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Mr. Llwyd: My hon. Friends and I have tabled amendments Nos. 20 and 21, which are self-explanatory and provide an alternative oath for incoming Members of the National Assembly for Wales. Amendment No. 21 provides the wording for such an oath:
That is a modern approach to the swearing of an oath. The sovereignty of the people of Wales dictates that elected Members of the National Assembly are voted in by the citizens of Wales, so an alternative oath should be implemented. Ultimately, that may be a matter for the National Assembly itself, but we thought that it would be useful to hold such a debate now. I have nothing further to add, but I am sure that other hon. Members will wish to make a contribution. These are probing amendments, and I can tell the Minister that I do not wish to press them to a vote.
David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con):
I do not support the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) because, as I said in Committee, I have experience of the Scottish Parliament and am aware that a great deal of legislation is based on bringing Assembly procedures in line with those used in the Scottish Parliament. I do not know how many Members have followed in detail the work of the Scottish Parliament in
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the past six years, but when swearing the prescribed Oath, members of fringe parties often seek to perform stunts by delivering another oath or affirmation. On one occasion, a Member sought to write a message for the wider public on their hand during the Oath-taking ceremony. I do not accept that such behaviour is worthy of Members of either the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly. There is no suggestion in the amendments that such activities are planned, but the wording of amendment No. 21 is very close to the wording that members of the Scottish National party have attempted to use in the Scottish Parliament. If Members do not wish to swear the oath to Her Majesty, I do not understand why they cannot be satisfied with the ordinary affirmation procedure, rather than seeking to bring forward some new procedure, which does not add anything to either the process or the solemnity of the duties that they are undertaking.
I wish for a change to be made in regard to the swearing of the oath or affirmation in public. I can see no reason why the ceremony should not be held in public. Indeed, if Members were to engage in public in the sort of antics that I have described, I think that the wider general public would see the respect, or lack of it, with which they treated the institution. Therefore, I, together with other colleagues, have tabled new clause 5, which would require the oath to be taken in public. I hope that the Minister will not have difficulty accepting such a proposal.
Lembit Öpik: Obviously, it would be a free vote if this matter were divided on in the House, but I understand that the amendment was tabled by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) in order to have a debate. That is a legitimate aim.
Speaking in a personal capacity, I have to say that I quite like the Queen and I hope she likes me. In case she reads this, I would want her to know that I am very keen on people having the opportunity to swear an oath of allegiance to her and indeed to the future king of England, currently the Prince of Wales. In that sense, perhaps we have a vested interest in keeping sweet with the monarch.
On the point made by the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), it is interesting and valid to suggest that the oath be taken in public. Many of us have benefited from the interest that taking the oath generates at the beginning of a parliamentary term. I cannot see why that would not be allowed. I seek the Minister's guidance on whether there is anything to prevent the oath being taken in public. Perhaps an etiquette could be established. Obviously, it is not for us but for the Assembly to decide whether it is a matter of etiquette, but it would be helpful to hear an assurance from the Minister that there is nothing in law to prevent the Assembly from ensuring that the oath be taken in public.
David T.C. Davies:
I disagree with amendment No. 20 because I see it as another attempt to undermine the principle that all parliamentarians should swear an oath of allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen. That is very important. With all due respect to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), it is not about whether we like the Queen or, indeed, whether she likes us; it is about supporting the British constitution, which has served us extremely well since 1688. It is vital that we
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recognise that it is the monarch who is the head of state. I do not think that that could be more vital at the moment, because we appear to have a Prime Minister who sometimes thinks that he is the head of state. That is another reason why I am pleased to read about the thoughts of the person who I hope will be the next monarch of the United Kingdom.
I support the principle of holding the oath ceremony in public. Perhaps I may be allowed briefly to relate an anecdote about how I happened to become the Father of the House in the Welsh Assembly. A couple of days after I was successfully elected to represent Monmouth, I went out to celebrate with the former Member of Parliament for Clwyd, West, who was elected at the same time as me. Waking up in his house in Cardiff, we decided to go to have a look at the Welsh Assembly before we were officially sworn in 48 hours later. We arrived, whereupon an official said, "Now you are here boys, why don't you come and swear the oath in my private office?" We did so. My colleague subsequently resigned. I then became the Father of the House, being the longest serving Member. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire is laughing. I had the satisfaction, half an hour after taking the oath, of seeing the leader of the Liberal Democrats with his posse of Members arriving with a load of TV cameras thinking that they were going to be the first to take the oath.
David T.C. Davies: I think that it makes the point that there must surely be better ways of swearing in elected Members of the Welsh Assembly. I suggest that some public ceremony, perhaps taking the form that the ceremony takes when Members of Parliament are sworn in, would be a great improvement. Therefore, I support the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell).
The wording of the current oath is the constitutional standard that has been established by the Promissory Oaths Act 1868. It is the same oath that is taken by Members of Parliament and Members of the Scottish Parliament. It is the Government's view that this Bill is not the place to challenge that long-standing convention.
Of course, there is a different position in respect of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Despite the comments of the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), it has been recognised across the House, including by Conservative Front Benchers recently in the debate on allowances for Members from Sinn Fein, that Northern Ireland constitutes a special position. On that occasion, the Conservative party proposed that an oath of allegiance to the Queen should not be required for
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Members of Sinn Fein if they wish to take their seats in this House. However, the Government's position is that, in taking seats in the House and in the National Assembly for Wales, albeit acknowledging the special position of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the oath of allegiance should remain.
New clause 5 stipulates that the oath should be taken in public. As well as affecting clause 23, it would impact on clause 55, which deals with Ministerswe now have the separation of Ministers, the Assembly Government and the Assembly itself taking the oath of office.
In response to the issue raised by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), it is possible for the oath to be taken in public by Members of the National Assembly. In fact, if what I read in the newspapers is anything to go by, it will be extremely difficult for anyone not to take the oath in public in the National Assembly since all the walls are made of glass in the new building, but there is no reason why the oath should not be taken in public. In fact, at the Assembly Committee that considered the Bill on 1 February, there was a discussion of the oath and a similar amendment was moved by the Conservative Member David Melding. He agreed to withdraw that on the basis of the Minister's promise that the matter would be considered when the Assembly's Standing Orders were discussed in the near future. Therefore, there is no reason why Assembly Members could not take the oath in public.
The only change that has been made to the provisions from the Government of Wales Act 1998 is to specify that, under clause 23(2), the person before whom the oath is to be taken is to be specified in Standing Orders, which is properly a matter for the Assembly itself to determine. The approach that has been taken was agreed during the passage of the Government of Wales Bill in 1998 and the Government see no reason to change the decisions that were taken at that time. The ceremony has been in operation for six years in the Assembly, through two Assembly general elections and by-elections, without challenge, but there is the opportunity, during the discussion of the Standing Orders, as I have mentioned, for the Assembly to look at the matter again. I understand that that is what it intends to do. On that basis, I invite the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) to withdraw the amendment.
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