QC Elias vetoed for Freemason and hunt links
Mar 10 2004
Martin Shipton, The Western Mail
A TOP barrister was barred from becoming the National Assembly's leading legal adviser because he is a Freemason and a hunt supporter, it was confirmed yesterday.
And as it emerged that an inquiry is to be launched in a bid to discover who leaked the identity of two applicants for the post of Counsel General, it was confirmed that former Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine had provided a reference for the candidate favoured by First Minister Rhodri Morgan.
Mr Morgan has faced immense criticism since it was revealed in The Western Mail last week that he had vetoed the appointment of Gerard Elias QC to the £120,000 post.
Civil Service Commissioners had recommended Mr Elias for the job, but Mr Morgan exercised his right to block the appointment. Instead he asked the Commissioners whether he could appoint another shortlisted candidate, Malcolm Bishop QC, a former Labour parliamentary candidate for Bath. The Commissioners refused and Mr Morgan is now considering how to proceed.
In face of allegations of cronyism, Mr Morgan yesterday told AMs why he had vetoed Mr Elias's appointment.
He said, "I did not register any over-riding objection to the shortlist, although I did comment on the fact that one candidate, subsequently recommended for appointment by the panel, was a prominent Freemason. My concern derived from the salience of freemasonry, reflected in debates in the Standards Committee and the Assembly as a whole. I was, however, prepared to waive my concern on this issue, noting that the candidate was prepared to resign from the freemasonry, as did the previous CG on appointment.
"When the Permanent Secretary advised me of the recommendation from the panel and I read the full papers, I became aware of information not previously available to me that the recommended candidate was also a board member of the Independent Supervisory Authority for Hunting. My concern was not the personal views of the candidate on hunting or any other issue. This is a free country. Given the high political salience of the law on hunting with dogs taken in conjunction with the public debate surrounding freemasonry, I judged that the legal advice of a Counsel General prominently associated with these two controversial areas would not carry the necessary stamp of untrammelled authority throughout the Assembly. A Counsel General who would not carry the required authority would not be able to meet the key pre-requisite of the post.
"Furthermore the Commissioners had rated as appointable a second candidate on the shortlist. In the panel's assessment, either candidate was appointable. The difference between the two in overall scoring was small, each having different relative strengths.
"I judged that the second candidate was more likely to carry the legal authority that was fundamental to the post. It was on that basis, and that basis alone, that I made the decision to approach the Civil Service Commissioners to exercise the exceptional circumstances provision laid down in their procedures, as was my right. The Commissioners decided not to exercise the provision, as was their right."
Mr Morgan said he very much regretted that the names of candidates had been leaked.
"Public life in Wales cannot function if applicants for posts in the Assembly are not able to trust that their applications will be treated in confidence."
On that basis, he favoured an inquiry to discover the source of the leak.
Asked by Lib-Dem Leader Mike German about the involvement of Derry Irvine, Mr Morgan confirmed that one of the candidates had been given a reference by him.