Wednesday, January 13, 2010

OBSERVATIONS ON QUESTIONS RAISED BY ‘TEAM VOICE’ – POSTING TWO

Apologies, but due to Saturday’s constituent work and visits ending up being far more protracted then anticipated, courtesy of the weather and the nature of one or two of the problems some people had; and another very busy day of constituent work Monday there will be a slight detour in this second posting. The intended response to Team Voice’s questions about the propositions and amendments that I have lodged will now hopefully be completed for posting three later this week.

Instead, tonight I will cover some of the questions sent to Members newly elected to their positions in 2008 about various aspects of their working practices etc. Though its all basic ‘nuts and bolts’ stuff which many may well find wholly boring (hey, its your fault, guys, you did ask!) there are still some interesting issues arising from these questions. So, if Team Voice will bear with me on this occasion, I may come back to one or two of these at a later date. Thanks again for taking the interest.

Other employment

Firstly, Team Voice asked whether Members had any other employment. The answer to that is no, I do not have any external business distractions and am a full-time politician. Nor, in all honesty, do I think that it is particularly desirable to have what for some Members certainly appear to be the clear conflict and pressure/distraction of another ‘job’. Why? Like a number of other Members I am increasingly concerned as to the time some ‘senior’ – and not so senior for that matter - politicians appear to devote to other business interests.

Of course, I fully support the principle that what one does outside of the States is a Member’s own concern. But – particularly in the case of politicians sitting on the Executive as Ministers – if this external commitment appears to be undermining someone’s political work, an issue that has already been raised in the States this year by Shona in relation to the quite ridiculous lengths of time one Minister was taking to respond to members of the public and the backbencher representing them, then that has to be a legitimate concern.

When you also consider the issues I raised in my initial post you also have to question the link to some politicians regularly disappearing from the States building during States sittings – and disappearing for hours at a time. Indeed, these disappearances are something PPC really should be doing something about.

Secretarial assistance and office rental

I don’t employ any secretarial support. I actually prefer to do my own typing (even if it is often based on four fingers and the occasional thumb!), filing etc and in all honesty the expenses limit set for States Members also doesn’t really make this a realistic prospect anyway for those without other income. There is also the issue of the confidential nature of many of the problems we are dealing with to consider. I don’t rent an office either. I work from an office I’ve set up in the spare room at home and on occasion make use of the very limited facilities room at the States. It is worth noting here that, as has now been recognised by PPC this year, the issue of facilities generally and the unevenness of how this pans out for Members is something that needs to be looked at.

For example, Ministers have an office and significant admin/facilities support which I certainly have no quibble with - other than when viewed against some of the appallingly inept reports and answers to questions that have become increasingly regular lately. How this can happen with so many officers at their disposal is a question that many within the Assembly have been asking. Connétables also obviously have access to offices etc by simple nature of their post through their parish hall.

For any Deputy not having a department facility to work within, however, deciding to rent an office means this cost must come from within the expenses limit – which under the States of Jersey Law is meant to be the same for all of us. The reality of this - and for an example I will use Shona who has rented an office in the heart of her district since being elected in 2005 - is that the resultant rental costs will wipe out the vast majority of those expenses meant to also cover everything from phone calls to office equipment, electricity, stationary, postage, printing and materials etc in one stroke.

A fact that takes on a further significance when one considers that this year, in a deliberate ‘loophole’ flouting of the States of Jersey Law (don’t believe the Establishment Party spin that claims otherwise!), we have seen 18 States Members of the Executive, many already with access to offices and support also claiming both their expenses and now getting Blackberry bills paid: effectively increasing/stretching their expenses limit by another three, four figures and beyond! All at the taxpayers’ expense. Why can’t they just stay within expenses limits or foot the surplus themselves like those in Scrutiny?

Have I travelled off-island on States business?

With the others members of the ESC/Home Affairs Scrutiny Panel in November 2009 I visited Westminster and the Welsh Assembly to meet with, and to view our counterparts at work. This was over two days and certainly from my perspective was very useful.

Letters, e-mails and telephone calls etc

Team Voice also asked about the volume of contacts Members received from members of the public. I would imagine that all Members would state that this can vary hugely and is affected by a number of things. For example, in the lead up to the debate on my ‘naming of youth offenders’ proposition I received over 180 contacts on this one issue over three to four weeks. Why? This was clearly an issue that a lot of people felt very strongly about, but the number was still a rarity. On other issues that you also anticipate you will be bombarded with calls you may not get a single one.

I would say that if you happen to have been in the media regarding a particular issue this also has an impact. As for more general contacts (I’m taking this question as not meaning actual cases to take up) this varies hugely too. It is possible to actually get a week on very rare occasions where you don’t get a single contact about anything and start to worry as to why. The next week you will suddenly find yourself with a dozen or more constituent contacts and possibly half as many fully blown new cases to take on as a result.

Maybe this is linked to the type of constituency a politician represents, but most people definitely seem to prefer to phone. This is wholly understandable I suppose because most will want that ‘personal’ contact in order to explain the problem.

A related point to this is the question raised by Team Voice about holding ‘surgeries’. I don’t do this for the simple reason that people who approach me for help want me there when they need that assistance; and really appreciate the fact that a politician is willing and able to come to them. For many elderly constituents, of course, taking this approach is absolutely essential. I’ve also questioned many people about this going right back to before the election and the message is overwhelmingly the same. That’s not to say they can’t work in the right circumstances

One final point under this heading. Perhaps it is partly because as a member of the JDA people are used to seeing me at the information stalls we have run regularly in the High Street over the past few years during the warmer months, but I am also really pleased that so many people seem quite happy to come up to me in the street and talk about issues. For all the faults with our system, this is one area where I think Jersey’s small size really does offer something to the democratic process that you would be highly unlikely to get in far larger jurisdictions.

‘Average’ hours and the different aspects of a States Members work

I obviously can’t speak for other Members questioned, but for me, if there is such a thing as an ‘average’ week it will generally fall between 45 – 60 hours. I must admit, as yet I have never sat down and created a week-by-week diary sheet to break this down into segments. Maybe this is something else for the coming year. Weeks with extended sittings and/or periods when Scrutiny work on an intense schedule (such as the Vulnerable Children’s review for example) can obviously increase this figure as it can have a ‘knock on’ effect. Similarly, as I indicated above, constituent work is something that you simply cannot predict and which can increase your workload significantly.

As for the different aspects of work themselves from my own experience these can be broken down into the following areas. The truth is that many of these actually overlap.

Scrutiny: As outlined in my last post, if one is committed to trying to do this to the best of his/her ability then its one of the most time consuming aspects of the job; not least because of the huge amount of background reading/research that is necessary. Of course, viewed in its present form, I also have to acknowledge that Scrutiny work may well also currently be seen to be one of the least effective usages of time in relation to ensuring effective government. This is why we need to improve it urgently.

As I touched on in posting one, it does not have sufficient teeth; is hamstrung by the limits within which it has been developed; and is viewed with total contempt by all too many of those who it is meant to help hold accountable. A further example is that the Scrutiny Chairmen’s Committee hasn’t been able to sort out the Citizens Media issue over the past year – something which I fully believe could, and should, have been sorted out long before now. But more on this last particular issue in a dedicated post.

I am aware that I have been very critical of a number of politicians who played no part, or next to none in either Scrutiny or the Executive during 2009. Yet maybe Members like Deputy Bob Hill are right? Maybe those not on the Executive can be far more effective in holding the COM to account in a different way? Sorry if that upsets any of my fellow Scrutiny members – I am just being honest. Again, more on this issue in a future post…

Propositions: In my first year following election I lodged six propositions and a further three amendments. More detail about this issue in my next posting as promised. Suffice to say for now that for a ‘backbencher’ without any support this can also be very time consuming – particularly for those members who also play a full role in all other areas I outline.

As far as I am concerned, however, it is also a very important part of the democratic process; often being the only way a Member can ensure government debates an issue that the Executive of the day simply may not want to touch with a barge pole. Personally, whether I share another Member’s political perspective or not, if they are prepared to develop propositions and follow them through (whatever the result) they have my respect for it because some Members will probably never lodge a proposition in their whole political career.

Constituent work: I am pleased to say that like each of my JDA colleagues I have a very busy portfolio of constituent work. I say pleased because it is an area of political work that I really enjoy. Which is not really surprising I suppose given a background in Youth and Community Development. Like the previous headings it too is also very time consuming, not just due to the number of cases but because the complexity of sorting problems out can vary hugely. It’s been a sharp learning curve in many areas.

Constituent work is also one area of our work that I think is definitely impacted upon according to whether a politician gets a good name for helping (or at least trying to help) people as word definitely seems to get around pretty fast. The other key factor affecting the volume of this work is obviously the type of constituency a politician represents i.e. urban or country.

I can briefly illustrate this very neatly with an example from last October. Chatting to a Deputy from a country parish – a very good Deputy too I might add – he let slip that he had just one constituent case. This must have drawn a wry smile because that particular Thursday I had happened to pick up not one, but a record (for me) seven new cases over the one afternoon. Fortunately that day has been a one off so far! As I say, it’s just the nature of different constituencies.

Finally, and I accept that some might want to criticise me for taking this approach. But though the majority of my ‘constituent’ work is obviously in my district, and is my key priority, I have also regularly taken on cases for individuals who have contacted me from other parishes over the course of the last year. Why? Though a parish Deputy I feel it is right to do this because I did initially stand in the Senatorials. So if someone feels, for whatever reason, that they are able to trust me with their problem then I think it is only right that I do my best to assist – not that you always can. It doesn’t detract from my district work in any way and personally I am happy to put in whatever additional time might be necessary to do so.

Parish work: As well as things like attending Parish Assemblies and our regular St. Helier Deputies meetings with the Connétable; helping serve food at the parish parties for elderly residents etc, constituent work obviously also overlaps this heading significantly. For example, all four JDA Deputies were recently heavily involved in supporting the residents around Ann Court to collect signatures for the petition against building a multi-story car park there.

Other aspects of work also overlap too, of course. Such as my involvement in initiatives such as the St. Helier North Town Master Plan group. I’ll talk more about this in the posting on propositions, but I also have an amendment to try and ensure that there is such representation from St. Helier No. 1 (hopefully me!) on the Fort Regent Strategy Working Group, as I think it is important that local Deputies are directly involved wherever a project or development is being planned.

Arising directly from Deputy Southern’s successful amendment to finally get the Town Park project kick-started the Connétable, Simon Crowcroft, is similarly now chairing a Working Group to push this forward.. This was finalised shortly before Christmas at one of our regular St. Helier Deputies meetings. And, whilst I did not put my name forward to be a full member of this group as both Geoff and Shona are already, like other Deputies not directly on the group I will still attend and do whatever is necessary in 2010 to help progress this long overdue project as and when I am needed.

Other aspects also come to mind in thinking about Team Voice’s questions that it is also important to support even if a politician is not directly on a group. A good example is supporting the links with Funchal and Madeira. Similarly, the new St. Helier Battle of Flowers Committee initiative that is being chaired by Debbie de Sousa. Whilst I would certainly not wish to claim it as ‘work’ as all you had to do was chip in £30 - all four JDA Deputies along with Deputy Judy Martin and Connétable Crowcroft recently attended a fundraising event featuring some traditional musicians from Madeira that was absolutely brilliant.

I would emphasise that though such things may seem unimportant at first glance they really are hugely valuable in terms of developing the community positively. Whatever some people might view his other faults I would also state here that this is one area where Simon Crowcroft has done a truly excellent job as St. Helier Connétable. .

Reports, presentations and preparation work for the States: The fact that we regularly hear members of the public moaning along the lines that all States Members do is turn up at the States once a fortnight ‘to vote yay or nay’ is, in many ways, not surprising in my view. Though I had followed local politics since I was in my late teens it was not until Shona was elected in 2005 that even I began to see the true extent of the work involved. The amount of reports and paperwork alone that arrives every week needing to be read as background to legislation, propositions etc is simply incredible and takes up (or should if you are serious about trying to understand issues that might be completely outside your sphere of knowledge or even interest) many hours every week.

Could a politician get away with not trying to do so? Undoubtedly – if he or she is really happy to just turn up at sittings and vote blindly or as they are told. I’m pleased to say that I am not one of them. On top of this there are also regularly linked ‘presentations’ to attend on some issues. Like many other Members, however, I’m afraid to say that far too many of those organised by the Council of Ministers are a complete waste of time. Why? They frequently descend into spin aimed at promoting a particular angle. Reading may take far longer but I would suggest that is far more beneficial to making an informed decision.

States sittings: This obviously overlaps directly with what I have said above so I will limit myself to the following observations. This is the only part of a politician’s ‘work’ that most people see via reporting in the media, unless you are a constituent approaching one for help. Yet actually attending States sittings are - trust me - a real eye-opener and I would encourage anyone with a high pain threshold to come along to the public gallery to watch.

If nothing else, you might get to know how misleading it can be when you are informed that someone is ‘present’ according to newspaper and radio. Likewise which politicians rarely or never ask questions? Who rarely or never plays any part in a debate by making a case for or against? Who actually tries to keep their election promises by presenting a proposition – or sells out their election promises made to you the voter at the very first turn? A really interesting one this - who always vote together and against who? Hey, if you happen to have really sharp eyesight you might even get to note who is being told how to vote via Blackberry!

I think I’ll leave it there.

Deputy Trevor Pitman

4 comments:

  1. Wow.

    You seem to have a full workload. Speaking of the members who just turn up for the school register. I noticed for P182 that was published recently on VFJ that Connetable Sylva Yates was marked as "present" but there is no record of his vote.

    Thanks again for your indepth response to the questions which will be giving an insight to the general public of what being a politician "can" involve.

    The questionnaire was also sent to two of my "representatives" Connetable Len Norman and Deputy Ann Dupre, they declined to even acknowlege the e-mail, let alone answer any of the questions.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Deputy Trevor PitmanJanuary 15, 2010 at 9:04 AM

    Voiceforchildren

    Thanks for your comments. This was a very long post - too long really - but I did want to get as much in to the post in answer to your questions as possible.

    You asked earlier if I knew what Deputy Dupre did. I'm afraid that I have no idea. Certainly the Deputy is one who rarely contributes anything during States sittings.

    Why don't you ask her again as I note you say she is one of your representatives? We should all be responding to constituents so if you still got no responce with this approach that would be interesting.

    However, having spent a good part of my earlier years living in St. Clement and still having many friends and family there, my real issue with Deputy Dupre would be the same as theirs.

    I.e. many voted for her on the strength of her standing on a GST exemptions platform at the election. yet she voted the other way shortly after election. None of the people I know in the parish will be voting for her again as a direct result.

    None of us can guarantee to get any of our election pledges through because you need to convince a majority of the Assembly. But what people can and should be able to expect is that all of us at least stick to what we had said in our manifesto.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Trevor.

    Regarding contacting Deputy Dupre again. I'll not bother wasting my time as she is only an extremely small fish in a big pond. If she has the audacity to stand for election again, after misleading the voters on her GST stance last time, then I am quite confident she will not be re-elected.

    Team Voice's membership is growing and we intend, running up to the next elections, to create two more Blogsites, one for Deputy Dupre and one for Deputy James Reed. The public will have a VERY informed choice as to whether they should vote for either of these two.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thank you Deputy Pitman for a very informative response, and the in depth manner you have presented it.

    Some food for thought in there. We now await the answers from all the others!

    ReplyDelete

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