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Clash looms between Assembly's titans

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IC Wales

Clash looms between Assembly's titans

Sep 9 2004

Martin Shipton, The Western Mail

THE National Assembly's top two politicians are on a collision course for a clash of the political titans.

Presiding Officer Lord Elis-Thomas is set to take on First Minister Rhodri Morgan in a row over who should be the Assembly's legal adviser.

Lord Elis-Thomas's challenge to Mr Morgan is the equivalent of the Speaker of the House of Commons directly opposing the Prime Minister.

The Plaid Cymru peer said he would not co-operate with anyone appointed to be the body's top legal adviser, which would throw the Assembly into turmoil.

He announced his move to The Western Mail in the wake of Mr Morgan's decision earlier this year to veto the appointment of top barrister Gerard Elias QC to the post of Counsel General.

Civil Service Commissioners recommended that Mr Elias should get the job on a salary of ?20,000. But Mr Morgan felt Mr Elias "did not match sufficiently closely the person specification for the job".

It later emerged that Mr Morgan had two specific objections to Mr Elias - that he had been a Freemason and that he was a member of a body that monitored fox hunting.

Instead, the First Minister wanted to appoint one of the unsuccessful shortlisted candidates to the post - but permission for that was refused by the Commissioners. The candidate favoured by Mr Morgan was Malcolm Bishop QC, a former Labour parliamentary candidate.

With the situation in stalemate, Mr Morgan asked the Assembly's Permanent Secretary Sir Jon Shortridge to "review options for providing authoritative legal advice to the Welsh Assembly Government and the Presiding Office".

No further progress has been reported in the six months since the row blew up until now.

Yesterday a furious Lord Elis-Thomas contacted The Western Mail to complain at the publication of a booklet by the Assembly Government about the Office of the Counsel General. The document, dated August 31, has been circulated to all AMs.

It refers throughout to "the Presiding Office" instead of "the Assembly Parliamentary Service", as it was renamed earlier this year. The booklet also claims that the Counsel General "is the final source of authoritative legal advice to the Assembly across the full range of its responsibilities".

Lord Elis-Thomas said, "I was not consulted about this document and do not accept the basis on which it has been produced. I am perfectly satisfied with the advice we in the Assembly Parliamentary Service receive from our own legal advisers.

"I was very satisfied with the selection of Gerard Elias as Counsel General, and see no reason why there should be the appointment of anyone else to the role.

"My understanding was that the Permanent Secretary was looking into the matter with a view to separating formally the arrangements for legal advice to the Assembly Government and to the Assembly Parliamentary Service, although I have heard nothing further recently.

"From the publication of this booklet it would seem that the Assembly Government intends to re-open the appointments process for a Counsel General. If they do so, and if somebody is appointed to the role, I have no intention of co-operating with them."

Conservative AM Glyn Davies, who chairs the Assembly's legislation committee, said, "I did not know the Presiding Officer was going to adopt this very strong stance, but I can well understand his reasons for doing so.

"As chairman of the legislation committee, I deeply resented the way in which the First Minister behaved in this matter. He may think he has got away with what he did, but there are inevitable consequences to his actions.

"If a new appointment is made, it is inevitable that the person concerned will be seen as in the pockets of the executive, which would be a most unfortunate state of affairs. It would be impossible to have any confidence in the office in such circumstances.

"I don't know the latest position, but I had thought there was an intention to separate the legal advice given to the Assembly Government from that given to the Assembly Parliamentary Service. When I last looked at this matter in July, I was told it was still likely to be several months before it was resolved."

Rhodri Morgan is on a trade mission to China and a spokesman for the Assembly Government refused to respond to Lord Elis-Thomas's comments.

When the row first blew up in March, Mr Morgan said, "There has been no impropriety or irregularity in the recruitment process of the Counsel General. It was conducted entirely in accordance with the Civil Service Commissioners' Recruitment Code and its Guidance on Senior Recruitment."

Further Reading:

UK Freemasonry in the News, have the 'Brethren' finally met their Waterloo?