I beg to move,
That this House has considered the potential merits of the devolution of justice to Wales.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Cadeirydd—thank you very much, Mr Vickers; it is an honour to serve with you in the Chair. I am pleased to have secured this debate on the potential merits of the devolution of justice to Wales.
Wales, of course, has its own distinct legal history dating back to the laws of Hywel Dda, prior to the Acts of Union in the 16th century. In spite of the fact that many of us enjoy talking about Welsh history immensely, I am not here to make the case for devolution by looking into the past. I am here today because of the potential for a better future and because the case for devolution of justice is self-evident for those who care to look. It is a permanent question seeking an answer in the constitutional landscape of the United Kingdom, and I believe this to be irrefutable, whether the matter is approached from a Welsh viewpoint or from a Westminster viewpoint: that is an important point to make.
It has been more than eight years since the Silk commission recommended devolving police and youth justice to Wales, although those powers were not incorporated into the Wales Act 2017. It has been three years since the Thomas commission on justice in Wales published its report in October 2019, setting out a long-term vision for the future of justice in Wales. The Thomas commission produced 78 different recommendations on how Wales can have a justice system fit for the 21st century, the central one being the devolution of justice and policing and the creation of a separate Welsh legal jurisdiction. To quote the report directly,
“the people of Wales are being let down by the system in its current state. Major reform is needed to the justice system and to the current scheme of devolution.”
The weight of evidence is behind devolution. There is a growing consensus across civil society, academia, the Welsh legal profession and justice workers in the system that this needs to move ahead. That consensus is also to be found at the political level. All of Wales’s police and crime commissioners have said that the devolution of justice and policing is the next logical step. All the representatives of the justice unions who speak here and who also speak with the Senedd are engaged with how matters could be dealt with better if justice were devolved—that is the point of devolution: how the outcomes could be better. A majority of Members of the Senedd support the devolution of justice, as outlined in the Welsh Labour Government’s co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru, which is a year old this week.
Despite having a Parliament and a Government, a legislature and an Executive, Wales is a nation without its own legal system and courts. For a nation with 22 years of policy making characterised by the values of social justice, equality and community strength, Wales can only stand by and watch the Westminster Government impose fundamentally different values through the arc of the criminal justice policy. Imagine if Wales had policy control over that arc, from crime to arrest—namely, policing—and prosecution, and then from sentencing to imprisonment and probation. Imagine that the Government of Wales had even the powers equivalent to those held—wait for it—by the Mayors of Greater London and Manchester. This is in stark contrast to Scotland and Northern Ireland, and it is unheard of internationally. When the Minister responds, could he tell us of any other examples of nations that have their own Executive and legislature but no judiciary? Does he honestly believe that this is the best way to structure an effective justice system?
The response by the UK Government to the Thomas commission was characterised by a combination of “Westminster knows best” and funding scaremongering. Here we had a former Lord Chief Justice in Lord John Thomas of Cwmgiedd, heading up an expert commission whose work across two years included a vast amount of evidence from across Wales. That extensive overview and analysis of justice in Wales was dismissed out of hand by the UK Government, who did not even bother to formally respond.
Not content with being told no by Westminster, we in Wales have instead been doing what we have had to do all along: building the institutional frameworks and capacity, piece by piece, so that we are ready for proper control and responsibility over justice. The unification of the Welsh tribunals, which put them on a proper footing, is in effect creating a nascent justice institution, which could in turn be the basis for the transfer of the courts to Wales. We are developing our capacity properly to scrutinise the operation of justice in Wales. At present, the Senedd’s Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee—the clue is in the name—undertakes the work of three committees in one. We are also addressing that capacity through the expansion of the Senedd, which again is thanks to Plaid Cymru’s co-operation agreement with Welsh Labour.
On my right hon. Friend’s earlier point about tribunals, the seven administrative tribunals that operate in Wales are in a sense Welsh bodies, but control from Westminster—from Whitehall, actually—is very strong. That point was made when the tribunals were set up: Whitehall runs them and has the final responsibility.
We will look at areas where there has been a little moving ahead on other aspects of the courts that have been proposed in Wales.
In that respect, I refer to a groundbreaking new book by Dr Robert Jones and Professor Richard Wyn Jones of Cardiff University, entitled “The Welsh Criminal Justice System: On the Jagged Edge”. It is a rigorous and thoughtful analysis of criminal justice in Wales. Indeed, it is the first of its kind, because the evidence is only now beginning to become available, and at present we have only a snapshot. I think that all will agree that, if we are looking for an evidence-based system, we do not want a snapshot: we must be able to track trends and developments over time. That is one of my key asks of the Minister, to which I hope he will be able to respond anon. The book presents a thorough overview of how justice operates in Wales, and shows why devolution is a vital step for aligning policy, values and legislative powers. As I have already said, that is the case for Northern Ireland and Scotland, and also to a degree for Greater Manchester and London. It is not possible to over-emphasise that inconsistency.
Justice in Wales is currently controlled at Westminster, but the Senedd controls key devolved services that are just as important for the delivery of justice. That has created what Lord Thomas originally called the “jagged edge”—a jagged edge of intersecting competences and responsibilities. That results in serious disadvantages, which include financial and opportunity costs; a lack of coherent, joined-up policy making; and an overly complex system that leads to a lack of understanding of how justice operates in Wales.
The Cardiff University book lays out how outcomes in Wales are particularly poor. When English and Welsh data are disaggregated, we see that Wales performs even worse than England, which is one of the worst performers in Europe. The figure that we will keep coming back to is imprisonment. England and Wales have the highest imprisonment rates in Europe. Because of the disaggregated data, we now know that Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe. That fuels a cycle of poverty, as well as health and mental health problems. Wales has higher violent crime and conviction rates than England. Black people are six times more likely to be in prison than their white counterparts. Nearly half of Welsh children who are imprisoned are detained in England, far from their homes and family support, and court closures have restricted access to justice across whole swathes of rural Wales. The lack of coherent policy making is one of the key features of the jagged edge, and it is the people in the system—and the communities from which they come and to which they return—who lose out.
First, let us take the case of women in the justice system in Wales. Welsh Women’s Aid notes that the women in the prisoner population, and those in contact with the police and other related services, are far more likely than men to have additional support needs such as mental health diagnoses, a history of drug and alcohol abuse, and homelessness, or to have experienced violence, domestic abuse and/or sexual violence. Importantly, the Welsh Government, with the backing of the Senedd, have a specific policy to reduce the number of women entering custody, given their vulnerability. That is a piece of policy extant in Wales from our Senedd and our Government. However, the aim comes crashing down against the reality of how the criminal justice system operates in Wales and the differing Westminster policy in relation to putting more people into prison.
There are no women’s prisons in Wales. Welsh women are sent most often to either His Majesty’s Prison Eastwood Park in Gloucestershire or HMP Styal in east Cheshire, which are tens or hundreds of miles away from their support networks, and getting to these prisons, particularly by public transport, is extremely difficult. Given that roughly 50% of women prisoners are also mothers, the effect of such distance on the mental health of those women and their children, and on the outcomes for the children, must not be underestimated.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing the debate. She makes important points about the detention of women, and I know that the Ministry of Justice has sought to discuss the issue, negotiate and open facilities in various local authorities. My constituency was a consideration at one time, but no suitable accommodation could be found. Is that not an example of the Ministry of Justice seeking to answer the issues that have been raised? Local authorities themselves are rejecting it.
I will return to that later, but because the right hon. Gentleman has raised the point, I will engage with it now as well. There is a residential unit in planning for one area of Wales, but we really need to know exactly which services will be there. Will it effectively be a small-scale prison, or will it actually offer the services that women need? We also need to know what the interface will be between the devolved service and the reserved provision. That is a very timely point, because it has just become apparent at the private prison near Bridgend, HMP Parc, that the local authority has had to step in to take over social services there. Again, this ad hoc arrangement, the lack of clarity and the lack of scrutiny over who is providing what is resulting in bad outcomes, which is why the debate is so timely.
It is evident that there are not many of us in this room. That is actually part of the issue, because Westminster will concentrate on where the loudest majority issues are. However, there is a phenomenon in Wales: the disconnect. Frankly, if this is the best we can do in relation to the disconnect with the highest imprisonment rates in western Europe, we must consider looking at the issue in an alternative way.
My right hon. Friend is being very generous and I will pipe down after this, as I hope to speak in the debate. Another small example is when we were campaigning for a prison for north Wales some years ago. We almost got a prison, which would have been a community facility, for the 600 or so men from north Wales who are imprisoned. We also campaigned for units for women and for young people who are held, contrary to the regulations, further than 50 miles away from their homes. What we actually got from Westminster was a 2,000-man super-prison in Wrexham, which does not serve the needs of local people.
Again, I will return to that. This is not just a matter of serving the needs of Wales. Sending thousands of prisoners miles away from home—men or women—does not serve the vast majority of those prisoners well either. If we want a joined-up magic connection with housing, work and maintaining kinship, family and friendship connections, which we know are the routes to successful rehabilitation, we should not send prisoners hundreds of miles away from where they will return, because those links will not be made, be they back home in Wales or in communities in England.
I am encouraged by what the right hon. Lady said. When we look across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, there are two examples of where it has happened: Northern Ireland and Scotland. Surely those are examples of what has worked, and Wales should have the same opportunity as Northern Ireland and Scotland for the benefit of those in Wales.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I am honoured that Members from across parties are pointing out the inconsistency that we are experiencing in Wales.
The UK Government’s prison population projections from 2021 to 2026 anticipate that prisoner numbers in the England and Wales conglomeration will rise to 98,500 by March 2026. Those are extraordinary figures. As part of that increase, the Ministry of Justice anticipates that the number of adult female prisoners in England and Wales will increase by over a third—36%. Disaggregated data from Wales shows that the number of Welsh women in prison will likely increase from 227 to 308. Therefore, the provision that is being planned now for south-west Wales, although welcome—even to those of us who disagree that that number should be arriving in the system—is highly unlikely to deal with the numbers we are anticipating to arrive in the system.
Under the plans that took effect in May, the maximum prison sentence that can be handed out by magistrates has increased from six months to a year, which is also expected to contribute to a rise in prisoner numbers. Disaggregated sentencing data shows that the average custodial sentence length for women sentenced in Wales already increased from seven months in 2017 to 13.6 months in 2021. Although 23% of the Welsh female prison population was serving sentences of four years or more in 2019, that has increased to 29% in 2021. How does that align with the Welsh Government’s stated aim to reduce the number of Welsh women in prison? The answer, of course, is that it simply does not because there is no direct link between the very worthy policy, which most of us support, and the means to bring it about.
I am pleased that the UK Government are working with the Welsh Government to establish a pilot women’s residential centre in Wales as an alternative to custody, and my probation service in north Wales is doing very good work to the best of its ability on the ground, but the policy and structure that we have in place hinder it. In truth, the number of women supported will be small and focused in very specific areas of Wales. Therefore, my second question to the Minister is: given that overall incarceration of women from Wales will increase, does he honestly believe that to be coherent policy making for women in the criminal justice system in Wales? Particularly since the autumn statement, it looks likely that Departments such as the Ministry of Justice will have less capital money to spend in the long term. I wonder where that leaves the development of multiple women’s residential centres across Wales.
Another issue that shines the cold light of reality on the jagged edge is housing. Housing and the responsibility for preventing homelessness lie, as we all know, with the Welsh Government, and have done so for 22 years, but the policy aim is not properly aligned with the Westminster-controlled criminal justice system at present. The removal of priority need for prison leavers in the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 was driven by several factors, including low levels of housing stock and pressures on hard-working local authority staff in finding accommodation for prison leavers. It was, however, in part due to the inability of the Welsh Government to control or even influence the upstream factors that affect the rate and timing of demand for housing prison leavers. Even though prison leavers still get let out of prison on Fridays, they get no support at the weekend. The outcomes of that need proper scrutiny.
Those factors include the rapid rise in prison leavers from an ever-expanding prison population, the long distances from home addresses, which reduce the likelihood of prison leavers being able to receive support services, and the fact that Welsh prisoners are widely dispersed across England, making it hard to know when and where the demand will arise when they return to Wales. The same facts apply equally to English-address prisoners held in Welsh prisons. This is not looking at the justice experience just from a Welsh perspective but as a totality.
The right hon. Lady is looking at this from a purely nationalistic point of view, and I understand the motive behind that. Does she not accept that a prison in England could be closer to a prisoner in my constituency, and more appropriate than what she envisions in her purist approach, which is that the prison must be in Wales? If it were in north Wales, it would be four and half hours away.
With respect, there are a number of prisons close to the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I was emphasising that women are at present going to prisons in Gloucestershire or Cheshire. If we sent prisoners from south-east England to Parc or Berwyn, they too would be very distant from their homes. That is not an effective way to ensure rehabilitation.
That is a challenge that we need to address sensibly, but simply saying that a Welsh prisoner needs to stay in Wales is not sensible. If a Welsh prisoner needs to stay in Wales, must they travel four and half hours from north Wales to a prison in south Wales? We need to recognise the interconnectivity between Wales and England; 50% of the Welsh population live within 25 miles of the border.
With respect, the right hon. Gentleman is looking at the convenient location of prisons, rather than at justice outcomes, which is what I hope we look for in our scrutiny. It is not a matter of where people go; it is a matter of their coming back to the communities where they have committed crimes. I am looking at this not just from the point of view of those individuals and their families, although I hope the children of prisoners would certainly be our consideration, but from the point of view of the communities to which they return.
I hope we all aspire to effective rehabilitation. Yes, we penalise people by taking away their liberty, but when they return to the community, we hope that they are healthier than when they went to prison, have the opportunity for more education, are housed, can find work and have a stable family environment. That is all down to services, and there is a jagged edge where there is no interconnectivity between reserved and devolved powers.
To return to housing, since the removal in 2014 of priority need in Wales, there has been an increase in the number of prison leavers presenting as homeless. As we have mentioned, housing is a factor in the success or otherwise of rehabilitation. In the year 2019-20, fewer than half of those released from prison custody who were managed by probation services in Wales went into settled accommodation. However, simply reintroducing priority need for prison leavers is meaningless unless we have proper joined-up working between criminal justice and social services providers, as the local authority in Bridgend does.
I have emphasised the two issues of housing and women in the criminal justice system to highlight the illogical nature of the misaligned mishmash of powers and responsibilities, which leads to problems in the operation of justice in Wales. There are countless other examples I could have chosen from across the justice system: policing, probation, courts, education, health services, access to justice and the experience of victims in Wales.
The portrait of justice in Wales is so ill drawn that it can only be presumed that the Ministry of Justice assumes that no one is looking. We are at least looking today, but there is the important question: what is to be done? The Thomas commission proposed the devolution of justice responsibilities to
“enable the proper alignment of justice policy and spending with social, health, education and economic development policies in Wales, to underpin practical, long-term solutions; place justice at the heart of Government; enable clearer and improved accountability.”
Devolution of justice is not simply a nice thing to have, a policy toy to play with. It is essential if we want to build a better and fairer society. It is the only way truly to end the jagged edge and create a system that genuinely serves the people of Wales. It would also offer some protection against the attack on human rights and civil liberties that the UK Government have been undertaking, such as their curbing of protest rights through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022.
It is hard to see how the Welsh Government can develop any plans for a Welsh Bill of Rights without having full control over justice in Wales. I have tried to think from the opposing point of view, and there are three points that critics of what we propose might throw back at us. The first is the cost of devolution. When I spoke in the debate on the Thomas commission report three years ago, the Minister at the time claimed that the additional running costs would amount to £100 million per annum, but that is not even consistent with the evidence provided by the UK Government to the Thomas commission. Rather, the UK Government’s 2018 estimate was that the initial set-up costs associated with devolving justice—all right, at the time; fair enough—would amount to £101.5 million, with subsequent additional costs of some £37.5 million per annum.
Focusing on the additional financial costs involved for devolved Government, the Welsh Government estimated set-up costs of £13 million, with £10 million per annum of additional costs to follow. In other words, excluding set-up costs, the extra incremental cost of devolving justice would come to less than half the amount claimed by the justice Minister three years ago. That is in the context of an annual spend on justice functions in Wales of some £1.2 billion.
Moreover, while there would clearly be some additional costs involved in devolving justice, there are estimates that Wales would benefit financially if justice were devolved. Per capita spend on justice is lower in Wales than in England, but if justice were devolved, the operation of the Barnett formula would, over time, ensure that the amount in the Welsh budget derived from UK spending on justice in England equalised at the English per capita level—that is, it would be more.
While it would ultimately be up to the Senedd to decide how to allocate the extra resource, those funds would be available for spending on justice-related functions, such as crime prevention, tackling substance misuse and reducing homelessness. As it is, the Welsh Government are already putting money into funding extra police community support officers. There is an argument that people in Wales pay more for policing than people in England. This change would ensure better scrutiny, and that the money spent for Wales would be accounted for in Wales.
The potential to reduce homelessness gives an example of the real savings that could be made as a result of our reducing the negative outcomes of the justice system. The charity Crisis has estimated that
“people who experience homelessness for three months or longer cost on average £4,298 per person to NHS services, £2,099 per person for mental health services and £11,991 per person in contact with the criminal justice system.”
It is a matter of whose budget we look at to see the savings. They are not all siloed in one place.
As Lord Thomas himself noted in evidence to the Senedd last year, devolution presents a great opportunity for Wales; we could
“take advantage of Wales’s relatively small size and its lack of a vast metropolis to see if you can mould the workings of the bodies together to produce a coherent policy that is designed for the needs of Wales, rather than the needs of a much bigger country with very different potential problems.”
When it comes to the operation of justice in Wales, small really is beautiful, flexible and community focused.
Let me move to the second point I anticipate being used to counter what we propose. Advocates for the status quo might say, “We need better funding for the system.” That does not account for the structural issues at play here. Yes, fair and proper funding for Wales is vital for the operation of justice, but as I have highlighted, different policy decisions in Wales and Westminster are creating unavoidable tensions and failures, which money alone cannot solve.
There are two structures in play, and they are pulling in different directions. For example, even in the years of austerity in the 2010s, under a devolved system, the Welsh Government might well have chosen not to close so many courts or pursue the absurd privatisation of probation. We could have made different policy choices, even in the context of reduced funding.
The last Labour general election manifesto sadly rolled back from implementing the Thomas report, citing that it was a case for only reversing austerity rather than pursuing devolution to Wales. Therefore, cautiously, I ask the shadow Front Bench to recommit fully to implementing the Thomas commission report, just as they committed to doing so in their previous manifesto in 2017. If they will not, the question is whether the Labour party is intent on undermining its Labour colleagues in the Senedd.
Thirdly, other advocates of the status quo point out that it is not further devolution that we need, but better joined-up working between the Ministry of Justice and Welsh Government officials. However, even experienced MOJ officials in Wales are often overridden by their superiors in London, through policy decisions that often have no thought about Wales. There are agreements in place between the MOJ and Welsh Government, such as the concordat published in 2018 to establish a framework for co-operation between the MOJ and Welsh Government. However, in practice, such agreements do not work properly. As my hon. Friend the Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) showed when he questioned Ministers about the memorandum in the context of the development of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, it was unclear whether the UK Government followed the concordat and consulted properly with the Welsh Government on the Act, in spite of the impact that so many of the changes to policing and justice would have on devolved policies and competences.
Where UK and Welsh Government are aligned on justice matters, progress is slow. For instance, the Thomas commission recommended that problem-solving courts be established across Wales to promote alternatives to custody and tackle root causes of offending. The UK Government are piloting problem-solving courts, but not one is in Wales. It is in the Welsh Government’s justice work plan to pursue the establishment of a court. Can the Minister tell us what recent engagement he has had with the Welsh Government on establishing problem-solving courts in Wales?
The Welsh element of justice will always be an afterthought. My hon. Friends the Members for Arfon, and for Ceredigion (Ben Lake), run after Ministers saying, “Have you thought of this? Have you consulted on that?” The answer almost invariably is a bland no. Then, we find that we have to catch up.
On accountability, the mechanisms and institutions of the English and Wales system do not properly engage with the Welsh part. Let us take the Lammy report—a landmark report on racial disparities in justice. There is no real engagement on how devolved services interact with the justice system in Wales, or exploration of the Welsh content. The specific needs of Wales are drowned out on the Justice Committee. The Welsh Affairs Committee has sought to scrutinise the effect of the interface between reserved and devolved matters.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for making some points about racial injustice. Does she share my frustration that the Welsh Government chose not to be part of the race equality audit established by the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), to provide a baseline of evidence? There were active invitations and efforts made to encourage the Welsh Government to participate, so that we could establish whether the same problems existed in Wales, and they chose not to. That runs contrary to the right hon. Lady’s statement that Wales is an afterthought.
Order. I remind hon. Members that interventions limit the time available for other Members to speak.
Thank you, Mr Vickers. I am drawing to a close. We have data for Wales. Black imprisonment rates are shocking. The Welsh Affairs Committee undertook a 2019 inquiry on the prison system in Wales, but it is not a specialist Committee, and its inquiries cannot and should not take the place of a full holistic overview of justice and the intersecting devolved services under the remit of the Senedd.
That leads us to the disaggregation of data—the teasing apart of the English-centric statistics that is necessary if we are to observe what is happening in Wales. Outcomes are particularly poor in Wales, and we know that the jagged edge exists, but we cannot properly explain trends in the justice system if the right data is not in place. Cardiff University has revealed disparities in imprisonment rates between England’s most and least deprived areas. Meanwhile, disaggregated data has shown that Wales recorded a higher rate of imprisonment. The link between poverty and imprisonment is clear, yet we do not know the degree to which that is true in Wales due to the lack of trends in Wales-specific data. This raises the question of how the MOJ can claim to make evidence-based policy for Wales. I raised that point in a Westminster Hall debate two years ago, yet we are in exactly the same position today, with no regular reporting of Wales-specific justice data. My major ask to the Minister, therefore, is to finally begin regularly publishing disaggregated criminal justice data for Wales, so that we have a proper overview.
To close, there are those who will argue for a piecemeal approach to devolution, but that, to me, will simply exacerbate the jagged edge by creating an even more complex, byzantine palimpsest of a system. If we—I include the Welsh Labour Government in this—want a transformational approach to justice in Wales, piecemeal reform will be tokenistic and on track to fail. Policing and justice, I propose, should be devolved in their entirety to Wales.
Order. Members should note that I intend to call the SNP spokesman at 10.28 am, which limits contributions to three to four minutes each, if I am to get everyone in.
Thank you for calling me to contribute, Mr Vickers. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) on securing the debate. It is unfortunate that we have such limited time, but I will try to canter through some of the key points that I want to make.
I approach this debate as an advocate for devolution and as the former Secretary of State who took the Wales Act 2017 through Parliament. It is hard to believe that in 2010 our inheritance from the last Labour Government was the legislative competence order system, whereby the Welsh Assembly had to ask permission to pass legislation in any particular area. It is worth remembering how far we have moved from the system between 2010 and today, when we have a full law-making Parliament in Cardiff Bay. I hope that sets out the context for my remarks.
During the development of the Wales Act 2017, it was clear that some were determined to devolve justice, irrespective of the evidence from within the profession that did not support that devolution. We agreed to disagree with the Welsh Government in the end, with the First Minister specifically saying that he would revisit the matter. The only conclusion I could draw was that the political elite wish to see the devolution of justice, rather than the issue being raised on the doorstep, or forming part of a campaign from those in the profession or our constituents, who really wish for genuine improvement in this area. That is not to say that improvements do not need to be made—they do—but there have not been calls for devolution of the issue, other than from the political elite.
I also note that the Commission on Justice in Wales was established by a devolved institution on a reserved policy matter. Imagine if the UK Government decided to have a commission on health or education in Wales—devolved policy areas—without there being equal and active engagement with the other party. That demonstrates that the political elite are driving this agenda, rather than this being something that is demanded.
The right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd based her claim around genuine problems that need addressing. I am not denying that there are challenges in the system. We all remember the challenges in Wales—it could be said that they are even greater partly as a result of the intervention by the Welsh Government, who closed down the courts during covid when they were still functioning in England. That is an example where the Welsh Government have sought to influence justice in a negative way.
The right hon. Lady said that devolution of justice is a chance for Wales to have better outcomes. If I wanted to be flippant, I would point to the outcomes in health and education; sadly, our waiting times are longer, and our education outcomes certainly have not improved, as they have across England and Scotland in the past decade or more.
The key point I want to make in the limited time I have is about the importance of the industry that is the legal system operating between Wales and England. Extremely profitable large law firms based in Cardiff form part of an ecosystem that develops businesses, often from the City of London or other parts of the United Kingdom. Functions and professional legal expertise are provided in Cardiff, creating some of the most highly paid jobs in a desired legal profession, creating career opportunities and allowing people to move inside and outside Wales to develop their business model. Some of those firms have office spaces in the City of London and attract the business of the City, and the functions are then conducted in Cardiff. Devolving justice to the Welsh Government and to Wales would really undermine those business models. Those are the businesses that the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd should talk to.
The right hon. Gentleman made the claim earlier that this is a matter of the elite calling for change, and then he makes an argument for elite lawyers in Cardiff.
I would like to see more elite lawyers in Cardiff, because raises gross value added and creates career opportunities for Welsh people, wherever they come from.
During the negotiations on the Bill that became the Wales Act 2017, I received representations from some of the most senior lawyers in England and Wales, who were very concerned about the agenda of devolving justice and the damage that would cause to the sector.
Where does the right hon. Gentleman think our priorities should lie—the business models of law firms or justice for people living in the communities of Wales?
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for the question, but I do not think they are mutually exclusive. We can address the injustices that the right hon. Lady has raised—those genuine challenges need to be addressed, and I look forward to the Minister’s response—but that should not undermine the large employment numbers, the well-paid positions and the career progression that is provided for people, certainly from my constituency, who work in law firms in Cardiff and south Wales. Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd called for the development of that cluster, but the right hon. Lady’s proposals would do nothing but undermine it.
I call Hywel Williams. Four minutes if you could, Mr Williams.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. My right hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) has made a forceful and detailed argument. I support her questions, and I hope we get some answers.
Justice sticks out like a sore thumb as one of Westminster’s biggest devolution failures. Despite later devolution, and the change to a Scottish-style system, London has hung on to justice. Our Senedd now passes laws but it does not control the justice system, the courts or the prisons. Nor does it control the police, although between them local authorities and the Welsh Government provide about 60% of the funding for the police. Again, they have responsibility without power. As my right hon. Friend pointed out, our Senedd is a legislature without its own jurisdiction—the only one I know of in the world.
A lot of public services that make the justice system work are the responsibility of our Government in Cardiff— again, responsibility without power. Even if our public policy changes because of the decisions of our democratically elected Government in Cardiff, that need not follow through to justice. Health, mental health, education, housing, social services, the economy and employment might all improve in one direction, but justice need not change. Those are just some of the services we need to get the criminal justice system to work properly and to ensure that as few people as possible break the law and end up in prison. If they do offend, such services are crucial in getting them back on the straight and narrow. There is a huge hole in the middle of our justice system, which might be one reason why the system in Wales is clearly worse than anywhere else in Great Britain.
My right hon. Friend referred to “The Welsh Criminal Justice System: On the Jagged Edge” by Jones and Wyn Jones, which is an excellent publication that I would recommend to Conservative Back Benchers. Eastwood Park has prisoners from Wales and from England. According to Jones and Wyn Jones, the rate of recidivism—further offending—by the English prisoners is one in 10, but for the Welsh prisoners it is nine in 10. That hugely stark fact points to the problem. I visited Eastwood Park and talked to a prisoner from Aberystwyth who told me she was not going to have any visits, because the hike from Aberystwyth down to Eastwood Park was too much for her young family. That is the sort of system that we have.
I want briefly to note an historical example of the discontinuity between what Wales wants and what is public policy in Wales, and what we actually get. I hope Members will forgive me for going back as far as 2007, when I tried—as I did later under a Tory Government—to introduce a small but significant reform to the jury system in Wales, to fit in with how things really are in terms of the Welsh language and to allow for bilingual juries.
The Juries Act 1974 is clear that juries should understand the evidence as directly as possible. If members of the jury do not understand English, the judge will bar them. There is no such qualification for Welsh. A matter of principle is at stake. The principle of a language qualification for juries is already conceded for English. However, in Wales, if a young person or a child is giving evidence in Welsh, there is no guarantee that the jury will understand the evidence as directly as possible, as would be the case if the child was speaking English. A wrongdoer might get off or an innocent person might be found guilty, not on the evidence but on how it was heard. My private Member’s Bill would have brought some sense to that system, and I recommend it to the Minister.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) on securing the debate. I listened intently to what she said because the issues that drive the debate are vital.
I will be quick because of the limited time I have, and I hope colleagues will forgive me if I do not take many interventions. On behalf of residents and communities in Aberconwy, I thank our policemen and women for all they do each day to keep our communities safe. In April, I highlighted the astonishing work of the North Wales Police intercept team, which was set up to clamp down on organised crime and drug dens throughout north Wales. The team uses innovative technology to intercept and disrupt criminals, making north Wales a hostile environment for crime groups to operate in. In the last fortnight alone, the team has helped to secure the hugely significant conviction of the leader of a county lines network operating between Merseyside and north Wales and to seize considerable amounts of cash and class A drugs. I also thank the new chief constable, Amanda Blakeman, for her work with me in recent weeks on responding to community concerns about the opening of a hotel for asylum seekers in a rural village in the south of my constituency.
I will not miss an opportunity to thank and pay tribute to the police when they do that kind of good work, but that is not my sole motive for highlighting their work and successes today. County lines and the wider trade in controlled substances across north Wales are a cross-border issue that operates on an east-west axis. The point has been made well by others that one danger of the argument being made in this debate is that it focuses on a Wales only, built in Wales, made for Wales and by Wales approach. We have seen the weakness of such an approach in transport, where Wales is deeply integrated east to west with England. There is no economic driver for a north-south rail link, for example, but there is plenty of demand for east-west rail links.
We see such parallels time and again. Wales cannot consider that it sits in isolation, so my first point is about integration. The right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd says there is no legal system in Wales, but there is. [Interruption.] Despite Members’ protestations from a sedentary position, the UK’s legal system applies in Wales, as it properly should, given that Wales is part of the United Kingdom.
One highlight of my job—perhaps the greatest—is being back in my constituency each week speaking with residents, but I do not recall the issue of devolving justice once being raised with me. I do not recall a single email, phone call or letter raising the issue. In fact, I suspect that, once we excluded conversations with fellow politicians and political activists, most hon. Members present would recognise that the prominence this issue has with their constituents is very low indeed. The fact that there are only a few Members here suggests that this is more of a conversation among academics and politicians than a pressing concern to residents.
I would also mention the question of money, because, quite simply, this debate is an answer to a question that is not being asked by residents, and an expensive answer. It is important to mention money, although I do not think money is the only rationale. If this issue has value and importance, as the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd rightly suggests, it is important that we pay the money necessary. However, my point is about value. If these eye-watering sums—£100 million was the estimate of the Silk Commission—are to be paid out, we must see the impact of that and value for it. We might ask the same question about the Welsh Government’s fascination with paying out £100 million to have additional Senedd Members. Again, that is an answer to a question that is not being asked.
If I had time, I would draw attention to some of the problems that Wales has in other areas of its public services. However, I will conclude by saying that, while the right hon. Member highlights that Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe, the reasons are complex. To suggest that the devolution of justice is the solution is to prioritise managing a symptom over addressing the cause. That cannot be right and, for that reason, I resist, at present, these arguments for the devolution of justice to Wales.
If the remaining three speakers could limit themselves to three minutes, we can just about get them in.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. I would not normally speak on Welsh affairs, but having been asked to contribute—indeed with some consent—and taking into account the fact that I contributed to the previous commission and have met trade unions and federations about this issue, I would make the point that it does not relate to the constitution as such; it relates to the administration of justice. That is the perspective from which I am coming, and I support it. It is for Wales’s to decide its constitutional future, but if it wants the best justice system it can have, it does have to take this step.
I have been listening to some of the discussion regarding prisons. One of first things the SNP did on justice when we came in in 2007 was to implement a whole-systems approach. We recognise—it will be the same thing, but with a different name and a different vocabulary, in England and Wales—that behind every troubled child there is invariably a troubled family. If we are going to sort out that child, that cannot be done simply by the justice system. It requires the involvement of education, health and employment. As it was, we made significant reductions in child offending and child imprisonment in Scotland—changes I am very proud of. That is because there was synergy and integration.
That comes to the question of prisons. We had significant problems with prisoners being released on a Friday. Very few prisoners are a bus ride from their home. By the time they got home, the GP was shut, so they were not able to get a prescription. They appeared in court the following Monday having committed another offence, and on the Monday evening they were back in the prison they had left. We have to break that. Of course, we give discretion to prison governors to release people early, but we need to bring together health, employment and education. Ultimate responsibility for keeping people secure until they are released has to be with the Prison Service, but all those agencies need to work together. That is why we need that synergy.
Equally, I understand that laws remain reserved to Westminster, but devolved jurisdictions can still make significant changes, and we did that too in Scotland, which is something I am proud of. We changed and brought in legislation against air weapons and we reduced the drink-driving limit. Air weapons were a significant problem in Scotland. People has been not only shooting animals but killing children. People wanted action. The UK did not wish to act, but the powers were given to us, and we now ensure that people have a licence for an air weapon. Not one political party would roll that back in Scotland. That would be for Wales and the rest of the UK to decide, but nobody in Scotland would support that.
Similarly, we are coming to the festive period, and we have reduced the drink-driving limit in Scotland. I was told that, on the border, it would be a disaster; people would not know which jurisdiction they were in. Well, I spoke to the chief constables, who simply said, “We’ll put up a big sign: ‘Welcome to Scotland. This is the side of the road you drive on, and this is the drink-driving limit.’” No political party in Scotland will go into any election with a manifesto arguing that we should increase the drink-driving limit. Indeed, I think the pressure has to be about giving us the powers.
Even though the laws may remain at Westminster, we can make significant changes. It might not be on those two issues, but there will be issues that matter in Wales on which a significant change can be made, albeit without changing the fundamental structure, with power retained here and the law, as such, across the UK.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Vickers. I thank the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) for leading today’s debate.
As a politician representing Northern Ireland, I clearly appreciate the importance of devolution and its contribution to this great United Kingdom, and that is why I am present in today’s debate, despite it relating to Wales. I want to speak about Northern Ireland and to tell Members what we have done and how it has worked for us. Devolution is all about locality and co-operation between our local Parliaments and Westminster, so it is great to be here to reinforce that importance and explain why the right hon. Lady’s contribution is significant and cannot be ignored.
When the Welsh Parliament was established in 1999, it was not intended to be a Government body, hence the lack of devolution relating to justice. Since then, we have seen the devolution of some matters to the Welsh Senedd, but justice remains solely under Westminster control. In Northern Ireland and Scotland, justice is very much devolved, and I will give some examples from Northern Ireland of how devolved justice can be and has been successful. It has been successful for us and, as the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) said, for Scotland, so I think it can be equally successful for Wales.
We have our own Department of Justice in Northern Ireland, with the ability to pass and amend laws, and we have our own Minister of Justice and a policing board, which integrates members of all communities in Northern Ireland. It is possible to do that, and we have done it and done it well. The Department covers all aspects of the justice system—most notably policing and community justice.
Community safety is critical for any country, and I believe that that heightens the calls to devolve justice to Wales, which is what the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd requested, and others backed her in that. While police officers answer to the Home Office in England, the division of powers perhaps makes it difficult to align the justice system in its totality with matters that Wales does have a say over, such as health and education.
Since 2009-10, the UK Government’s day-to-day spending on public services has decreased significantly in real terms, with UK Ministry of Justice spending falling by 40%, and the Home Office’s by around 25%, which puts further pressure on the Welsh Administration. For the safety of the people of Wales, which is absolutely key, it is important that they have more of a say in the funding of their own justice system, giving them the scope to allocate their own budget to their own justice system.
On justice matters such as drug abuse or mental health, there should be collaboration with the Welsh health system, but I imagine that that can become increasingly difficult. There are potentially large benefits to devolving justice to Wales, which the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd tried to illustrate. If we look at the success of the justice Departments of Northern Ireland and Scotland, we can see that a local, joint understanding of tackling crime is indeed the way forward.
To conclude—I am working within the timescale that you suggest, Mr Vickers—I understand the right hon. Lady’s frustrations about why justice has not been devolved yet—but it should be. Perhaps the Government will consider looking at that in the future. Perhaps today’s debate will start that discussion. As mentioned earlier, the devolution of justice certainly makes the running of the criminal and judicial systems in Northern Ireland much smoother. There is also a greater understanding of how the system works when the people running the system were brought up in that environment. We already have that in Northern Ireland and Scotland, and we also need it for Wales.
I look forward to keeping up with developments on this issue. It is great that we can all represent different regions within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and at the same time understand the importance and success of devolution. We all want devolution—the Government are committed to it—so let us see it in action in the justice system for Wales.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) not just on securing this important debate, but on finding a topic that manages to unite not just Plaid Cymru and the SNP, but also the SNP, the Alba party and the Democratic Unionist party—
And the Labour party, indeed. That is quite a set of Venn diagrams to pull together.
Before I get to my in-depth remarks, I will address the commonality of the remarks made by the right hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) and the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar). We heard that the debate was on a rarefied topic—the preserve of politicians, academics and the political elite—and that it was all airy-fairy, fey and far removed from the doorsteps of the communities they represent. Obviously, I do not spend a huge amount of time canvassing in either of their constituencies, but I would venture to say that, just like my constituents, theirs are probably very concerned with justice matters and with outcomes.
If this debate is about anything, it is surely about how the best outcomes can be achieved and how the current set-ups, boundaries and the jagged edge, of which we have heard so much, militates against that. This morning, we have heard from a former Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice, the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill), about the benefits that come not just from the separate and distinct nature of the Scottish justice system, but from how the powers of devolution have been used to adapt to particular demands in order to achieve those outcomes, whether those were improved road safety through reducing the drink-drive limit or tackling the menace of air weapons before they were licensed. I could even speak about how the problem of endemic knife crime in west-central Scotland was tackled by adopting a public health approach, which is now being followed in certain measures by the authorities in London. That would not have been possible were it not for the integration not just between the healthcare system and the social services ecosystem, but between the justice system and the policing system.
I commend the hon. Member on his point. I had the privilege of speaking with John Carnochan at the time about that policy switch in Glasgow to treating knife crime as a public health matter. That speaks exactly to the point I made in my contribution. Does he not think that attention should be focused on the underlying causes, which is where people’s interest lies, rather than on constitutional jiggery-pokery?
Of course the underlying problems ought to be tackled, but I suggest the point at issue is how to tackle them and how best to bring to bear the various agencies of the state and the third sector to change that behaviour, rather than sticking a flag on top and saying that this is not something that people in devolved institutions should worry their pretty little heads about.
The devolution of justice has been supported by the Welsh Labour Government through the co-operation agreement signed with colleagues in Plaid Cymru. It follows the central recommendation of the 2019 Commission on Justice in Wales.
My point here is quite a simple one: even in a devolved settlement, there are some powers that naturally sit together. We would not dream of trying to set policies for economic development without looking at education, training and investment in people. We could all hopefully see through the pandemic, even if it was not glaringly apparent before, that the NHS and social care sectors must be considered side by side to ensure we live fulfilled lives and that people are always treated in the most appropriate care settings for their needs. Therefore, I find it somewhat baffling—albeit from the context of being a Scottish politician, as there has always been a distinct and separate Scottish legal system—that we would not consider there to be a disconnect in governance when powers over social aspects are held in devolved Wales and the justice elements are controlled at the other end of the M4.
To take up that point about the disconnect in governance, a sideswipe was taken at proposals to increase the number of Members of the Senedd. I think that needs to be seen in the context of the current boundary commission proposals and the obligation placed on the Boundary Commission for Wales to reduce the number of Welsh seats at Westminster from 40 to 32. At a time when Westminster interest in Welsh affairs is going to diminish significantly, surely it is right to bolster the ability to scrutinise the justice system in the round in Wales.
That lack of control over, and scrutiny of, policing and the justice system from Wales is precisely the issue. Not only is having an executive and legislature without a judiciary anomalous when compared with other countries; as we have heard, it has led to that jagged edge of intersecting competencies and responsibilities between the reserved justice system and key devolved services and institutions. That results in serious disadvantages, including a lack of coherent and accountable policymaking across the jurisdictions, an inability to allocate spending in a co-ordinated manner, and needless complexity that leads to a waste of resources and a lack of understanding of how the system operates.
We can see those disadvantages in the outcomes that I mentioned earlier. It is fair to say that in Wales, those outcomes are particularly suboptimal. Wales has one of the highest rates of imprisonment in western Europe. That fuels a cycle of poverty, as well as mental and physical health problems. Nearly half of Welsh children who are placed in custody are detained in England, far from their homes and family support. There is a chronic lack of community provision for women, which also severs family connections.
It is over three years since the Commission on Justice in Wales published its report. Surely it is past time to take forward its central conclusion that justice should be devolved to Wales. Policies and political sentiment matter. The voice of the electorate matters here. With an increasingly populist and draconian UK Government making decisions on justice matters in Wales, attempts to build a more rehabilitative system—if that is what people want, and quite clearly that is what they are voting for at the ballot box—are always likely to be thwarted.
In conclusion, there is little doubt that, as it stands, the justice system as a whole in Wales—for all the best intent of the committed professionals who are working day in, day out to get the best outcomes that they can—is simply not achieving the outcomes that it should and could. This debate should not be about sticking a great big flag on top and saying, “This is not about the priorities of my constituents,” because constituents will be concerned with the outcomes. They will be less concerned with the structures, but they will certainly be concerned that the structures work and are in their best interests, not just for them but for their communities. This should very much be about what works. We can see what works in legislative and governance terms both in Northern Ireland and in Scotland. Surely it is time for us to consider how best Wales could follow in that direction.
Thank you, Mr Vickers, for the chance to respond to this debate. I pay tribute to all who have contributed. It is not lost on me that the debate is happening today of all days, as we face England in the football. Yma o hyd. Pob lwc, Cymru. I am sure we are all behind the Wales football team this evening.
A fair and effective system is fundamental to any country, and 12 long years of this Tory Government have completely broken the justice system across England and Wales. When the Commission on Justice in Wales undertook that unprecedented examination of justice, its conclusion was unequivocal:
“the people of Wales are being let down”
by the justice system. Crime is high, charges are low, criminals are getting off and victims are being let down. With record court closures, a decade or more of cuts and crippling court backlogs, the UK Government’s inability to adapt to current pressures and to lead through a victim’s focus is letting every one of us down.
A survey by the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales revealed that less than half of victims would report to the police again due to their traumatic experiences. The former Victims’ Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird, said in her resignation letter that the
“downgrading of victims’ interests in the government’s priorities”
is appalling, and she criticised the UK Government.
That is not just our view; it is the view of victims too. My constituent Sarah, who reported being sexually abused by her doctor, had her truth misbelieved and mistrusted in court. She was stripped of her dignity in the witness box, and was subjected to vicious public humiliation and personal attacks in the so-called pursuit of justice. She told me:
“I felt like I was being publicly beaten and humiliated. I wouldn’t advise anyone to go through it”.
In Wales, many of the services are the responsibility of the Welsh Labour Government, yet the overarching justice system is at the mercy of this Tory Government. We must recognise the scale of the challenge we face. It is clear that the UK Government’s current approach is not working. They must work with the Welsh Labour Government to see how things can be managed in the future, and above all ensure that victims come first. We must focus not on where but on how justice is delivered.
The probation system in Wales was brought to its knees by a failed privatisation, based on the untested and untried payment by results system. The Tories were repeatedly warned that it would not work, but they persisted anyway. The Welsh Labour Government have done their best to mitigate the worst of the impact across the justice system, but the only solution is to have a UK Labour Government in Westminster working with a Welsh Labour Government in Wales.
The hon. Lady is making important points that obviously would need to be debated if there were time, but do the Labour Opposition in Westminster support the Welsh Government’s call for the devolution of justice? At the time of the development of the Wales Act 2017, they were opposed to it.
The right hon. Gentleman is getting ahead of himself, although I absolutely hope that there will be a UK Labour Government shortly. We in UK Labour are working closely in partnership, as we would in government, to ensure that the best justice system is focused not on where justice is delivered, but on how it is delivered. That is done in partnership, and the details must be worked out.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
That is absolutely not being delivered by this UK Government, who have systematically broken the criminal justice system. It is appalling. Day in, day out, I speak to victims who are suffering and traumatised, and who have been retraumatised by the justice system that this UK Tory Government are presiding over. Only one in 100 rapes recorded by the Welsh police resulted in a charge last year, let alone a conviction.
What is Labour’s position?
The right hon. Gentleman should listen, rather than chuntering away on the sidelines.
One victim, Rachel, told me:
“They didn’t treat me as a human being”,
as she relived her traumatic experiences in the justice system. She felt that the system was worse than the rape itself.
On International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the crime survey for England and Wales released its latest figures, showing that 1.7 women experienced domestic abuse in the past year alone, but everyone knows that the true number is much, much higher. According to figures reported by the BBC, about 60% of women in custody across the UK have experienced domestic abuse.
In May, the then Justice Minister, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins)—I have lost count of how many Justice Ministers we have had since—finally announced the pilot for the women’s residential centre in Swansea. That came four years after the Government originally announced it in their female offender strategy, even though they labelled it a priority, and the centre will not actually open until 2024. Across Wales, there are a total of zero female estates, and recent Cardiff University research shows that last year 218 Welsh women were sent to prisons in England.
This Conservative Government’s priorities have never been on the side of victims, and they continue to treat vulnerable women as an afterthought. Labour has long argued for facilities for vulnerable women with complex needs who would otherwise be sentenced to custody. They need a safe and secure facility that is fit for purpose, and that allows them to maintain contact with their families, especially their children. Shockingly, as the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) pointed out, Wales has more people in prison than almost anywhere in western Europe. All the evidence shows that a sentencing policy that is based heavily on punishment, deterrence and imprisonment is counterproductive.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I do not think there is time, sorry. Despite the Tories’ mishandling of justice, the Welsh Labour Government continue to pursue existing programmes of partnership working—for example the women’s justice and youth justice blueprints—to ensure that delivery is as good as it can be. Those arrangements require proper collaboration to achieve outcomes for the people of Wales.
Next spring, it will be eight years—and nine Secretaries of State—since the Conservatives promised to bring forward a victims’ Bill to strengthen rights and protections and deliver urgent change. As usual, this UK Government have been on the side of dither and delay, yet the issue could not be more urgent. Every day, more and more victims are failed by this Tory Government. Words are not good enough. They fall woefully short of the step change needed to ensure that there are better outcomes for victims of crime, which is what the people of Wales deserve.
A UK Labour Government, working in Westminster with a Welsh Labour Government in Wales, will repair the damage that the Conservatives have wreaked across our criminal justice system and beyond. We owe it to the people of Wales to do so much better.
I call the Minister, Mike Freer, and remind him to give the mover of the motion two minutes to wind up.
It has been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Vickers; I think this is your first outing in the Chair. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) on securing the debate, and am grateful for her significant contribution on justice in Wales over the past several years. I thank all hon. and right hon. Members for their contributions.
The right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd secured a previous Westminster Hall debate, which took place on 22 January 2020, on the report by the Commission on Justice in Wales, otherwise known as the Thomas commission, which was published in October 2019. It is inevitable that we have touched on many of the same issues today. In the intervening period, work on considering and, where appropriate, implementing the Thomas commission recommendations was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, but the right hon. Member has ensured that it remains a live issue for this House.
It will not come as a surprise that the Government’s position on the devolution settlement has not changed. We disagree with Lord Thomas and with the Welsh Government, and do not think that justice should be devolved. Indeed, the many challenges brought by the coronavirus pandemic demonstrated in a number of areas that the settlement is working well.
The Minister has provided a clear response, and we understand that the Government’s view is that we should not devolve justice. Does he understand Labour’s point of view on the issue? It seems to me that two different messages are coming from Cardiff Bay and from the Opposition in Westminster.
My right hon. Friend asked a very pertinent question and did not get a clear answer from the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin). My understanding is that the official Opposition do not support the devolution of justice—that is what I took from her speech.
Let me go back to what happened during the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic served to demonstrate that in a number of areas the settlement is working well. In fact, the justice system performed better in Wales than it did in England in several respects, and I will say more on that later. Among the key arguments made by those who support devolving justice to Wales is what they see as the principle that a holistic approach is required to ensure that policy objectives can be delivered effectively. Of course, we agree that policies on substance misuse, education, mental health and social welfare need to be aligned with measures to reduce reoffending and protect the public, which is the responsibility of Westminster, but the notion that justice must be devolved to achieve that is misplaced. The Ministry of Justice works closely with the Welsh Government to ensure that justice policies are aligned and that we take account of distinct Welsh needs.
On the specific point about the alignment between the UK Government, the Ministry of Justice and the Welsh Government, does the Minister accept that it is frustrating, as a Member representing a rural constituency, to have witnessed so many court closures in the past decade? The court closures were made without any clear consideration of the fact that there are no direct transport links, so people have quite literally lost access to justice. Does he understand my constituents’ frustration that, contrary to what some Members have said today, the system is not working in lockstep, is not co-ordinated and is not in alignment to ensure the right access to justice?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. For every community that is affected by a court closure, the judiciary and the MOJ have to take into account access to justice. My understanding is that the senior judiciary take that very seriously, but I understand the frustration that he vocalises.
The joint MOJ and Welsh Government blueprints on youth justice and female offenders are successful examples of the co-development of strategies across the devolution boundary. The women’s justice blueprint seeks to transform services for women in Wales, to help keep women and their communities safe and free from crime. A key aim is to reduce the number of women coming into the criminal justice system, while doing a better job of meeting the needs of those already in the system. Services are in place to support women in Wales at all stages of the criminal justice system, avoiding fragmented delivery and enabling greater consistency in the support that women receive. More than 2,075 women across Wales were referred to diversion support in the two and a half years from January 2020 to September 2022, and 2,700 women were referred to the women’s pathfinder whole system approach, which services south Wales and Gwent, over the same period. The service remained operational throughout the covid pandemic, providing support to women with complex needs at a time of increased vulnerability.
Improving family ties is an important part of the blue- print. Through joint HMPPS Wales and Welsh Government funding, a Visiting Mum service is being re-established in HMP Eastwood Park and HMP Styal to help ensure that Welsh mothers are able to maintain positive relationships with their children throughout their prison sentence. Collaboration between the Ministry of Justice and the Welsh Government has led to the procurement of a site for a new residential women’s centre in Swansea. That is a particularly important development for Wales, given that there is no women’s prison in Wales—a position that the Welsh Government support. The new centre will offer vulnerable women an opportunity to stabilise their lives, with a range of support and interventions designed to tackle the causes of their offending.
We worked closely with partners, including the Welsh Government, police and crime commissioners and local authorities, to identify a suitable location for the RWC. We are grateful for the support that we have received from Julie James, the Member of the Senedd for Swansea West, and others at a local level, but it is disappointing that after so much collaborative work, the application for planning permission was turned down last month, and we will now have to consider the next steps with our Welsh colleagues. However, there are other examples of where the justice devolution settlement is delivering for Wales.
I mentioned earlier that Welsh justice services performed well during the pandemic, often exceeding the performance seen outside Wales. A good example of that is the performance of the Welsh courts, where the MOJ, His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service and HMPPS worked together to keep the courts operating as effectively as possible. As a result, the magistrates courts in Wales were the first to recover to pre-pandemic levels in England and Wales.
During the passage of the Wales Act 2017, it was argued that it was necessary to devolve justice for Wales to operate properly as a legislature in its own right. In fact, we noted in the debate here in January 2020 that the 2017 Act ensures that the Senedd can make law on devolved matters, including the setting of criminal offences and other measures that enable the proper enforcement of its legislation. We have seen examples of where the Senedd has set its own legislative direction and introduced measures to enforce its policies. I again refer to the action taken by the Welsh Government during the pandemic.
Devolving justice would not simplify the system in a divergent landscape. It would simply shift the so-called jagged edge, to use Lord Thomas’s term, so that the devolved justice system has to manage challenges posed by reserved matters, which I would argue would be more complex than the current position.
There are also strong economic arguments in favour of maintaining the current justice settlement for Wales. A fully devolved justice system, akin to the Scottish and Northern Ireland models, would require Wales to be self- sufficient, including with regard to offender management and a prison estate that met the needs of the full range of prisoners. There are no category A prisons or, as I have already noted, women’s prisons in Wales. Wales benefits from the economies of scale that flow from being part of a larger offender management system, including the allocation of prisoners based on need and the risk they pose.
Even under other models, such as making use of the current prison estate but putting in place agreements between the Welsh and Westminster Governments on criminal justice and offender management, there would still be a need for the Welsh Government to have a justice function to manage policy across the board. They would have to develop and implement policy on criminal, civil, family and administrative law, and on matters such as legal aid. They would have to recruit staff sufficiently experienced and knowledgeable in those matters. The result of all that activity would be a significant interface between a devolved justice system and a larger body of reserved law; a much more complicated jagged edge. We are talking about a huge expense for the Welsh Government and, ultimately, the taxpayer.
I am conscious of time, but I will address one particular point raised by the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd. That is the call for greater transparency of data. That is not an unreasonable request, and I am pursuing it vigorously as a new Minister to the Department. I am happy to give the commitment to work with her and others to ensure that the data is more accessible and transparent in the interests of justice.
Will the Minister undertake to ensure that that is a reciprocal agreement, and that data is made available from the Welsh Government to facilitate that free exchange of data between the two Governments?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Only half a picture is no picture at all. There must be transparency both ways.
The UK Government remain firmly opposed to devolution of justice to Wales. We believe that the current devolution settlement is working well and should be retained.
I am grateful that the Minister has committed to work with me and others on the disaggregation of data, because I firmly believe that we should all operate on an evidence base, and we need to see trends over time.
When trying to foresee objections to the debate, I did not foresee the one that it would be solely about politicians. The idea that somehow as politicians we are not trying to improve the lives and conditions of our constituents frankly leaves me in despair. At the moment, that is evident. With the exception of the disaggregation of data, the need for that recognises that many of us are possibly working based on opinions rather than facts. We should all, therefore, be working with the facts.
It is striking that only one Welsh Labour MP of 22 is present and actually spoke. The standpoint between what is said by Welsh Labour and by UK Labour is striking in its inconsistency. It is important to note the consistency and experience in the voices from Northern Ireland and Scotland, in that knife crime is a health issue, the familiarity of community needs is important and, frankly, the argument that the border is an insurmountable problem can be blown out of the water. People do understand the difference.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the potential merits of the devolution of justice to Wales.