"Sleeping" Wales Office attacked in Lords debate

David Cornock
Parliamentary correspondent, Wales

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It may have been a short debate about bilingual ballot papers but it also raised questions about the UK government department that represents Wales.

Labour peer Lord Touhig, a former Wales Office Minister, wanted to know why his old department had not spotted the UK government's failure to make sure the ballot papers in next month's police and crime commissioner elections would be bilingual.

He described Secretary of State David Jones and junior Minister Stephen Crabb as "the sleeping beauties of Gwydyr House" (the department's Whitehall office) and said they didn't seem aware of what was happening.

"Where were the Wales Office ministers in all this?" he asked. "Did they know about this mess? If they did, what did they do about it?

"After all, there are three of them now. The last time we had three ministers in the Wales Office was before the National Assembly for Wales existed.

"In pre-devolution days the Wales Office actually ran public services like health and education. They were responsible for everything from agriculture to transport. The present Wales Office doesn't run anything at all."

Lord Touhig looked back on his four years in the department. "We had just two ministers. We certainly had a much greater workload than the three there now - we included responsibility for taking through legislation, something the present trinity of ministers do not have to do because the National Assembly has legislative powers.

"These sleeping beauties of Gwydyr House didn't seem to be aware of what was happening at all. We've all heard of the term 'sleeping partner' but I'm sure we didn't expect it to apply to an entire government department. Under this government, the Wales Office has no profile, the ministers are invisible, they have no mandate."

The ministerial workload was actually questioned in Lord Touhig's day after official figures revealed ministers received an average of just one letter a week from MPs in the post-devolution era.

Home Office Minister Lord Taylor of Holbeach said his department and not the Wales Office were responsible for conducting the election.

The order paving the way for bilingual forms to be issued should be formally approved in the Commons this evening (without a vote or debate) - less than 24 hours before the postal ballot papers are due to be sent out.