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Commissioner 'frustrated' by slow progress but has faith in Police leadership to tackle racial disparity in South Wales

Last Updated: 11/10/2023

South Wales Police and Crime Commissioner, Alun Michael, delivered a speech during the welcome reception at the Black Police Association Annual Conference on Tuesday evening (10 October, 2023), which took place at City Hall in Cardiff.

During the speech, the Commissioner expressed 'frustration' at the criminal justice system for 'slow progress' in tackling racial disparity, but places faith in South Wales Police's Chief Constable, Jeremy Vaughan, who he said, 'leads from the front on building the right values into Policing', and also Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner, Emma Wools, who has played a pivotal role in the development of the Anti-Racism Action Plan or Criminal Justice in Wales.

Police and Crime Commissioner's speech (in full):

I’m very pleased to be helping to host this national Black Police Association conference here in Cardiff and to be able to pay tribute to the extraordinary work the Association has done over many years to fight for the rights and values of its member and to demand respect for the contribution they make to that most demanding of the professions, Policing.  It’s clear from the very demanding programme that this conference is both a celebration and a cry for immediate action and faster change on some very big issues.

I’m also pleased to follow Councillor Huw Thomas who established a Commission on Race in the city and engaged everyone in that work, with leadership roles handed to representatives of the communities most affected and those with lived experience. My Deputy Emma Wools was a member of that Commission.

My own links to the BPA go back a long time, to 1997 when, as the Minister of State for Policing and Criminal Justice in the new Labour Government, engaged in setting up the McPherson inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, I met then Chair of the BPA in London, David Michael, (who am delighted to see is with us here at this conference).

But that’s over a quarter of a century ago which brings home to me just how long it takes to see significant change and how slowly things move, even when it seems blindingly obvious what needs to happen.

I just want to reflect on a couple of events in South Wales in more recent times. In the midst of COVID-19 with distancing rules and a ban on people congregating in significant numbers, we had the death of George Floyd and the international imperative of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Two immediate reactions, locally, were these:

First, an immediate conversation between myself, my deputy Emma Wools and Chief Constable Jeremy Vaughan in which we agreed that this was not a time to be defensive, but a time to seize the moment, to recognise that while South Wales is not Minneapolis we have so many examples of racism and race disparity here in South Wales that we must seize the moment as an opportunity to drive change. So with our colleagues across Policing in Wales and throughout Criminal Justice system in Wales, we have led the development of the Anti-Racism Action Plan for Criminal Justice in Wales. There is still a long way to go, but the work has started, we have engaged many with lived experience to ensure that there is no slipping back and Emma will say more about this work, which she has driven so effectively, when she speaks to the conference tomorrow. We ARE turning words into actions.

Second, on the streets of Cardiff, the fact that the legislation laid down distancing rules and also set strict maximum numbers at any gathering caused a real problem for those who were determined to exercise their democratic right of protest following the death of George Floyd. Common sense was applied and in Cardiff the numbers rule was waived as long as the distancing rules were obeyed. I congratulated the Chief Constable on the pragmatism of that approach and he said to me “That wasn’t my decision – it was the decision of the officer managing the protest but he did reflect the tone I’d set for the organisation throughout COVID”. That’s important because it’s only when those at different levels in an organisation apply common sense and work to the same values – in this case understanding both the rules laid down to protect health and the imperative of respecting democratic rights like the right to protest - that the institution of policing can command respect. I mention this, something that seems so simple, because there were many places across the country where that sort of common sense was not applied and international cry for racism in policing to be tackled was not seen as a central social priority and something for which we all share responsibility.

So there are two positive examples, and yet as I come towards the end of my 12 years as Police and Crime Commissioner for South Wales, I am massively frustrated because everything takes too long.

Year after year I have complained at the failure of our recruitment figures. Now, diversity has improved recently as a result of an enormous amount of effort by all concerned.  But that comes after a decade in which frankly I have been deeply frustrated by the institutional inertia that year after year has prevented South Wales Police from recruiting effectively from many of our communities. There a very long way to go to make up for lost time.

Disparity in the criminal justice system has seen some improvement, but some of the really big failures – numbers in prison, victims who are let down, youngsters whose life chances are disproportionately poor, women and girls who are disadvantaged – are still with us. In our increasingly diverse society (and I say this as a former youth worker) the experience of disadvantage and racism amongst our young people remains particularly problematic.  That’s why I approach the South Wales BPA in starting their own outreach in schools.

Racism exists and has existed throughout our history – it’s been endemic in our institutions of justice, not just of policing, and it’s been a reality in every level of our political decision-making systems as well as in the layers of our social fabric and the UK is only slowly coming to terms with some of the blatant realities of our history. It’s a fact and it’s important to call it by its name.

However, in your conference tomorrow you will hear speeches from two people in whom I place my faith for the future in South Wales and for Wales as a whole:

Jeremy Vaughan has made it a priority to lead a Force that reflects the communities that it serves and to make sure it serves every one of our communities – and every individual and family – efficiently, effectively and fairly. He leads from the front on building the right values into Policing while respecting the extraordinary personal leadership that is needed from every single individual at every level in the Force. You will hear him set out his approach tomorrow.

Emma Wools has been an enormous force for change as my Deputy – we share a belief that 'Everything is connected to everything else' and that neither policing nor any other aspect of the criminal justice system can be free from racism unless and until every part of the criminal justice system is free from racism.

And that has to be reflected in wider society – so knowing that Welsh Government and all it’s agencies and the whole of Local Government and our education system are on the same journey as Policing and Criminal Justice in Wales is key to creating the better, fairer more just society for which we yearn. You’ll hear about this from Emma tomorrow.

So in celebrating the conference that you are opening here tonight, I thank you for your work. I thank you personally for the friendship of the members and officers of the BPA in South Wales. I thank you for your ambitions for the future. And I pledge to do all I can to work with you to meet our joint responsibility to make this a better a fairer and more just society for everyone living in South Wales of every community and every race - and also to work together to make that an ambition for the whole of the UK.

Stock mage of Alun Michael

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