policy, and for that policy to then not be guaranteed to be in Welsh Labour’s next manifesto.

David Hanson is Labour MP for Delyn in north-east Wales, and Shadow Minister for Policing. At election time his bilingual posters will say that he is standing for Welsh Labour. If he gets re-elected and a Labour UK Government also comes into power, he presumably will become the Minister for Policing for both England and Wales, but not Scotland and Northern Ireland. He will be answerable to Ed Miliband as his leader, and less obviously to Owen Smith as his Secretary of State for Wales. Simultaneously, Carwyn Jones, allegedly the leader of “Welsh Labour” and First Minister of Wales, now believes that another Labour politician from north-east Wales, Carl Sargeant, should be the Minister for Policing in Wales.

While the Welsh Government has submitted relatively promising evidence to part 2 of the Silk Commission, David Hanson appeared on Good Morning Wales to remarkably say that the evidence may not even become Labour party policy before the next UK General Election. It will be taken on board as part of a wider review, but “nothing can be ruled in or out”. This is frustrating because we need a strong, cross-party consensus on further devolution and self-government for Wales. And where the Welsh public have consistently indicated they want more powers, like on policing and criminal justice, we have a duty to try and find common ground and press the case.

Politically, I have no doubts at all that the Welsh Government genuinely wants policing powers. They want to bring in a Domestic Violence bill, and one of their main ambitions has been to use devolved finance to pay for 500 PCSOs. They also have a road safety agenda. Community safety is already devolved, and the Welsh Government agrees with Plaid Cymru that we should have control of speed limits in Wales. Despite the limitations in their ambition, getting more Plaid Cymru policies implemented is always a positive.

I happen to disagree on their desire to postpone the devolution of criminal justice such as courts, probation and prisons. I think that a single, Welsh integrated system of justice should be devolved. You need control of the entire judicial pipeline from operational policing, through to sentencing, and then to rehabilitation and justice. Leaving probation in the hands of the UK Government raises unanswered questions about privatisation, for example. What happens if we get policing devolved, but then have to try and integrate it ten years later with an outsourced probation system? I strongly hope that other submissions of evidence to Silk reflect the need for justice to be treated as one streamlined system in Wales, as it is in Scotland. Splitting it up and cherry picking parts of justice, presumably to not frighten Westminster MPs, will represent yet another typical Welsh compromise. This is the same kind of compromise that lumbered us with the LCO system.

The irony of this is that David Hanson said in his radio interview yesterday that “what matters is what works”. This is a mantra that Tony Blair used to use to justify privatisation. As a piece of technocratic jargon it’s impossible to disagree with. It is also suspicious that Hanson, in his interview, kept raising issues that in reality are not major obstacles.

In particular, he raised the issue of counter-terrorism. Let us make one thing absolutely clear. National security and counter-terrorism are reserved powers in Scotland, and are not devolved. The UK Home Secretary, according to the Home Office website, has a counter-terrorism remit for England, Wales and Scotland, and has a specific project aimed at security for the upcoming Glasgow Commonwealth Games. The same applies to the UK Border Agency and the Serious Organised Crime Agency. We could choose to establish a Welsh agency to complement SOCA, as Scotland has done, or we could choose not to do that. Scottish Governments have chosen to create specialist units looking at e-crime, money-laundering and organised drugs crime, but SOCA also has an office of its own in Scotland. We could undertake whatever arrangements were most appropriate for Wales.

When Glasgow Airport suffered a terrorist attack in 2007, the UK-level agencies responded. The Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond and Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill got to sit on the UK COBRA emergency committee. Both the UK and Scottish responses to that incident were strong and confident, and we will all remember Alex Salmond’s defence of multicultural and tolerant Scotland. We hope that no such events will ever happen in Wales. But the right preparations are completely compatible with devolution. We may even be able to enhance our prevention of extremism and terrorism efforts through social policy and community safety. Agreements can also be made between the devolved Welsh police and the British Transport Police and Ministry of Defence police, as has also happened in Scotland.  As a Plaid Cymru Minister I would ensure that this UK-wide co-operation remains solid and under constant review. The last thing we need is these important issues being used as an excuse to try and stop the democratic empowerment of Wales.

I look forward to this debate developing and moving forward. But it’s clear that there is a lot more work to be done before we have a progressive Welsh consensus on policing. This will not come easily, but we are definitely on the right track, and it is thanks to Plaid Cymru that we’ve now got this issue to the top of the agenda.