Following the referendum result, Welsh politicians have weighed into debate about the role of the Wales Office. Ieuan Wyn Jones, the Deputy First Minister, and Lord Elis-Thomas, the Assembly’s Presiding Officer, have called for its abolition and replacement by a ‘department of nations and regions’; that has been rejected by the current Secretary of State, Cheryl Gillan, and her shadow and predecessor, Peter Hain. There are news reports from BBC Wales here and here. (My own views about the issue are set out HERE.)
It’s interesting that Hain regards the statutory references to the Secretary of State as a significant reason for its maintenance. Acts of Parliament usually refer to ‘the Secretary of State’, drawing on a piece of legal theology that holds the office of Secretary of State to be a single one held by multiple people at the same time. (This means only one Secretary of State need be in office to enable government as a whole to function.) Exceptionally, the Government of Wales Act 2006 refers twice to the Secretary of State for Wales. One reference is in section 32 and enables him or her to participate but not vote in Assembly proceedings, receive all plenary papers and participate in its committees. The other is in section 33 and concerns consultation about the UK Government’s legislative programme – in effect, it requires the Secretary of State to attend the Assembly and explain the implications of the Queen’s speech. Similar provisions were in the Government of Wales Act 1998, and reflected the need to ensure liaison between the Assembly and Parliament given the limited legislative powers the Assembly had under the 1998 Act and Part 3 of the 2006 Act.
Whatever one may think about the significance of these provisions or their value now that the Assembly Act provisions are shortly to come into force, there’s no reason why they require the existence of a Secretary of State for Wales who doesn’t have any other responsibilities. Any Secretary of State could be designated as Secretary of State for Wales for these purposes. The real question is what role the Wales Office should have – an issue that also arises for the Scotland Office (especially once the Scotland bill, receiving the first of three days of its Commons Committee stage today, has finished its consideration by Parliament), and the Northern Ireland Office (now that justice and policing have been devolved so it has very limited programme responsibilities). That’s a question about politics and the organisation of government, rather than the law.