Idwal Pugh: Civil servant, ombudsman and proud Welshman

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The Independent Online

Idwal Pugh was one of the ablest entrants to the Civil Service in the post-war reconstruction exam of 1946. He rose to be Permanent Secretary of the Welsh Office and then Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and Health (the ombudsman).

Idwal Vaughan Pugh was born in February 1918, the son of a quarryman who later served in the Ministry of Food and became a bus conductor. His mother was a schoolteacher before she began to bear boys, five in all, of whom Idwal was the eldest. His grandfather was a Vaughan (hence the middle name), whose family came from Ton Pentre in the Rhondda Valley and whose handsome tomb in the cemetry at Treorchy, where Pugh's ashes will be buried, Pugh repaired and cleaned up.

He was educated at Cowbridge Grammar School and won an Open Scholarship in classics to St John's College, Oxford, where he gained an aegrotat in Mods and was viva'd for a 1st in Greats but, according to him, gained a 2nd because the examiners could not read his writing!

Graduating in 1940, Pugh went straight into the Army – the RASC – and was quickly shipped out as part of the 7th Armoured Division (the Desert Rats) to Egypt. He was at Alamein, bringing up ammunition and supplies to the front line, and continued with the Division right through to North Africa, Sicily and Italy. He was in Lord Alexander's staff at Caserta and demobbed from there in the rank of Major.

Entering the Ministry of Civil Aviation, he played a big part in chartering aircraft and organising supplies for the Berlin airlift. Subsequently, moving to the Ministry of Transport, he found himself involved in the Suez crisis. As the assistant secretary in charge of the Road Transport Division he had to pacify the hauliers who were incandescent about, as they maintained, the meagre allotment of fuel under rationing.

Pugh's appointment to the Welsh Office was most appropriate. If you had cut him through with a knife he would have read "Wales" like a stick of rock. After his Calvinist-Methodist upbringing in the chapels of the Valleys he believed in God – provided that God was Welsh. He believed that Wales had the best rugby side in the world, even if they came bottom of the Five Nations. He believed that Royal Porthcawl (of which he was a member) was the finest golf course on this earth (he was not far out there). He was a prominent member of the "Tafia". He was chairman of the Development Corporation for Wales from 1980 to 1983, president of Coleg Harlech from 1990 to 1998 and a president of the Cardiff Business Club from 1991 to 1998. He was appointed chairman of the Chartered Trust in 1979 to clean up the doubts about the previous Hodge hire-purchase era and was a director of the Standard Chartered Bank and the Halifax Building Society.

His term of office as ombudsman from 1976-79 was characterised by fearless criticism of the departments of Health, Defence and Transport. As his term of office drew to a close he said, rather wryly, "I won't be asked again" – and he wasn't. But he published in the Journal of Public Administration a valuable essay on the "Jurisdiction, Powers and Practice of the Ombudsman".

Sadly, his wife, Mair, also Welsh, died in 1985 after 39 years of happy marriage. In his 25 years as a widower, Pugh lived first in North Wales, then in Llandaff, which was not a success, and finally in Oxford, where as an Hon. Fellow of his old college, he had what he termed his "canteen". There he enlightened dons and undergraduates with his anecdotes of Whitehall and his sharp wit and tongue.

Apart from his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, music was Pugh's great joy. Back in 1946/47 he composed lyrics and the music for the Ministry of Civil Aviation Christmas review; in 2010 he was still taking lessons in piano and composition. Like Organ Morgan in Under Milk Wood, a work he would chuckle over, Bach was his favourite composer; at his funeral all the music was Bach. He generously gave a fat cheque to St John's for a new organ commenting, "A little more Bach and a bit less Messiaen" – though in fact he appreciated Messiaen. He kept a good Steinway in his flat in Oxford and played well. He was also a great reader, a great walker and a great listener. A very private person, he would never talk about himself but was always interested to hear about others.

Pugh was honoured with the CB in 1967 and advanced to KCB in 1972. At his death he was the most senior KCB and entitled to the top right-hand seat in the choir in Westminster Abbey for the annual Bach service. He would have liked that – and the Bach.

Idwal Vaughan Pugh, scholar, soldier, civil servant and parliamentary commissioner: born Blaenau Ffestiniog, North Wales 10 February 1918; married 1946 Mair (died 1985; one son, one daughter); CB 1967, KCB 1972; died 21 April 2010.