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

2011 Gorffenaf 6 3:00 PM
Gan Peter Black
Cyhoeddwyd yn wreiddiol gan Peter Black a Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol Gorllewin De Cymru

Peter Black: I move the motion.

In moving this motion today, I wanted to start by referring to the legal advice that has been sent to all Assembly Members. This is that:

'The Assembly may resolve that the disqualification of any person who was, or is alleged to have been, disqualified from being an Assembly member on a ground within section 16(1) or (4) is to be disregarded if it appears to the Assembly-

(a) that the ground has been removed, and

(b) that it is proper so to resolve.'

I should therefore confirm that Aled Roberts has resigned from the Valuation Tribunal for Wales and did so immediately after the existence of the 2010 Order was brought to his attention. I can therefore categorically assure the Assembly that the ground for disqualification has now ceased. Furthermore, although the Gerard Elias report makes it clear that Aled Roberts did everything that he could have reasonably been expected to do in ensuring that he was not a disqualified person for the purposes of nomination or election to the National Assembly, we regret that Assembly Members have been put in the situation of having to vote on this matter. We express our appreciation to all of the Commission staff, the returning officer and his staff, the National Assembly for Wales Commissioner for Standards, the police and everyone else who has been involved in trying to resolve this matter. We are sorry that they and Assembly Members have had to deal with the fallout as they have had to.

The second issue is whether it is proper for Assembly Members to disregard the disqualification and reinstate Aled Roberts as an Assembly Member. The Welsh Liberal Democrats have taken this very seriously. We have taken the view that, unless there is an exceptional case, we would not put a motion in front of the Assembly. It is for that reason that we withdrew the motion on John Dixon, as it is clear from the Gerard Elias report that his case did not meet those strict criteria. In contrast, the report makes a very strong case for reinstating Aled Roberts. In setting out that case, I want to address some of the issues that have been raised with me and others regarding this motion.

The first of these is the validity of the nomination itself. The legal advice makes it clear that there is no evidence that either of the two individuals was not validly nominated. That is because a valid nomination only requires the candidate to declare that he or she is not disqualified

'to the best of my knowledge and belief.'

The issue of whether the candidates knew or believed that they were disqualified has now been investigated by the police and by Mr Elias. In both cases, no evidence has been found to suggest that they did. The advice continues:

'For the purpose of considering the motions under section 17(3) of the Act, the Assembly must therefore proceed on the basis that both individuals were validly nominated.'

I note that more extensive advice has already been circulated to Assembly Members this afternoon. I could go through this in more detail, and I will if any Member wishes to raise the issue during the debate. However, the advice of the Chief Legal Adviser is that the nomination stands as valid unless it is challenged in the election court within a specified time period. That has not happened, so there are no issues around this process that would put the Assembly in difficulty if it voted to reinstate Aled Roberts.

Secondly, I wanted to address the addendum to the legal advice that comments on the Electoral Commission's challenge to one passage in the Gerard Elias report. The Assembly's Chief Legal Adviser makes it clear that this should not affect the conclusion that Aled Roberts did everything that he could have reasonably been expected to do in ensuring that he was not a disqualified person. However, careful reading of the Electoral Commission's objection shows that it is not just challenging Aled Roberts's evidence, but also the Gerard Elias account of the evidence that the commission gave. In his police interview, Aled Roberts was shown a PowerPoint presentation that was provided by the Electoral Commission in its statement. This presentation made reference to the 2006 Order. He was asked if he had been at a particular session at the Welsh Liberal Democrat conference and he confirmed that he had been. He was also asked if he had seen the slide. He said, reasonably, that he could not remember the exact slides, but relied on the sworn statement of the commission. Irrespective of what the Electoral Commission now says, it seems that it provided the police with a copy of the slideshow, which it told the police had been presented at the Welsh Liberal Democrat conference, and that this paper copy referred to the incorrect Order.

It is a fact that Aled Roberts is a first-language Welsh speaker for whom Welsh is the language of his home. He communicated with the relevant electoral services officer solely through the medium of Welsh. That is why he was provided with the Welsh-language link to the Electoral Commission website first in an e-mail. The advice on the Welsh-language website of the Electoral Commission and on the Assembly's website was inaccurate in Welsh. That is a clear breach of the equality principles that the Assembly supports, and it is possibly a breach of Welsh language legislation. The Welsh Language Board has confirmed that it is looking into the matter.

I have been made aware that some people have questioned why this matter was not raised immediately and publicly in defence of Aled's position. In fact, the issue was raised in the proper way during the police interview. Aled had agreed throughout not to make any comments to anyone other than the police, because they were conducting a criminal investigation in which witnesses were to be interviewed. It would therefore have been inappropriate to have discussed this issue in public. This defence was not put in the public domain by Aled Roberts because to have done so would have been improper.

It has also been suggested that, because Aled Roberts completed an English-language nomination form, this defence might somehow not be valid. The fact is that the form was printed off for him by a staff member who does not speak Welsh and it was she who subsequently witnessed the form. She was not comfortable witnessing a form in a language that she could not read. It should be noted, however, that in filling out the form, Aled used Welsh spellings for place names.

As AMs, we must have regard only for the evidence set out by Gerard Elias QC. It would fly in the face of this clear report and the advice of the Chief Legal Adviser if Members were to treat as evidence rumour or hearsay picked up in the media. The real issue at stake, however, is that anyone should be able to choose which language to work in without prejudice. If he or she reads something in Welsh, he or she should be able to expect it to be the same in English. The failure of the Electoral Commission to provide Aled Roberts with the correct advice in his chosen language severely prejudiced his position. As someone who does not speak Welsh, I would expect any advice that I received in English to be reliable. I would be very put out indeed if it transpired that I was being penalised because the Welsh-language version was different. Why should the reverse not be true?

Two hundred and twelve days ago, the National Assembly unanimously supported a new law that guaranteed that Wales would see the Welsh language treated no less favourably than the English language. It confirmed the validity of the use of the Welsh language. As an institution, we must stand by the principle that it is the right of everyone in Wales to use Welsh as their language of first choice with any public body.

The legal advice from the Assembly Commission's Chief Legal Adviser is as follows:

'In the case of Aled Roberts there is an additional consideration which needs to be taken into account, in view of Mr Elias's finding that he relied on an incorrect statement on the Welsh language pages of the Electoral Commission's web-site that disqualifications were still defined by the National Assembly for Wales (Disqualification) Order 2006. Had he chosen to consult the English language pages he would have been alerted to the fact that the 2006 Order had been superseded by the 2010 Order. The clear inference of Mr Elias's report is therefore that the fact that he was unaware of the disqualification, and, as a result, failed to resign from the Valuation Tribunal for Wales, was because he chose to use the Welsh language rather than the English language when consulting the Electoral Commission's website.'

He continues:

'Section 35 of the Act requires the Assembly, in the conduct of proceedings, to treat the English and Welsh languages on a basis of equality.'

He concludes this section by saying:

'Members will therefore need to bear in mind, when considering the case of Aled Roberts, the principle that he should not be disadvantaged by reason of having chosen to use the Welsh language rather than the English language.'

Finally, I wish to address the use of the power to disregard the disqualification available to the Assembly to use under the Government of Wales Act 2006. The report from the Chief Legal Adviser says that,

'From the history of these statutory provisions it is clear, therefore, that they are intended to enable the relevant legislature, in a particular case, to relieve individuals of the consequences of a disqualification where there are particular circumstances which justify mitigating what would normally be the consequences of a disqualification, for example uncertainty as to whether an obscure ground of disqualification applies or reasonable reliance on apparently authoritative but misleading information as to the existence of a relevant disqualification.'

3.15 p.m.

It is apparent from the Gerard Elias report that such grounds exist and that Aled Roberts did indeed rely on apparently authoritative, but misleading, information as to the existence of a relevant disqualification. Indeed, the Electoral Commission has acknowledged its error and apologised for it. It is the mark of a mature and responsible law-making body that it is willing and able to act to correct an injustice and that, in doing so, it votes to restore fairness in the system. In my view, the only proper, fair and just course of action with regard to Aled Roberts is to set aside the disqualification. I respectfully ask you to vote accordingly today.

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