Oversight of Policing in Wales

Published 22/04/2024   |   Reading Time minutes

Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) are responsible for shaping policing priorities in Wales. They are elected officials who hold significant influence over funding, strategy and community engagement in law enforcement.

On 2 May 2024, voters in Wales will head to the polls to elect their local Police and Crime Commissioner.

This article looks at why PCCs were introduced (initially opposed by the Senedd on constitutional grounds) and considers the future challenges for policing in Wales.

Making the oversight of policing more democratic

Policing in Wales is overseen by the UK Home Office. However, day-to-day decision making has been delegated to the PCCs.

PCCs were established to replace local police authorities in England and Wales, aiming to enhance democratic accountability and community representation. Historically there had been concerns about the transparency and responsiveness of the police to public concerns.

Introducing more democratic oversight was seen by the UK Government as a way to enhance accountability by ensuring that those responsible for overseeing policing are directly accountable to the communities they serve.

PCCs must not influence the operational independence of the police in their area (this is the responsibility of the Chief Constable). Their role is to set a strategic direction for the force, to scrutinise the police and hold them to account.

PCCs also set the budget and policing council tax precept (paid by local residents) for the force area.

(Source: Senedd Research)

So while policing policy in Wales is reserved to the UK Government, the role of PCCs is important. See our article ‘Police and Crime Commissioners – who are they and what do they do?

Police and Crime Commissioner elections

PCC elections occur every four years. The first elections took place in England and Wales in November 2012, marking the beginning of this new role.

In Wales, there are four PCCs overseeing policing in each police force area.

Figure 1: Police force areas in Wales

In the 2021 elections, Labour secured victories in three out of four Welsh police areas:

  • Alun Michael of Labour was re-elected for South Wales.
  • Andy Dunbobbin of Labour gained North Wales from Plaid Cymru.
  • Jeff Cuthbert of Labour was re-elected in Gwent.
  • Dafydd Llywelyn of Plaid Cymru held Dyfed-Powys.

This was the third time PCC elections had been held. They took place alongside the Senedd election in Wales and local elections in England (after being postponed by 12 months due to the Covid-19 pandemic).

Turnout varied across regions. It averaged 33% across all the elections.

The risk of politicising policing

When PCCs were introduced, critics voiced concerns about the potential politicisation of policing through directly elected positions. This fear stemmed from the risk that political agendas could overshadow principles of justice and the rule of law, thus eroding public trust in the police service’s impartiality.

Ensuring trust and confidence in policing is paramount for maintaining effective law enforcement. Instances of misconduct, abuses of power, or failures within policing can significantly undermine public trust in policing.

Critics also continue to highlight risks of undue political influence and concerns about operational independence. Transparency issues came to the forefront following the tragic deaths of two teenagers in Cardiff in May 2023, prompting questions about the accountability and openness of PCCs.

Despite the UK Government’s initial hopes for improved accountability, the impact of PCCs remains debated. A study in ‘Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practices’ emphasises that PCCs “may not be as powerful as initially assumed”.

Further, turnout in PCC elections has been relatively low, suggesting potential challenges in engaging the public and clarifying the roles of elected officials.

Figure 3: Average turnout at Police and Crime Commissioner elections in England and Wales

(Source: House of Commons Library)

This time, PCC elections in Wales are being held independently, without coinciding with any other elections. This may impact voter turnout. It’s also the first time voters will need to show photographic ID at polling stations.

Shaping Policing priorities

Each of the four PCCs set out their priorities upon election.

In their annual reports (covering April 2022 to March 2023), PCCs addressed critical issues amid a challenging year for policing across the UK, including instances of police officers abusing their position of trust.

Alongside serious issues for the Metropolitan police, Welsh police forces have also been investigated for misogynistic, racist and homophobic behaviour.

Figure 4: Some of the policing priorities identified by the four Police and Crime Commissioners in Wales

(Source: Senedd Research)

Examples of PCC initiatives include enhancing victim support services and tackling domestic violence in South Wales, implementing youth engagement programmes and child-centred policing strategies in Gwent, and improving rural policing services in Dyfed-Powys and North Wales.

Trust between the police and communities

All four PCCs prioritise building strong partnerships as a key focus in their reports.

Nearly half of all calls for police assistance are for something other than a crime. Policing frequently intersects with mental health, homelessness, and substance abuse issues.

Addressing crises, providing support, and redirecting vulnerable individuals away from the criminal justice system requires co-operation with partners, such as healthcare and social services.

Another significant focus is improving community policing and engagement. The reports recognise that building and maintaining trust between the police and the communities they serve is essential for effective policing.

The South Wales PCC says that the role of Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) is key to its approach to community engagement; providing constant, positive engagement.

Dyfed-Powys PCC’s report also says that PCSOs have been crucial to the success of their approach.

The Police Foundation say the public still have expectations of visible police presence. PCSOs can engage with the communities they serve, listening to concerns and feedback, and involving residents in decision-making processes so they feel their voices are heard.

The Welsh Government has reduced funding for PCSOs

PCCs are now tasked with determining how to sustain vital community relationships following the reduction of Welsh Government funding for PCSOs.

In August 2021, the Welsh Government announced it would fund 100 new PCSOs (a Programme of Government commitment to support a total 600 officers to the sum of £22 million).

The Welsh Government's recent decision to redirect spending away from non-devolved areas, such as policing, amid budgetary pressures, underscores the complexities facing law enforcement agencies.

South Wales Police Chief Constable Jeremy Vaughan has acknowledged the potential challenges posed by Welsh Government cuts to the budget for PCSOs. He says PCSOs have been instrumental in community policing efforts.

The Welsh Government has acknowledged the role PCSOs play in bridging communities and police services, addressing local concerns and facilitating early interventions.

It will be for the newly elected PCCs to ensure local police forces maintain a strong presence that inspires confidence in their communities.

To the future

For more insights on future policing challenges, you can read His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) annual assessment for the Home Secretary, the College of Policing report on preparing for future demands, and the Welsh Government publications on policing devolution and justice progress.

For now, the next elections for PCCs are set for 2 May. The immediate spotlight is on their role in shaping the future of policing in Wales

Article by Sarah Hatherley, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament