Before Christmas ‘Team Voice’ – one off-shoot of what has become increasingly known as ‘Citizen’s Media’ over the past couple of years - contacted all those politicians who had been elected to new positions at the 2008 elections. This was to ask if they would consider responding to a number of questions relating to their experiences of the past year. With the Christmas/New Year festivities now out of the way, I respond to some of their key questions in what will be the first of three or possibly even four postings covering a number of different issues.
Some questions Team Voice asked about, such as how many oral/written questions a new Member might have asked during the 2008 States sittings, are really best answered by simply pointing anyone significantly interested to the appropriate areas of the States website where this information can quite easily be found. But I felt that some responses really demanded a little more detail be given: hence the decision to split the comments over a number of postings.
I would add that what is written below and within the posts that will follow will be far from a full account of the past twelve months in politics as I have experienced it. But I would nevertheless genuinely like to thank Team Voice for taking the trouble to ask their questions. I certainly don’t agree with them on every single issue but the reality is that the more people who take a deeper interest in local politics like those behind Team Voice the better it is for democracy. And that should be true regardless of whether one is left, right, centre or green. In my experience the only politicians who don’t like such interest are those who also don’t like accountability.
In this first response to Team Voice’s questions I will outline the main Scrutiny work that I have sat on this year, and also offer some thoughts on the fascinating (honest!) issue of States sittings. The second posting in a few days time will look at the issue of the propositions/amendments that I have brought; along with discussing the different areas of a States Member’s workload.
Scrutiny work - panels and sub-panels
Like a number of politicians I firmly believe that there is a good deal that needs to be done to finally make Scrutiny what it should be i.e. the key check and balance by which the Executive is held accountable. Put in a nutshell Scrutiny needs to develop real teeth; whilst Ministers need to recognise the absolutely crucial need for adequate checks and balances to the functioning of all democracies. I would even go as far as to say that it is also quite possible that Scrutiny may not even be the best way forward to achieve this - given the general contempt that it, and those politicians who put so many hours into the work in good faith, are viewed with by so many members of the Executive. But more about that in a future posting. For now let’s get back to Team Voice’s question about panel/sub-panels I have been involved with.
Since elected I have been the Vice-Chairman of the Education, Sport & Culture and Home Affairs Scrutiny Panel. This is chaired by Deputy Roy Le Herissier and also includes Deputy Montford Tadier and Connétable Graeme Butcher of St. John. Other States Members have also been co-opted for various sub-panel reviews. Full reviews are only one aspect of the Scrutiny process; but our most recently published report was an investigation into Fort Regent. Arising directly from this the panel has a proposition to establish a working party to try and finally kick-start some much-needed, co-ordinated re-development of this sadly neglected community facility up for debate in January 2010. I also have an amendment to this proposition – which I’m pleased to say has been accepted by the ESC Minister – lodged in my own name. Again, more about that next time.
During 2009 I also served as Vice-Chairman on the Vulnerable Children’s Services Review (a Health, Social Security & Housing Scrutiny sub-panel) arising from the Williamson Report. This was a very intense and time-consuming piece of work due to the very tight deadline constraints. It was chaired by Senator Alan Breckon, who I have to say put in a truly incredible amount of hours, and also included Deputies Geoff Southern and Roy Le Herissier.
I could say a great deal on this particular review, but for now will simply observe that having been the politician who persuaded the other members to lodge the proposition calling for an independent Committee of Inquiry I was truly appalled that this was subsequently rejected by the States. Why? It offered the one clear opportunity to ‘de-personalise’ (politically speaking) the whole issue and finally, however painful, ensure that the States could eventually draw a line under the issue. As it is I think this will now take many, many years.
Further still, along with being a member of the sub-panel chaired by Deputy Tadier that examined the Prison Board of Visitors system I am currently Chairman of the ESC/Home Affairs sub-panel investigating the issue of School Suspensions. The report on this issue – which is bringing to light some areas of real challenge for government to try and find means to adequately support our teachers in 2010, - should be completed by the end of February.
Finally I would also point out that a major consequence of Deputy Le Herissier and my self needing to be pulled off work to assist with the Vulnerable Children’s Services Review was that some other planned work for the later part of 2009 will now be undertaken in the coming months. This will include looking at Higher Education fees and the delivery of political education following on from the recent lowering of the voting age to 16.
States sittings – When being ‘present’ is not all it appears
Team Voice also asked how many States sittings new Members have missed. The answer to that in my case is none. Though most of us will have been unwell on occasions; or had something serious come up leading to them missing the odd thing as a result some people have not been so lucky. Here I would just pay tribute to my JDA colleague Deputy Debbie De Sousa. Debbie has endured a terrible year of bad fortune in 2009 including losing both her mother and father; her grandmother and the awful blow of her daughter losing a baby. She even ended up in hospital herself just days after the last States sitting. The fact that Debbie has soldiered on, contributed fully and still managed to serve so many constituents so well in St. Helier No.2 along with Shona and Geoff is a real credit to her strength as a person.
However, with reference to the issue of attendance at States sittings I actually think that interested ‘politicos’ like Team Voice should probably be asking slightly different questions.
Such as with regard to the number of ‘part-time’ politicians we appear to have for example. Politicians like those who squeal to the media about having to ’listen’ to long, boring speeches/propositions. Yet who all too often, having come in to say ‘present’ for the marking of the school register actually then disappear to their external business offices or to who knows where. Disappear in fact regularly not to be seen again for the rest of the day; or possibly just hurry back in to vote on debates they will often have never even heard!
I honestly think members of the public who have never observed a full States session would be quite intrigued by just how many of the ‘great and the good’ regularly contribute nothing whatsoever to debates or question time or very close to it. Just how these Members can subsequently claim to have been able to make an informed decision on which way to vote I’ll leave to readers to fathom.
When you consider the flak that Senator Syvret has received for very publicly not being present in the Chamber you also surely have to ask those Members who often only appear to be there ‘in name’ if they are really in any position to criticise? Maybe they all keep in touch via taxpayer-funded Blackberries instead? Of course, in January I have a proposition to try and combat this disappearing trick by forcing more people to stay in the Chamber by upping the quorum from 27 to 35. I wonder who will support it.
Another directly related problem that needs sorting out is the regular mass exodus. Everyone needs a quick ‘comfort break’ at some point during the morning/afternoon as I have said. But the regular, quite deliberate contempt for some Members every time they rise to speak – and Deputy Southern and the Deputy of St. Mary are two prime examples of Members being treated in this way – is both disrespectful and quite frankly wholly pathetic. What makes the behaviour all the worse is that the two Members I mention above regularly give some of the most informative and best researched speeches anyone is ever likely to hear in the States! This Establishment Party tactic has certainly become far more blatant as the year progressed. As I say…if only more of the general public would come along and watch for themselves.
To conclude? I openly acknowledge that I came into politics with very strong views. Yet the fact is that I can nevertheless say quite honestly that I have still always been willing to support and vote for another Member’s proposition on merit of the argument as I see it. Those who simply don’t/won’t vote or listen to a Member just because it happens to be the JDA; a Deputy Wimberley; Senator Breckon; Deputy Higgins or Tadier etc really aren’t fit to be in government. Unfortunately, this type of ‘politician’ is still in the majority.
But if we do really want listening, accountable and effective government; government willing to work together for the benefit of all we can change all of this very easily. Just take the same kind of interest displayed by those at ‘Team Voice’ for example and then in 2011 - vote!