Friday, 3 June 2011

The "void two"

Since the seventeenth century MPs have not been able to resign their seats. The anoraks amongst you might like to know that only deaths, disqualification, elevation to the Peerage, dissolution or expulsion can see them out of the Commons.

Members have to go through the rigmarole of applying for a paid office of the Crown, which automatically disqualifies them. There are two such offices; they apply to the Chancellor of the Exchequer for, the Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds or the Manor of Northstead. 
Now in the Welsh Assembly members can just resign. No need to apply for the stewardship of Llancaiach Fawr, or to be Bailiff of Splott Manor or the prestigious role of Crown Constable of Caerffili Castle. No we’re an utilitarian lot, no room for romance in our political institutions.

The same goes with the way that elections are declared void. Even Phil Woolas’s election was declared void after the excitement of a court case. In his case he fell foul of the Representation of the Peoples Act 1983 which makes it illegal to make false statements of fact about another candidate. The courts found that he had lied in leaflets about his Liberal Democrat opponent and out he went.

Perhaps the most famous void case of the last century was that of Tony Benn. He inherited a Peerage on the death of his father in 1960 but wanted to remain in the Commons. He fought a by-election, the voters in Bristol returned him but the election court turfed him out. The Courts did this despite knowing that the Bristol’s voters were fully aware of Benn’s campaign and circumstances surrounding the election. No, the court disqualified him and gave the seat to the Tory Malcolm St Clair.

Benn had to wait for three years for the law to change. But return to the Commons  he did, courtesy of a by-election. A by-election caused by St Clair claiming, yes you’ve guessed it, the Stewardship of the Manor of Northstead.

Now the two aspiring Liberal Democrat Assembly Members were declared void, not because of the way they campaigned like Woolas nor either on principle, like Benn, but why you may ask?

Because of a list. Yes, but not any old list, but a list of organisations spelt out in “The National Assembly for Wales (Disqualification) Order 2010.”  If you belong to these prescribed organisations, kaput you're out, ineligible, dead in the water.

On that list are the Care Council for Wales and the Valuation Tribunal for Wales. The two organisations that John Dixon and Aled Roberts the barred  candidates served as members. One would have thought that either the candidates, their agents or their political party would have had  the "Order" as top of their list of essential reading, But it seems not.

The void two, as they will forever be known, were serving members of the bodies and had not resigned by the date of their election. Not reading through that little list looks like costing them their jobs.  

However, the void two did attend and voted for the Presiding Officer, the Deputy Presiding Officer and the First Minister. Better legal minds than mine can debate the validity of these elections in such circumstances.

Be that as it may, the National Assembly is now two Members short of a full pack. So what to do?

The Presiding Officer has sent to the Returning Officers concerned a letter explaining all and asking them to fill the vacancies, but here's the rub, not straight away. They should reflect on a likely Assembly resolution on the matter to be placed before the Assembly in the next few weeks.

Now without the caveat for delay  the Returning Officers could have easily  resolved the matter. The ‘void two’ were on their party list. So all the Returning Officers  need do is declare the next Liberal Democrat candidates on the list as Assembly Members. No costly by-election, simple job done. But no. Party politics raises its head. 

There does some seem to be some reluctance to back the two women that happen to be next on the list namely, the former Assembly Member Eleanor Burnham and Eluned Parrot a former Parliamentary candidate for the party. This reticence is baffling. Surely if the Liberal Democrats had any doubts about either they should never have endorsed them as party candidates. But that, as they say, is up to the internal machinations of the party.

Party politics aside, the National Assembly has a wider responsibility and that is to Welsh democracy. Any hint of a fix between politicians in the Bay to ignore these serious breaches of Assembly election law would make a mockery of the elections. It would have the unsavoury stench of a stitch up. .To push for a vote in the Assembly for candidates that clearly were ineligible at the time of the election would set completely the wrong precedent for the future of our fledgling democracy. 

Let the Returning Officers do their job and let democracy take it’s course. It may be bad luck to the two, but like Benn they'll just have to hang around awhile.


  1. John Broughton4 June 2011 at 00:58

    If Dixon and Roberts become AMs then it will demonstrate that there is no point in the rules. Applying that dictum in a wider context leads to anarchy.

    Dixon and Roberts must go.

  2. One oddment is that, in order to take the seat from Tony Benn, Malcolm St Clair had to prove not just that Tony Benn was disqualified but that everyone in Bristol South East knew that Benn was disqualified. That proved that voters knowingly 'threw away' their votes on someone who couldn't win. Otherwise, the Court would have avoided the election and called a byelection, instead of awarding it to the second placed candidate. The same applied in two Northern Ireland seats in 1955 where Sinn Féin candidates serving lengthy jail sentences were elected. In that case, one of the Ulster Unionists who was awarded the seat was then .. wait for it .. found to be disqualified himself.