Summation - Motion under Section 17(3) of the Government of Wales Act 2006 in relation to the Disqualification of Aled Roberts

July 6, 2011 4:21 PM
By Peter Black
Originally published by Peter Black and South Wales West Liberal Democrats

Peter Black: I will try to answer the questions as clearly and as honestly as I can. Jocelyn Davies raised an important question as to why there was a delay in the defence relating to the Welsh language coming out. As I said in my introduction, Aled Roberts did not make any public statement because there was a police investigation. To be absolutely honest and open about this, there was huge confusion among Liberal Democrats and party staff when the disqualification came to light. You will know that our initial public response was inappropriate and wrongly judged. The circumstances were such that we were all at sixes and sevens with regard to how we dealt with this issue. Once we started to get our heads around what had happened and what needed to be done, we started to look at the circumstances and, at that point, issues were put in the public domain that were germane to the defence that we have outlined here today. Members may not be satisfied with that, but that is how it happened. It was a cock-up rather than a conspiracy. We were in a difficult situation as a party and we did not react in the best of ways in the early days when this became clear, which was then overtaken by a police inquiry shortly afterwards.

Mick Antoniw raised a number of points. In particular, he said that the onus is on the candidate, and he is absolutely right. That was made clear in the Gerard Elias report, but the report also makes it clear that Aled Roberts took every reasonable step to fulfil his obligations in terms of his eligibility, including going out of his way to look at the guidance on the Electoral Commission's site and to take account of other advice that he was given.

Leighton Andrews: My colleague the Member for Pontypridd referred to a speech delivered by your party leader in the relevant committee that considered what was subsequently published as the guidance. As I understood it, she referred to a specific candidate as being affected potentially by what was being discussed. Could you explain to us which candidate she had in mind?

Peter Black: I was going to come to that point. You are absolutely right; Kirsty did refer to that. That candidate was William Powell, who is sitting behind me, and who was at the time a member of a national park authority. I understand that there were a number of other candidates who were also members of national park authorities who were required to resign their membership before they were able to put their nomination form in.

Simon Thomas: I am grateful to Peter Black for giving way, because this is a crucial issue. He acknowledges that his leader was on the committee that discussed this legislation and that she said in the committee that it affected at least one of your party's candidates. He now says that that candidate was his colleague Bill Powell. However, national park authorities were not included in the legislation for the first time in 2010; the 2006 legislation also included national park authorities. Therefore, the only new body relevant to the Liberal Democrats was the valuation tribunal.

Peter Black: You are right that national park authorities were not put into the legislation for the first time in 2010. However, I believe that it was the first time that Kirsty Williams, as a member of that committee, had come across the legislation in that role. Confronted with an Order that contained, I think, two or three pages listing all the relevant bodies, she immediately singled out one body that she was aware a candidate was a member of-William Powell was a councillor in her constituency-and raised that particular issue. We fielded 60 candidates in the Assembly elections. We were not privy to all of the personal circumstances of every candidate. We admit that, as a party, we fell down in not properly giving out advice to those candidates. I am sure that that is the case elsewhere as well, but we certainly did not do that. The candidates themselves had that individual responsibility. Aled Roberts took that responsibility very seriously; that is outlined in the report. He went into it in some depth; he investigated the situation because he thought that there was a good chance that he might be elected and he accessed the advice that he was given. He concluded from that advice that he was eligible to stand. I was not aware-and I do not think that Kirsty Williams was aware either-until it came to light that he was even a member of the Valuation Tribunal for Wales. You have to accept our word on that. We were not aware of that membership. Had we been aware of it, we would have drawn it to his attention.

Jocelyn Davies: Obviously, you became aware of that on the day of the disqualification. I assume that you would have gone to that Member, because you had had another Member disqualified earlier in the day, and given him the list and asked him to check whether he was on it, and he would have said, 'I am not on it. I have already checked.'

Peter Black: That is not correct. What happened was that, on the day that we became aware that John Dixon was ineligible to be a Member, we then ensured that the list was given to all our Members, and we asked them to check through it. At that point Aled Roberts realised that he had been looking at the incorrect list. He drew to our attention that he was a member of the Valuation Tribunal for Wales. I gave him advice that he should immediately draw that to the attention of the Clerk to the Assembly, which he did, and you know what followed from that. Clearly, he was not aware until that moment that he was a member of a disqualified body.

Mick Antoniw also raised the point-this is germane to the interventions that I have just taken-that the matter was debated publicly, and said that, because it had been debated in this Chamber and in committee, everybody in Wales should have been aware of that Order. In some respects, that is a reasonable assumption. Yet the Electoral Commission failed to pick it up and offered the wrong advice. In fact, it did not even correct its website to show the right advice until after the disqualification took place. The new Order was not issued to the valuation tribunal and, according to the Electoral Commission's statement, it did not receive it either. Therefore, although there was a debate in the Assembly, it was not a matter that people were aware of, and certainly people were not aware of the details of that particular Order or how it had changed in relation to them. I think that I have dealt with the issue of Kirsty referring to a candidate. I need to make it clear that we take this disqualification very seriously and that we would not bring a motion before you if we did not think that this was an exceptional case. That exceptional case is set out in the report. That is why we have withdrawn the motion on John Dixon and that is why we believe that voting for this motion today is justified.

Ann Jones: In your deliberations in bringing forward a motion, did you give consideration to the fact that this relates to a list Member not a first-past-the-post Member? What would have happened to a first-past-the-post Member had they been a member of the valuation tribunal?

Peter Black: We were fortunate that this was a list Member, because the stakes would have been completely different had we been dealing with a first-past-the-post Member. Disqualification in that case may well have necessitated a by-election. The fact that this is a list Member, as opposed to a first-past-the-post Member, is not germane to this discussion-

Joyce Watson: Will you give way?

Peter Black: I will just finish the point first.

That is not germane to this discussion because we are dealing with the issue of whether the disqualification of a Member should be set to one side, irrespective of the nature of their election. You know that we do not distinguish between the two types of Members in this Assembly.

Joyce Watson: I am little bit surprised to hear you say, as a list Member, that it would have been completely different had this person been representing a constituency and not a region. Pardon me for not noticing otherwise, but the roles are equally important. Will you further explain the difference that you felt that that would have made? In addition, you said earlier that you did not know that he was a member of the valuation tribunal, but he has been a member since 2004.

Peter Black: I am not privy to all the bodies that every member of the Welsh LiberalDemocrats are members of as councillors, and I do not think that it would be reasonable to expect me or anyone to be so aware, particularly given that leaders of councils are often members of a huge number of bodies. It is therefore sometimes impossible to keep track of those. Of course, it was his responsibility to keep track of that, and we have already dealt with the fact that he was given incorrect advice.

If you look at what I said in response to Ann, I said that the difference between an Assembly list Member and an Assembly constituency Member would be with regard to the consequences of a disqualification. It was not a distinction that I made; it was a distinction made by Ann in raising the matter with me. The difference in the consequences would be that there would be a by-election as opposed to putting the next person on the list into the Assembly. However, what we have done is to concentrate on the matters relating to the disqualification and the case that was set out in the Gerard Elias report, that this is an exceptional case, which merits, in our view, and, hopefully, in the view of Assembly Members, the setting aside of that disqualification.

There was one more issue that I wished to address. Andrew R.T. Davies raised the issue of party assistance, and we have admitted that the party got it wrong in terms of the advice that it gave. However, we need to make it clear that the staff member who witnessed the forms was there in a clerical role, effectively. Her job was to collate the nomination forms for north Wales and to ensure that they were submitted on time and were accepted by the returning officer. Her role was to witness the papers, not to give advice on their content. I have witnessed legal documents, and I cannot say that I have understood their full legality, but I have understood that what I was doing was witnessing the signature and the fact that the person signing the document was the relevant person.

Andrew R.T. Davies:With respect, Peter, you are oversimplifying that, because many people have witnessed documents, but you specifically referred to a staff member-those were your words, not anyone else's in the Chamber. At the start, I was minded to support the motion, but, from what I have heard, and, in particular, given the cock-up-that was the word that you used, although I appreciate that it was in a different context-that was your party's response in May, is it that we are now being asked to endorse the shambles that is the Liberal Democrat process of approving candidates?

3.45 p.m.

Peter Black:No, absolutely not. With regard to John Dixon, we would not ask you to endorse what happened in that respect because we felt that that case was not strong enough. However, returning to this issue, I referred to a member of staff, and of course there are different levels of staff. There are members of staff who are legal experts or election law experts; there are members of staff whose job is to deal with case work; and there are members of staff whose job is to do basic clerical work. In this particular instance, the member of staff had no legal or electoral law knowledge of which I am aware, and certainly not to the level that would be required to offer advice. Her role was purely to collate the nomination forms and to witness the signature. That is an important distinction, and I do not think that it is reasonable to expect her to advise Aled Roberts on the legal implications or to be fully aware of his individual circumstances, which he had gone to great lengths to check on the basis of the advice that he had received.

Bethan Jenkins: I wanted to clarify something with regard the Welsh language. I am a little concerned about the course of the debate, especially with regard to Vaughan Gething's response. I urge people to consider the fact that, if you speak Welsh and look at a certain website or have guidance in Welsh, you cannot be expected to look at the information in the other language. I am getting increasingly concerned by the fact that we are not taking that into account. What additional action will you take, Peter, especially with regard to the language?

Peter Black: It is not for me at this stage to outline any future actions. My concern at the moment is the motion. Clearly, once the debate is over, we will have to take stock and consider how we will go forward.

I will sum up now, Presiding Officer.

The Presiding Officer: One more person wants to intervene. I want to remind Members that the motion relates to the conduct of Aled Roberts, and should not be decided on the basis of the failings of a party.

Ann Jones: I wanted to intervene in relation to Bethan Jenkins's contribution.

The Presiding Officer: You can intervene in relation to Peter Black's contribution.

Ann Jones: Could he clarify-and it is difficult to do so, because Aled Roberts is not present-whether someone whose first language is Welsh would read the guidance in Welsh and fill in the form in English?

Peter Black: I dealt with that matter in my speech. The form was produced for him and witnessed by a non-Welsh speaker. As I think I said in my speech, he filled it in using Welsh spellings. The real issue is whether, if there is equal access to English and Welsh, you can rely on the validity and accuracy of the documents in both languages, irrespective of the language that you choose to use. Aled Roberts chose to use the Welsh language in checking the guidance. As Suzy Davies pointed out in her contribution, it was reasonable to believe him in that regard.

Julie James: You said, Peter, that the real issue is whether the guidance in Welsh was correct or similar to the guidance in English, and Bethan made a similar point about the supremacy or otherwise of one language over the other. It is appalling that the Welsh-language guidance was wrong. That is a matter for a different time. I do not think that that is the issue at all; the issue is whether the offence that has been committed-and we all know that it has been committed-is one of strict liability or not. The issue is whether we have the ability to remove a disqualification to reverse the consequences of an innocent mistake-but a mistake nevertheless-or whether that power is there to remove unintended consequences of the act. I take the latter view. I am extremely sorry for the candidate in question, and I do think that he probably did everything reasonable. However, ignorance of the law has never been an excuse, and in my view our power to remove a disqualification is solely for the purpose of removing unintended consequences of the act. This is not an unintended consequence of the act; this is simply a case where someone failed to make sufficient inquiries. The matter of whether that is reasonable is irrelevant.

Peter Black: I am afraid that I misspoke in my response to Ann. To clarify, I meant to say that that was the issue in relation to the forms, not necessarily in relation to the case. You are right, Julie, to say that the issue is whether we can lift that disqualification. However, your interpretation appears to me to conflict with that of the Chief Legal Adviser, who makes it clear that there are grounds on which this disqualification can be set aside, on the basis that Aled Roberts was misled by the advice that he received and did everything reasonably possible to deal with that issue.

Mike Hedges: You say that he checked the Welsh-language version of the list. Then, when you found out that one of your candidates was in trouble, you obtained an English-language list for Mr Roberts to check. However, I find it difficult to understand why he did not say at that point: 'I do not want this list as it is the English list. I want the Welsh list, as Welsh is my language. Please print out the Welsh list for me to check, rather than the English one.'

Peter Black: Clearly, when we looked for a list to give Aled, the only list available on the Electoral Commission website was the 2006 list. We were aware that that was the incorrect list, and so we had to give him the English-language list, as that was the only one available on the website. The issue here is that-[Interruption.]

I give way to Rhodri Glyn Thomas.

Rhodri Glyn Thomas: Diolch yn fawr iawn, Peter, am dderbyn yr ymyrraeth hon. Hoffwn gael ychydig o eglurder ar y mater hwn. Fel siaradwr Cymraeg iaith gyntaf, pe bawn i'n chwilio am gyfarwyddyd, byddwn yn chwilio am gyfarwyddyd yn y Gymraeg. Ni fyddwn yn ystyried darllen y cyfarwyddyd Saesneg er mwyn sicrhau bod y cyfarwyddyd Cymraeg yn gywir; byddwn yn disgwyl iddo fod yn gywir. Mae'n rhaid imi gyfaddef fy mod wedi cwblhau ffurflenni yn Saesneg ar adegau, yn enwedig os yw rhywun arall wedi cyflwyno'r ffurflenni hyn imi. Serch hynny, fel arfer, byddwn yn gwneud hyn yn y Gymraeg. Pe bai rhywun yn cynnig cyfarwyddyd imi yn Saesneg, ni fyddwn o reidrwydd yn gofyn iddynt am y cyfarwyddyd Cymraeg. Byddwn yn derbyn y copi Saesneg ac yn ei ddarllen. Rhodri Glyn Jones: Thank you very much, Peter, for allowing this intervention. I would like a little clarity on this matter. As someone whose first language is Welsh, if I am looking for guidance, I would look for that guidance in Welsh. I would not consider reading the guidance in English in order to ensure that the guidance in Welsh was accurate; I would expect it to be accurate. I must admit that I have completed forms in English at times, especially if someone else has presented these forms to me. However, I would normally fill in the Welsh version. If someone presented me with guidance in English, I would not necessarily ask them for a copy of the guidance in Welsh. I would accept the copy written in English and read that.

Peter Black: I would like to put a scenario to you, Rhodri Glyn: you are a party chief executive, or one of its members, and you have just been told that one of your Assembly Members is no longer eligible to sit as a Member. You immediately think, 'Oh gosh. I must check that everything else is okay.' You do not speak Welsh yourself, you print of the list, you walk into the offices of all of your Assembly Members, you put the list in front of them and you say, 'Can you quickly read through that and see if you are a member of any organisation on the list.' In those circumstances, a person would respond to that instead of saying, 'I want to see a Welsh-language version of that list.' I believe that, under the circumstances, being given an English-language list on 17 May was quite reasonable, as was asking Members to read it. I thank you for raising that issue. Could I just wind up now?

The Presiding Officer: Order.You may carry on, Peter.

Peter Black: I want to wind up now because I think that I have spoken for far too long. I would like to say that it is my view, and the view of the report, that Aled Roberts received the wrong advice in terms of whether he was qualified to stand as an Assembly Member. He followed that advice diligently, he checked it in his first language and his language of choice, and as a result of that, he was misled. My belief, and I think that Gerard Elias's report sums this up, is that those are sufficient grounds to set aside disqualification, and I respectfully ask Assembly Members to vote for this motion and to give Aled Roberts the right to take up his seat.

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