The Police and Crime Commissioner for South Wales, Alun Michael, has generated headlines by requesting something eminently sensible – the devolution of greater policing powers to Wales, and greater control over the criminal justice system.
The BBC reports:
Mr Michael, a former Home Office minister, said creating the four Welsh commissioners meant that in practice Whitehall has already devolved decision-making about most police activity.
He said the four Welsh commissioners “despite their political range (two Independents, one Conservative, one Labour and Co-operative) have immediately started to work together on Wales-wide issues, with some excellent and fruitful meetings with Welsh government.”
Writing in the Institute of Welsh Affairs journal, he added: “So common sense, pragmatism and purpose have brought about de facto devolution and it’s only a question of when the machinery of government will catch up”.
If it is the machinery of government Alun Michael is waiting for, it could be a very long time indeed before anything happens. The British government, after all, has permitted the organic development of the completely illogical current system where Northern Ireland and Scotland have overarching police structures while Wales and England do not.
Experimenting with different policies and approaches is exactly what should happen in the UK, but it can only happen if powers are devolved equally between the home nations. Establishing the role of police and crime commissioners was a good first step at promoting local police accountability, but this now needs to be backed up by devolution of policing powers to Wales and elsewhere.
As with so many important constitutional matters, change has thus far only come about when aggrieved people in one home nation or another have shouted the loudest. The result has been a constitutional system that resembles a messy patchwork quilt, making no sense either to outsiders or to the people who live under the various jurisdictions.
Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones has also pointed out the lack of common sense behind the status quo:
Mr Jones said then: “Decisions that affect Wales should be taken in Wales.”
Policing and criminal justice were now “the only mainstream public services which are not devolved to Wales”, and this status quo “is becoming increasingly hard to justify”, he added.
The illogical and unequal devolution of powers to the different corners of the United Kingdom has always been hard to justify; this is nothing new, but always worth pointing out.
Sadly, victory for those who advocate localism and devolution will only further complicate the constitutional situation. But nonetheless, the government would be well advised to heed this call, especially if it is repeated in the findings of the Silk Commission next year. Constitutional incoherency may be harmful and frustrating, but anything would be better than facing another independence referendum.