Sunday, 24 March 2013

The Politics Hour - Is That All We Get???

I have been away from this “project” for a long time – firstly due to work commitments, then due to a quasi-despair at the poor level of the debate amongst the supporters of the various options – speculation clothed as fact, misrepresentation of facts as speculation and just plain bullying.
I almost washed my hands of the whole thing.
Then I became aware of the “politics hour” programme on BBC Radio Jersey this morning and my interest was piqued once again.
So this post is a snap critique of the programme, which unfortunately has largely reinforced my concerns about the level of debate that I raised above.
The programme went out between 10 and 11 this morning and the three campaign groups were represented as follows, in alphabetical order:
The A Team Jersey by Christine Vibert
The “B is Better” group by Ben Shenton (I'm not sure this is actually their official name but it was used by someone this morning)
The Option C Group by Lyndon Farnham.
It also featured a guest tweeter Malcolm Ferey @CABJersey (although why he was thought to be the ideal commentator for this subject was not explained) and was given the hashtag #bbcph
 Each studio guest was allotted a short time to give a basic resume of their point of view.
Christine Vibert recapped on some of the principles of reform detailed in the Electoral Commission’s final report and as might be expected centred on equality of representation.
Ben Shenton began by plugging a “drop in” meeting for people interested in supporting Option B which is taking place tomorrow March 25th at St Paul’s Centre between 6&9 pm. He then went on to say how his experiences in States had led him to believe that the Assembly was inefficient and how he felt the Constables were an essential link to the Parishes but that the Senators role could be removed if the mandate for the Deputies was broadened.
Lyndon Farnham spent his time trying to promote Option C as a reform rather than being the “no change” option. He really does need to understand that Option C will not result in any further reform, The Option C position has already been decided by the States Assembly and it is where we will be in October 2014, unless the public vote for either Option A or B. It is as simple as that and no matter how Senator Farnham wants to dress it up as a reform option, presumably to try to gain support for it (he is a Senator, after all) he really should not try to disguise what it really is.
During the course of the programme, a couple of people phoned in – I recall Don Filleul called in support of Option B and someone called in to say that he was voting Option A “for his children”. There were others but without listening again to the programme, which was painful enough the first time around, I cannot recall anyone calling in in support of Option C. At least one other caller wanted to introduce a different option in line with his personal preferences and to him and others, I would merely say, read the full final report of the Electoral Commission.
I have already nailed my colours to the mast in support of Option B.   However I didn’t think Ben Shenton did as well on this programme as he did in his interview earlier in the week when he made his points clearly and well. Certainly though, listening objectively, I could not find any instances of him actually misleading the listener or misrepresenting facts. That is not true of either Christine Vibert or Lyndon Farnham unfortunately. I did try to correct one staggering manipulation of fact that they both came out with, by tweeting the true position, but this was not picked up by the broadcaster.
Christine Vibert was repeatedly incredibly patronising about the ability of the Constables to undertake the workload of States Members. The fact that the Constable of St Brelade had resigned from a scrutiny panel was referred to in support of this and was endorsed by Lyndon Farnham. The impression given by these was that he had not been able to fulfil his Parish and Scrutiny obligations and so had abandoned Scrutiny. In fact, he was previously undertaking a very heavy workload serving on two panels and had decided to leave one of them to concentrate on the other. He is still very active on Scrutiny unlike a number of other States Members – including Deputies – who play no part at all. This tack was disingenuous and does neither of them any credit whatsoever.
Christine Vibert also made some extraordinarily sweeping statements about the Constables and the likelihood of them preferring to be out of the States. She continued to represent her feelings as facts. I again tweeted to try to find out how many she had spoken to about this but did not get a reaction. I myself have spoken to at least three Constables about this and have found that the reverse is quite true. There are also documented statements from Constables to be found on Hansard refuting Ms Vibert’s point of view. She also went on to say that some Honorary groups were finding it hard to function of late and that this would be assisted by the Constable concentrating solely on Parish affairs. She did not offer any evidence of this and it is again in complete contrast with my own extensive experience of the Honorary system and also with my own enquiries.
At this point I will introduce something which was pointed out to me recently, which I have no reason to doubt but on which I stand to be corrected. Christine Vibert is in fact, married to Centenier Hugh Gill, the Chef de Police in St Lawrence. I mention this simply because she has not. She is of course entitled to voice her own opinions which may or may not correspond with her husband’s but it does no harm to understand with whom she probably discussed many things on a daily basis. Mr Gill made a  submission to the Electoral Commission which ends with this sentence “The ConnĂ©tables need to go back to their parishes in an honorary capacity and put new life into the vitally important parish system.” This almost exactly mirrors Christine Vibert’s own position as expounded during the broadcast. However, from my own enquiries, Mr Gill’s views do not receive much support from others in the Honorary system.
At one point in the proceedings this morning, when Christine Vibert was reiterating her views that many Constables would be glad not to be in the States, she was challenged by Ben Shenton who said he thought many Constables would in fact individually support Option B. This was seized upon as being evidence of a “bloc vote” both in the studio and on Twitter.
In fact, it would simply be a factual rebuttal of Ms Vibert’s unsubstantiated claims about how the Constable’s feel about being in the States and about their supposed concerns about their workload. I also noted that at one point Ms Vibert herself rolled out the old chestnut about the Constables' bloc vote but also said they did not all vote the same way! She does seem a bit confused about the facts!
All in all, I found the whole programme to be very disappointing and I only hope that there will be more and better opportunities for debate between the groups. I also hope that they will all up their game and give the public less personal opinion and more substantiated facts.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Simon says "I'm alright Jack!"

Just one week ago I took the conscious decision to state the case for the Parish Honorary system and to explore the potential impact the forthcoming referendum might have on it.

Since then I have been kept rather busy both learning how to use social media to get my message across and also reading the considerable  amount of blog posts and Facebook pages which have already been written to discuss this current attempt to reform the makeup of our Parliament.  I'm sure there are more I have yet to find.  I have also begun to talk to a number of other islanders with direct personal experience of the Parish System and who have a story to tell.

There is, in my humble opinion a lot of misinformation out there on the web  and conjecture masquerading as fact but there is also some well thought out content (on the merits of both option A and option B - I have seen little so far which supports option C - the status quo - which I think most people now acknowledge is not sustainable) which deserves consideration and  further scrutiny.

I've already got enough material for a few postings but I have decided to start with an examination of a posting made by the Constable of St Helier in which he declares his support for the removal of the Constables from the States  and the support of option A.  You can read his posting here

The problem with this posting is that has been seized upon by some as a vindication of their claims that with the Constables no longer in the States "the parish system will go on as before".  After all, surely the Constable of St Helier must be in the best position of all twelve Constables to gauge what the effects of option A on the honorary system would be.

In case there is any doubt, "honorary" means unpaid.  The tradition is giving of one's time in service to the parish without seeking a financial reward. Everyone immediately thinks of the Honorary Police but there are many other positions in the parish administration, from the management of the by-roads to the rating of parish properties which are all done without financial cost on a voluntary basis.  Several honorary positions may attract an honorarium - in the case of Rates Assessors, for example, this is covered by Article 39 of the Rates (Jersey) Law 2005.  It is also customary for parishes to reimburse the holders of honorary positions for any legitimate reasonable expenses they occur in the course of their duties.  I may well have more to say on this but it will have to wait for another blog posting.

So my next task will be to examine exactly how representative of the parish system St Helier really is.  I can demonstrate that in many ways, St Helier has made a special case for itself, sometimes to the detriment of the other 11 parishes. 

It’s not my intention to be personally critical of the present Constable, nor to suggest that the tack St Helier is taking is wrong - I merely contend that in many ways, St Helier is not like other parishes, that it does things differently and therefore that the stance taken by its Constable is not relevant to the other parishes and to the elements of the honorary system.  Indeed, in the past few days we have seen further calls for St Helier to seek city status. This time it is the outgoing president of the Chamber of Commerce who raises the issue, but in the recent past, Simon Crowcroft made similar calls.  He did not, and presumably does not, see St Helier as just one parish amongst twelve.

Let's firstly consider the Hononary Police and specifically the qualification for office which is set out in the Honorary Police (Jersey) Regulations 2005.

Qualification for election
(1)    A person shall only be qualified for election as a member of the Honorary Police of a parish if –
(a)     the person resides in the parish; and
(b)     on the day of nomination as a candidate for election, the person has attained 20 years of age but has not attained 70 years of age.
(2)    The requirement for residence in paragraph (1) is subject to the Parish of St. Helier (Qualifications for Office) (Jersey) Law 1976

So here a special case is made for St Helier.... the relevant Law states....

(1)    Notwithstanding any enactment or customary Law to the contrary, no person being a rate payer in the parish of St. Helier shall be disqualified for being elected to, or being the holder of, any honorary office in the parish of St. Helier, by reason only of the fact that the person does not reside therein.

(2)    For the purposes of this Article, a person shall be deemed to be a rate payer in the parish of St. Helier if the person is on the list of representatives of bodies corporate kept by the ConnĂ©table under Article 29(3) of the Rates (Jersey) Law 2005.

So effectively this means that whilst in the other Parishes, an Honorary Police Officer must be resident in the Parish, in St Helier this is not the case.  Being a ratepayer is sufficient.  Furthermore, being the nominated representative  (technically a "mandataire") of a company that is a ratepayer is also sufficient. So effectively, anyone could in theory at least, stand for office in St Helier, they would only need to find a ratepaying company which was willing to register them as a mandataire. 

In a situation where a parish can be fined a considerable amount of money for not being able to find a Centenier (as very nearly happened in St Peter recently) it seems bizarre that the Parish with the largest population is the only one that can look outside its boundaries in order to fill vacancies. 

Of course the head of the honorary system in each Parish is the Constable.  It therefore follows that this is an honorary position and therefore unpaid.

A pertinent question was posed to the Constable of St Helier - "What would you do if you were not successful in being elected a Deputy in scenario "A"? would you still seek the purely honorary position of Constable?"

His reply was interesting..."Yes. But as to whether it would be 'purely honorary' that would be up to the parishioners. I have been doing the parish job unpaid for 11 years, tho obviously I've been paid as a member of the States. If I were to be parish constable but not a deputy under Option A reforms it would be up to the parish to choose whether to pay me anything for continuing to act as unpaid chief executive or to employ someone else to do it; in the latter case I would have the time to do other paid work like teaching."

Firstly, he intimates that he anticipates the question of paying a Constable would be put to the Parishioners.  Then he also hints that in the event that the Parish decides against actually paying the Constable to be Chief Executive, it would be necessary for a new post of Chief Executive to be created.  Presumably this would come with a fairly high salary because there are already a number of high-value posts in the Parish administration and a Chief Executive would normally be the highest paid employee in any organisation - the clue is in the title!  The current pay of a States Member is in the region of £44,000 give or take, but I would imagine that some of the existing Parish directors are earning more than that, quite legitimately - I make no comment about the level of their salaries, merely seek to put the level of remuneration that a Chief Executive post might command into context.

So there is a definite possibility that St Helier would be asked to remunerate its Constable, the head of the Honorary System and that if that was not deemed acceptable, that the “executive functions" of a Constable could be devolved to a new position of Chief Executive, which might be felt to be more acceptable as it would be created outside of the Honorary System.

Either way, it seems the Parishioners of St Helier are to be asked to spend their rate money to cover services that are currently undertaken free of charge on an honorary basis.  Of course, St Helier has a large budget - its latest published accounts show that staff costs (excluding nursing homes and nurseries) are a massive £4,984,591 and that there are in excess of 270 FTE staff (although this figure is not broken down and so includes nursing home and nursery staff).  It is therefore conceivable that another post could be created and remuneration allocated without any undue attention being drawn to the fact.  With such an extensive rate base, the burden on individual ratepayers would be marginal.  Other Parishes, however, could not support such a development.  There are several whose entire annual budget is less than St Helier's staff costs alone.

But if the decision was to pay the Constable, what effect would this have on the remainder of the honorary positions both in St Helier and the other parishes.  As soon as the honorary element is removed for one post it must surely have a knock-on effect on others.  The Chef de Police, for example and the other Centeniers will typically put in a considerable amount of work on behalf of the Parish.  How long would they remain willing to do this if they knew that other previously honorary functions were now being undertaken by a paid executive?  Human nature would seen to suggest that they would not accept this for long. 

St Helier already has special arrangements in place for honorary recruitment as demonstrated above.  It can, therefore, attract any persons from across the Island who are inclined to offer themselves for honorary service.  This is to the detriment of the home parishes of these persons which may also be looking to fill vacant positions.  A potential added incentive of remuneration in St Helier must further tip the balance in favour of that parish.  The majority of the other parishes would not be in a position to remunerate their honorary positions, even if that did not go completely against the spirit of the honorary system in the first place.
A further question was posed to Simon Crowcroft "Do you feel the Parish would be at a disadvantage if our Constable was not in the States and yet some others were successful in being elected to the States?"

Again, his answer was interesting and begs further analysis.  “I find it hard to imagine someone standing successfully for the constableship of St Helier and not being returned in the election for Deputy. Actually I think any constable worth their salt can expect to take a seat in the Assembly.”

This answer belies the basic bias of referendum option “A” in favour of St Helier.  The “A Team” is very keen on the numerical deficiencies of option “B”.  This aspect, however is no surprise, it was pointed out specifically by the Electoral Commission but must be seen in the context of providing for the retention of a Parish connection for each and every parish, which is of significant cultural and historical importance and so therefore is deserving of being offered for consideration by the public.

What the “A Team” are not highlighting, of course, is the fact that St Helier is the only parish, under option “A” that is guaranteed to have dedicated representation in the Assembly.  Without the constables providing a directly link, one to every parish, as in option “B”, it is quite possible that some parishes will be totally without representation.  Even if all the Constables decide to stand as deputies in the districts, with the smaller parishes being swamped by sheer weight of numbers, it is unlikely that all will be represented in the Assembly.  However, with the Constable of St Helier having the choice of two “home” districts in which to stand and not having to worry in either case about the voters of other parishes preferring their home-grown candidates, he must surely have an increased chance of being returned as a Deputy.  Furthermore, once elected as a Deputy he would only have to concern himself with St Helier matters – both his electorates would consist solely of St Helier residents.  The Constable of Trinity, for example, if elected separately as a Deputy under option “B” would be responsible for the parish of Trinity as Constable and the District of St Saviour and Trinity, as Deputy.  This is, to quote the Constable of St Helier “quite a thought”!

In conclusion, I have seen nothing so far that shakes my belief that:

Option “C” is not sustainable
Option “A” may be mathematically pure but removes any certain link to 11 of the 12 parishes and will ultimately weaken the honorary system, possibly beyond repair.
Only Option “B” gives every islander an equal number of votes – a major advance over the current situation - and yet still gives the parish system a chance of fair representation - every parish will have a voice - in the States Assembly.

I'm backing Option "B"

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Getting motivated

Yesterday I signed up for Twitter (@parishadvocate) and today I have opened my first Blogger account.  Having teenage children has never been so useful!

So what could possibly have motivated me to take these steps. My social life was full enough already and work demands (mortgage, university fees and other "normal" expenses are certainly taking their toll.... as for everyone else in middle Jersey) keep me very busy, thank you!

The answer is simple... Last week the States agreed to hold a referendum on the future make up of the States Assembly.  For anyone who has been asleep, this came after an Electoral Commission was set up to come up with reform proposals, which it did after two rounds of consultation.  All residents should have received a summary of recommendations through their letterbox but there is a full document available here.  The die is cast and we must all participate in discussing the issues before referendum day on April 24th.

Essentially there are two choices for reform.  In both, the island will be divided into 6 large electoral districts.  There will be 42 elected representatives in either option.

In option A each district will elect 7 members.  There will be no specific parish representative.

In option B each district will elect 5 members. 

In addition each Parish will elect 1 constable who will be a member of the States.  Guaranteed Parish representation will therefore be maintained.

As my profile shows (and let's get something straight... I am a real 'ordinary' Jersey resident but someone who does not feel comfortable putting their own identity out on the web. I may have time to explain why on a future occasion but it's not really important now) I have a great deal of experience in the parish honorary system.  I have seen how quietly and efficiently it works on behalf of islanders.

For example, in these difficult financial times when GST has gone up, parking charges have gone up, planning fees etc etc, how many parishes have put up their parish rates?  Direct annual accountability to the public keeps parish spending on track.

As soon as the parishes lose control of a function it seems to suddenly cost more.  The cost of welfare has spiralled since it was taken over by the States. The next time extra funds are needed by the Council of Ministers, what will stop a proposition to change the parish rate law to vary the parameters of the Island Wide Rate?  More and more often, the States want parishes to assume responsibility for service provision.  This means the States can achieve their efficiency savings by relying more on the parishes.  Just consider the recent health consultation which envisaged many health initiatives being delivered in the parishes.  There is nothing wrong with that - it may well be a better option but if this is to be the case, the Parishes must have a voice in these decisions through direct representation in the debates.

There is a lot of misinformation about the honorary system being bandied about by people who quite obviously know little about what it really means.  Let's open the discussion here and hopefully set a few things straight.  I'm up for a debate but let's keep it civil please. 

Option B is the only choice if you value the tried and tested parish honorary system.