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Politics

Time for Welsh justice for Wales

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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.
ADVICE DESERTS
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.

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Politics

Pembrokeshire County Council considering ‘Fire-break’ implications

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FOLLOWING the First Minister’s announcement at lunchtime today (Oct 19) of an all-Wales ‘firebreak’ commencing on Friday, Pembrokeshire County Council is currently assessing the impact this will have on its services.

Council Leader, David Simpson, said: “I can provide assurance that detailed planning arrangements both internally, and externally with our partner agencies, are underway to ensure that we are well placed to meet any challenges which may arise.

“We will be issuing further updates over the coming days.”

Councillor Simpson added: “The First Minister has clearly said the ‘firebreak’ has been put in place due to the increasing level of cases across Wales.

“Although the restrictions do not come into force until Friday we all have to act now – early prevention can make a huge difference.”

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Politics

Two week national ‘Firebreak Lockdown’ announced for Wales from 6pm on Friday

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MARK DRAKEFORD, The First Minister of Wales has announced a two week ‘fire break’ lockdown from Friday October 23 at 18:00 HRS, to last until Monday November 9 at 00:01 HRS

Mr Drakeford said: “This firebreak is the shortest we can make it. It must be sharp and deep in order to have the impact we need it to have on the virus.”

All non essential businesses, including tourism businesses will be told to close.

Businesses have been told that they will be given £1000 each automatically to help with the economic impact of the shutdown.

Mr Drakeford added that children will be the priority and that childcare facilities will open as normal. Primary schools will open after half term.

Secondary schools will be closed for a week after half term to help control the virus.

Universities will offer a mixture of face-to-face learning and learning via video link. Students must stay at their university accommodation during the lockdown.

Responding to the Welsh Government’s announcement of a Wales-wide lockdown, Paul Davies MS, the Leader of the Opposition in the Welsh Parliament, has called the lockdown “not-proportionate” and is calling on the Welsh Government to be “open and transparent” on the evidence to support a lockdown and if the First Minister is committing Wales to rolling Wales-wide lockdowns every month.

Paul Davies MS said: “Sadly, the First Minster has failed to get public support for this second Wales-wide lockdown, failing to be open and transparent about the evidence to justify this lockdown and what his actions will entail for the future.

“The Welsh Government also has to be honest that this road they are taking us down is committing Wales to rolling Wales-wide lockdowns. This is not a two-week break to solve the pandemic, it is likely that we will see regular lockdowns across the rest of the year. The Welsh Government must be clear what actions they are taking during the lockdown to prevent further Wales-wide lockdowns which will have a significant impact on people’s lives and livelihoods.

“However, the main concern is that this national lockdown is not proportionate. The impact on businesses in areas such as Powys, Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion, who have the lowest rate of Covid-19 cases in Wales, will be severe at a time when they are desperately struggling to recover from the pandemic so far this year.

“The First Minister needs to urgently come to the Welsh Parliament and answer these questions, to face effective scrutiny by elected representatives and not run his government by media.”

Preseli Pembrokeshire MP, Stephen Crabb told The Herald: “The evidence to support an all-Wales lockdown is weak and I am sceptical that this so-called ‘fire-break’ will tackle the situation in those parts of Wales where infection rates have been out of control. The key issue for Welsh Government to address is what will be done differently after the firebreak ends in those parts of Wales where infection rates have spiralled out of control. Otherwise the whole of Wales risks being dragged back into a series of rolling lockdowns.

“As we saw earlier in the year, lockdowns come with huge costs in terms of harm to the economy and to people’s emotional and mental wellbeing. With the Welsh Government asking UK Government to fund this lockdown, I hope that as many businesses as possible get support they need quickly. Pembrokeshire’s hospitality businesses will be hit particularly hard by these latest restrictions and I will be fighting hard again to see that they are protected as the lockdown kicks in.”

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Politics

Cardiff and London at loggerheads over who will pay the bill for the Wales-wide lockdown

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THE PLANNED national lockdown for Wales still has many details to finalise before any final announcement of its terms and length.

The major sticking point is money.

During the UK-wide national lockdown from March to July, the Westminster Government picked up the tab for paying Welsh workers’ wages and provided a massive amount of extra funding for business support.

From November 1, the UK government will support eligible businesses by paying two-thirds of each employee’s salary, up to a maximum of £2,100 a month.

Businesses might also be eligible for grant support of up to £3,000 a month to meet other costs.

Devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will receive a total of £1.3bn in increased funding this year to cover similar measures.

Businesses will only be eligible to claim the grant while they are subject to lockdown restrictions.

Council leaders across Wales have expressed their deep concern to Welsh Government ministers about the lack of any detail of what will be done to provide financial support to businesses, particularly those which are not forced to close by lockdown restrictions but close as a knock-on effect of lockdown.

Local authorities, which channelled most business support during the lockdown which began in March, have still not been told by the Welsh Government what help or how much will be available for businesses in that position, let alone how it will be delivered.

The sour relationship between the Welsh Government and Westminster is not likely to help Mark Drakeford’s administration if it looks for fresh funding help from the Treasury to bail it out of the wider economic consequences of a Wales-wide lockdown.

If the Welsh Government tries to go it alone to soften the blow, it faces making significant cuts elsewhere in its budgets.

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