A MAJOR report into the Welsh justice system calls for radical change.
The report, ‘Justice in Wales for the People of Wales’, says the administration of justice needs to be devolved so that justice in practice aligns with the growing body of Welsh law on social, health and education policy and other services.
Prepared by a Commission chaired by the former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, the Report says: ‘Major reform is needed to the justice system and to the current scheme of devolution’.
The Commission found ‘under the current scheme of devolution there is no properly joined up or integrated approach, as justice remains controlled by the Westminster Government’. It says to ensure consistent treatment of the UK’s devolved administrations, Wales should have the same powers over its justice system as Scotland and England, particularly as Wales increasingly diverges from England in key areas of policy, for example on housing.
The reductions in the justice budget made by the Westminster Government since 2010 have been amongst the most severe of all departmental budget cuts.
The Commission is highly critical of the Westminster-centric nature of law-making, which largely ignores Wales’ interests and Wales’ challenges. It points out the Welsh Government has used its own money, in addition to permitting rises in council tax, to try and mitigate the damaging effects of these policies.
The result is almost 40% of the total funding for Wales’ justice system originates in Wales. This is above other tax revenue that is raised from Wales and then allocated by the Westminster Government to Wales.
The report’s authors unanimously conclude: “This position is unsustainable when the Welsh Government has so little say in justice policy and overall spending.”
Crucially, the report also says restrictions on the Senedd’s powers to legislate over policing, offender management, and rehabilitation should be removed. Such an arrangement would align the Senedd’s powers with those of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish Parliament.
On two areas of policy, the Report is particularly critical of Wales’ treatment within the current justice system.
The significant cuts to legal aid made in 2012 have hit Wales hard. Proper access to justice is not available with the consequent threat to the Rule of Law.
The report says Westminster’s approach to legal aid has created:
• ‘advice deserts’ in rural and post-industrial areas where people struggle to receive legal advice;
• a serious risk to the sustainability of legal practice elsewhere, especially in traditional ‘high street’ legal services; and
• increasing numbers of people representing themselves in courts and tribunals with a consequential adverse impact on outcomes and the efficient use of court resources.
The report says although the Welsh Government spends its own funds on advice services it lacks the resources to bridge the gap caused by the cuts to legal aid.
Prosecution lawyers and prosecuting authorities are funded from the public purse. Individuals just over the legal aid limit are doubly penalised by the inability to access legal advice. If they do and are acquitted, individuals face the infamous ‘innocence tax’. Self-funding defendants in criminal prosecutions who are acquitted very seldom – if ever – recover the whole costs of their defence, leaving them often massively out of pocket.
On criminal law, the report finds, unlike in England, the number of police officers in Wales has not reduced. It explains this is because the Welsh Government provides further funds and allowed council tax rises to provide extra money to forces.
However, a significantly greater proportion of the spending on justice is now on prisons rather than crime reduction. Wales has one of the highest, if not the highest, prison populations per head in Western Europe, even though the evidence is that robust community sentences achieve better outcomes in many cases.
The lack of integration between health policy, over which Wales has powers, and policing, reserved to Westminster, means the current devolution scheme has created problems in terms of providing health services for prisoners, as well as other services such as housing which are necessary for rehabilitation on release.
The report calls for a single Minister to be given responsibility for justice in Wales and establishing problem-solving criminal courts and Family Drug and Alcohol Courts in Wales.
Predictably, the UK Government has dismissed the plans as creating over-complexity; brushed aside increasing legislative differences between English and Welsh law; and turned its back on equal treatment of Wales within the UK.
Questioned on Radio 4’s ‘Law in Action’ whether the plans would speed up the break-up of the United Kingdom, Lord Thomas gave a vigorous denial that would be the case.
He pointed out provisions within the document for a UK-wide Supreme Court with judges appointed to it from each jurisdiction. Saying the different treatment of Wales was ‘unsustainable’, he repeated the proposals within the report needed only changes to the existing devolution settlement to recognise Wales’ circumstances and to create a level playing field between the nations of the UK.
Carmarthenshire Labour targets Council reserves to fund Carmarthenshire school buses
Plans have been unveiled by the Opposition Group on Carmarthenshire Council that would see the recently cut school routes being reinstated, along with an ambitious plan to purchase low emission buses over the next three years.
Carmarthenshire Labour, working alongside Nia Griffith MP and Lee Waters AM, have announced that they intend to force a vote on utilising the Council’s general reserves, which currently amount to around £10 million, in effort to support hard-pressed families and the local environment.
School pupils in Carmarthenshire have seen many of their school bus routes cut in recent months, as a result of the introduction of new regulations by the UK Government. The regulations, passed in 2000 and phased in over several years, restricts the types of vehicles the bus companies could use to ensure that all vehicles can accept wheelchairs. The changes have caused a number of school bus routes to be axed with around 500 pupils directly affected.
Labour state that temporarily funding the axed services could cost approximately £400k and would provide the necessary time needed to establish a long-term solution to the issue.
Alongside Carmarthenshire Labour’s plans to use general reserves to support the reintroduction of vital bus routes, the Group also intend to vote for £3 million of capital reserves to be earmarked for the purchase of ultra-low emission buses, laying the foundations for a new sustainable bus service for the county.
Councillor Rob James, leader of Carmarthenshire Labour, stated “I am proud to announce Carmarthenshire Labour’s ambitious plan to address the Carmarthenshire school bus crisis affecting hundreds of school pupils.
“Having spent months consulting with colleagues across the region, and working with families to find a solution, the self evident answer to this crisis is for Carmarthenshire Council to temporarily fund the bus services and set about establishing a long-term, sustainable solution.
“Carmarthenshire is at the back of the pack when it comes to connectivity. Communities, businesses and families across Carmarthenshire experience the daily struggles associated with years of underfunding on transportation. It is now our vulnerable children that are suffering from this Council’s inaction.The reinstatement of the school routes will safeguard and support our pupils to travel to their place of study.
“This is also an opportunity to address the poor connectivity and lack of public transport that have suffocated our county for many years. We can address the climate crisis, the bus crisis and drastically improve public transport in Carmarthenshire with this plan. I sincerely hope that the Plaid Cymru and Independent coalition back the proposals.”
WG rejects UK’s EU Withdrawal Bill
ON MONDAY, January 20, the Welsh Government published its assessment of the UK government’s Political Declaration, which accompanies the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, and its priorities for our future trade, and broader relationship with the EU.
The assessment argues that, while the Welsh Government accepts that we will now leave the EU, changes to the direction of travel indicated in the Political Declaration are necessary to better protect the economic, social and environmental interests of Wales and the whole UK.
Counsel General and Brexit Minister Jeremy Miles said: “The UK government will soon begin negotiations with the EU on a permanent long-term agreement. This agreement is of vital importance to Wales. It will determine the basis of our future trade, and our broader relationship with the EU, for decades to come. The stakes could not be higher.
“The evidence is clear that the further the UK moves away from economic integration with the EU the greater the economic damage. The EU has been and will continue to be our most important trading partner and many businesses depend on integrated supply chains across the EU, which require frictionless trade.
“Given the overwhelming importance of the EU to our economy, the UK must prioritise continued barrier-free access to these markets over trade arrangements with other countries.
“We will continue to challenge an approach to the negotiations which prioritises the ‘freedom’ of the UK to diverge from EU regulatory standards above the well-being of the people of Wales. Such an approach would be deeply flawed and could result in lost jobs and lost investment in Wales. We need an agreement with the EU which reflects the interests of Wales and the United Kingdom.
“The UK government claims it wants to maintain high standards and we will hold them to their word. We will, therefore, oppose any agenda of deregulation, which will damage consumers’ interests in the long run.
“We reject a vision of Britain where the economy is based on a low-wage, low job security, low regulation model, which would lead to growing inequality. We need a strong, innovative outward-looking UK economy underpinned by mutual respect for the responsibilities of all governments of the Union.”
The Counsel General also stressed that the Welsh Government, like many other observers and the EU negotiators themselves did not believe it possible to achieve the right agreement in only a few months of negotiations.
He said: “We will continue to argue that the UK government should not close the door on an extension beyond the arbitrary deadline of December 2020. The priority must be achieving the best deal, not the quickest one”.
The Minister’s statement got short shrift from Conservative leader in the Senedd, Paul Davies, who responded: “Wales voted to LEAVE the EU. It’s as simple as that. Rather than engaging in political posturing, the Welsh Labour Government should respect the Welsh people’s wishes and get behind the withdrawal bill.”
Mr Davies’ remark received a tart response from former Welsh Government Cabinet Minister, Alun Davies, who enquired via Twitter: “So you would give any elected government a carte blanche to deliver its programme? And you’re a leader of the opposition?!”
Voting age lowered in Wales
A BILL to introduce a new name and lower voting age for Senedd elections became law last week.
The Bill which will introduce a new name for the National Assembly and extend voting rights to 16 and 17-year-olds in the Welsh General Election become an Act of the Assembly on Wednesday, January 15, when it received Royal Assent.
After Royal Assent the Bill was officially transferred to the National Assembly’s Chief Executive and Clerk, Manon Antoniazzi by the First Minister, Mark Drakeford.
The handing over of the Bill to the Assembly Clerk in the Senedd Siambr marked a historic step which saw the Bill become an Act.
Llywydd of the National Assembly for Wales, Elin Jones AM, Chief Executive and Clerk of the Assembly, Manon Antoniazzi and First Minister, Mark Drakeford.
Llywydd of the Assembly, Elin Jones AM, announced the status of the new Senedd and Election (Wales) Act at the start of the day’s Plenary meeting.
However, the contents of the Act – which introduces a new name Senedd Cymru / Welsh Parliament and extends the voting franchise to foreign nationals and 16 and 17-year-olds – will not come into force until early May 2020.
Elin Jones AM, Llywydd of the National Assembly for Wales says; “I am honoured to mark this significant chapter in the story of our Assembly with the passing of the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Bill into an Act of the Assembly.
“In May we will have a new name, which will reflect our status as a mature legislature, and we will see the biggest extension to the franchise since 1969 – notably giving 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote in the Welsh General Election for the first time in 2021.
“It is a moment of great pride to watch our Assembly evolve in order to continue to be at its best to serve the people of Wales.”
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