The beleaguered Labour First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, has failed in his bid to stop the Welsh Assembly debating (later today) the report of the leak inquiry into the suicide of fellow Assembly Member and former Welsh Labour Government Minister Carl Sargeant .
Carwyn Jones – and ex barrister by profession – had attempted to stop today’s scheduled debate from taking place by writing a long letter full of unconvincing legalese to the Assembly’s presiding officer Elin Jones.
Elin Jones however had abruptly dismissed the First Minister’s two page letter – and told him in a curt three-line reply that she was not persuaded of his arguments and that the debate WILL be going ahead [ It’s scheduled for later today .]
Yesterday in the Assembly’s weekly “Questions to the First Minister” Penarth AM Andrew R T Davies – Leader of the Conservatives in the Welsh Assembly – opened-up the attack on the evasive Carwyn Jones.
Andrew R T Davies (Conservative South Wales Central) said “When devolution came into being in 1999 we said at that time that things were going to be different, politics was going to be different. This morning, your Government, and you in particular, wrote a letter to the Presiding Officer indicating that you were minded to seek a legal judgment from the court to stop a debate in this Chamber taking place tomorrow. The only place we can find any comparable comparisons is the country of Egypt, where the executive tries to stop the legislature debating and discussing and voting on a motion that comes before it that is deemed in competence. Why are you trying to silence the Assembly?”
Carwyn Jones – despite correspondence to the contrary – lamely claimed that his letter was not about attempting prevent the debate.
Andrew R T Davies didn’t agree. He said “As I understand it, First Minister, from the letter that you sent to the Presiding Officer, you seem to deem yourself outside the scope of the Government of Wales provision, and therefore you do not feel that you are bound by the provisions within the Government of Wales Act, and that is what you will be seeking a judgment from the court on if you seek that route. That, in effect, places you above the law, if you take your interpretation to the extreme, because you are saying your Ministers are bound by the provisions within the Government of Wales Act but you yourself are not. Now, surely, First Minister, you should allow this debate to go ahead tomorrow, allow the debate, because it’s deemed to be in competence—it’s on the order paper—and I would seek confirmation from you today that you will not try and intervene and stop this debate taking place tomorrow afternoon.”
On the ropes, Carwyn Jones then resorted to the “It isn’t me” defence by saying “I have no power to intervene to stop the debate taking place; that’s a matter for the Presiding Officer.” [ PDN Note: He’s right. It is. But that was exactly why he had written to the Presiding Officer Elin Jones to try to get her to pull the debate scheduled for later today]
Blustering on, Carwyn Jones then claimed Andrew R T Davies “inadvertently misleads the Assembly” in claiming the effect of section 37, “as we interpret it”,[ It wasn’t clear who the “we” he referred to are”] is to put the First Minister beyond the law. It is not.”
Dancing on the head of a legal pin, the First Minister said “The interpretation that we place on section 37 is that it applies specifically to Welsh Ministers and NOT to the functions of the First Minister.” [ There were groans of incredulity and laughter from the Assembly chamber at this assertion] .
Patronisingly the First Minister went on to lecture the AMs telling them “Now, THAT is an issue that is HUGELY important in law.“… and just in case the AMs hadn’t grasped the point first time, he reiterated it …“It’s HUGELY important.” he said.
Carwyn Jones then carried on with his impromptu law lecture: “Now, if something is in dispute in terms of the law, it’s perfectly proper that clarity is sought as to how the law operates. We can’t operate in a slapdash way; we have to make sure we have clarity for Government and, indeed, for the Assembly.”
Andrew R T Davies however wasn’t prepared to swallow any of the First Minister’s dubious logic. He said ” I never thought I’d stand in this Chamber and find us debating these types of points, where you as First Minister (because it’s your signature on the bottom of that letter ) are trying to prevent a debate coming forward tomorrow because you want to seek a judgment of the court to prevent that happening.”
Andrew R T Davies reminded Carwyn Jones “You have said time and time again that the substance of the debate tomorrow, which is the leak inquiry report, is in the ownership of the Permanent Secretary, and it is for her to determine whether that report should come forward. Why are you intervening now to try and stop that report coming forward? …. Today—the first day back after the Easter recess—we are looking at you as First Minister who has sent a letter to the Presiding Officer, trying to silence the Assembly. That is the wrong way to do democracy here in Wales.”
After an intervention by the Presiding Officer, Carwyn Jones went on to say “Thank you, Presiding Officer. First of all, I have no fear of the leak inquiry; I ordered it. And it is something that I was under no…uh ….. [at this point Carwyn Jones faltered, and might well have been about to say he was ‘under no obligation to hold any leak inquiry’ (potentially a comment which could land him in even more trouble) and changed his sentence in mid-stream . He went on to say ] “….it was not imposed on me, it was something that I took forward and Members can see the conclusion.” The First Minister’s verbal gear-graunch was not missed by AMs in the chamber.
Carwyn Jones went on to admit that ” There have been discussions with the Presiding Officer. It’s not the case that this came out of the blue. It’s not something I would choose to do, I have to say, if other options were available, but we have to protect the position of a senior member of Welsh Government staff who, if the motion was passed, would be at risk of prosecution. This is a serious issue—a HUGELY serious legal issue—[ that favourite word “huge” was being waved about again – but failed to impress the AMs ] .
The First Minister then went on to deploy one of the most well-worn, least convincing but most desperate justifications ….“National Security” . He confided to unimpressed AMs ” Now, I have in my possession documents that are given to me as First Minister that deal with National Security. Under the interpretation at the moment that we have, that would be releaseable—that would be releaseable. [AMs again groaned in disbelief] Well” – said the First Minister “it IS; there is no clarity on it.”
He then went on clutch at further straws – citing whistle-blowers, commercial confidentiality and tender bids. As the patience of AMs waned, Carwyn Jones lectured them tetchily “If Members don’t want to listen—. I’m trying to put a reasonable case here for them. If they don’t want to listen, that’s a matter for them” .
The First Minister went on to assert that “There is now no guarantee of confidentiality without further clarity. There is no guarantee. I cannot give, as First Minister, any guarantee of confidentiality to anybody, nor can any other Welsh Minister, until this matter is clarified” adding feebly “That’s how serious the situation is”.
Many AMs might well have concluded that – given the leaks which are already said to have poured out of the First Minister’s office – at least on that he is right.