On Monday I had a useful meeting with the North Wales returning officer Colin Everett and his team. As well as finding out about important issues to do with the forthcoming election, they mentioned that the Home Office has failed to issue some of the secondary legislation required to ensure the by-election is fully bilingual. The Electoral Commission is doing its bit to ensure all guidance is up to date and bilingual and the North Wales team are absolutely committed to ensure that all information is available to everyone in their language of choice – but the Home Office need to lay a statutory instrument before Parliament to enable ballot papers to be bilingual and the deadline for doing so has passed.
My description on the ballot paper will be “Welsh Labour / Llafur Cymru” so I hope English and Welsh speaking voters will be able to see where to put their cross – but actually this election is under a new system, not previously used in Wales, and there are two columns, so having instructions that are easily understood is important.
I immediately raised the issue with David Jones via twitter and I am disappointed that he still hasn’t responded.
The Welsh Forms Order has also not yet been made. Without clarity as to the timing and content of the Welsh Forms Order, PAROs and LROs will not be able to finalise their printing specification and requirements for poll cards, postal voting statements or polling station notices.
In the absence of this Welsh Forms Order, the ballot paper used in Wales for these elections will only be available to voters in English. There are 16 sitting days in which this Order can be approved by Parliament before the first ballot papers will be issued to postal voters (from 31 October). While we recognise that Parliament is ultimately responsible for approving this legislation, the UK Government must give assurance to those administering these elections, and voters, that the ballot papers to be used in Wales at the elections in November will be bi-lingual.
The Welsh Language Commissioner has confirmed that they explained to the Home Office in May that under the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011 the Welsh language has official status in Wales and asked what steps had been taken to ensure that the Welsh language had been properly taken into account in the forthcoming election arrangements. I know that the Home Office were aware of the need to provide information in Welsh well before that, because as Chief Executive of the North Wales Police Authority, I had explained to them the importance of ensuring that briefings were available in Welsh and English to stakeholders, as many of them live their lives and engage with public authorities solely in Welsh.
The Welsh Language Commissioner also stated that they had been consulted on the wording of the ballot papers in August – suggesting that the laying of the statutory instrument is straight forward and can be done quickly.
I was in London that day for a national briefing and seized the opportunity to speak to the new Minister at the Home Office, Damien Green. He gave me a personal assurance that he is aware of the problem and seeking a solution. It has been suggested that it is already too late to address this problem and certainly the Home Office have missed the usual deadlines – but if it is possible to pass emergency primary legislation in a couple of days, surely it is simply a matter of political will to get it done?
MPs are asking questions as to why this has not been done and whether David Jones and other Ministers had their eyes off the ball. Susan Elan Jones tabled the following last night, for answer by Monday:
1. To ask the Welsh Secretary why a ‘Welsh Forms Order’ was not laid before Parliament by the Home Office at least six months before the election of a Police and Crime Commissioners.
2. To ask the Welsh Secretary what action is being taken by the Wales Office to ensure the election of Police & Crime Commissioners will be fully bilingual in Wales.
3. To ask the Welsh Secretary what discussions he has had with the Home Office regarding making the election of Police and Crime Commissioners a fully bilingual election in Wales.
What is urgent is that the Home Office and Wales Office find some form of parliamentary procedure that can enable the problem to be rectified so that voters have the information they need in the language of their choice.