Saturday, 27 September 2014

The future of the Constables in the States - is it too much to ask for an honest debate?

On the 15th October, as well as electing Senators and Deputies (and Constable if you're lucky enough to live in St Mary) we are apparently having a referendum!

I voted against holding this referendum and have played no part whatsoever in the 'No' campaign as I've been far too busy with helping to co-ordinate Reform Jersey's election campaign.

Some of us have to go through elections whilst others have been returned unopposed so they can dedicate their time to preserving this privilege for themselves.

So I wanted to take a look at the propaganda that has been issued by the 'Yes' campaign and try to dissect it.

I had always anticipated that the 'Yes' campaign would be entirely based on misinformation, scaremongering and, to put it bluntly, lies. Having read their leaflet they have been distributing at Senatorial hustings, it seems I wasn't wrong!

So here we go. I'll do it paragraph by paragraph -

The loss of the Constables will weaken opposition to the current proposals for a centralised property tax. This proposal will cost islanders more than the current rates system, and be set by the Treasury Minister, not Parishioners.

There is no evidence whatsoever to say that the opposition to the proposed property tax will be weakened if the Constables aren't in the States. This is just pure scaremongering - "Vote Yes, or your taxes will rise".

I am not a Constable and I oppose the property tax.

What will strengthen the opposition to the property tax is for the public to elect candidates who pledge to oppose it.

Fixing an electoral system based on what tax policies you want to see engineered out of the democratic process is just gerrymandering, pure and simple. 

Parish rates have remained steady for 10 years. Without an effective Parish Administration the size of bureaucracy will increase, stifling business in Jersey, and increasing the burden on the individual ratepayer.

Completely agree. We all want an effective Parish administration. But only those who support the Constables being in the States seem to think it is logical that an effective Parish system necessitates having their head being locked up in the States Assembly for several days every fornight dealing with matters that are mostly nothing to do with the Parish.

If you want an effective Parish administration, surely it is logical to want the Parish head to exercise exclusive duties in their Parish and not be tied up with a second job?

If the Constables are removed from the States they will either have to be paid by their Parishes, or not at all. This creates imbalance and without pay, the only people who will stand will be those with time and money to afford it. It also risks destabilising the whole honorary system, should one office holder receive remuneration and the others not.

The first point here is complete rubbish. They have no basis at all for assuming that the States wouldn't volunteer to contribute remuneration to the heads of the Parishes if it is deemed important enough.

But the last part is just pure hypocrisy. How can they possibly claim that it will destabilise the honorary system by giving remuneration to one office holder and not the rest when that is what happens right now! You couldn't make it up.

It's also entirely illogical to say that it will only attract people with money to the job, when the same could now equally apply to the Procureurs, Chef de Police and Roads Committee members. 

Ask yourself how effective is the administration of your Parish compared with the States of Jersey, and would you want to remove this efficiency from your Government?

This sentence doesn't even make sense.

Through their political role, the Constables can interact with parishioners and work as part of a support network. The loss of the Constables in the States will undoubtedly lead to a dramatic weakening of the Parish System – as has been the case in Guernsey for many years.

The Constables interaction with parishioners normally takes place in the Parish Halls and at Parish events and is therefore in their Parish role that that interaction takes place, not their States role.

As for Guernsey, they never had a Parish system like we do. Their honorary police system was abolished almost a hundred years ago despite having Parish representation in their States.

To say the removal of the Constables from the States will "undoubtedly" lead to the Parish system being weakened is entirely disingenuous. Of course there is doubt that that would be the case. There is even an argument to say it could improve the Parish system by allowing the Constables to focus on their Parishes.

Constables have been identified as the future for 'e-government' interaction as well as care and the community. This cannot happen if they are not in the States Assembly.

The idea that the Constables are beacons for e-government is just laughable when you consider that almost all of the Parishes don't even have their own websites.

The presence of the Constables in the States so they can vote on things like GST etc is entirely irrelevant for them carrying out their part of the implementation of e-government across Jersey administration.

Through the Parish Assembly, and being available at the Parish Hall, the Constable is uniquely placed in being able to understand the concerns of their parishioners. These concerns are taken into the States Assembly directly, through the political role of the Constable. This cannot be replaced.

Parishes are all filled with thousands of people who are all individuals with their own views and experiences. It is ludicrous to suggest that one individual can compound all of their views and represent them. Every vote a Constable casts will please some Parishioners and disappoint others. Let's not pretend that anything else is the case.

The Constables are continually accountable to the parishioners through the Parish Assembly as well as the ballot box. No other type of States Member is. Parishioners, by the ancient law of Requête can force a Parish Assembly to be called.

When 11 out of 12 Constables have just been elected unopposed, it is quite ridiculous to claim that they are accountable at the ballot box.

Constables may well be technically accountable at Parish Assemblies, but the turn out at them is normally pretty abysmal and unrepresentative of the Parish. The apathy we see in island-wide politics is definitely replicated in Parish politics too.

Requêtes do still exist (and I personally think they're a potentially really nifty tool) but how often do they happen? Virtually never. I only know of a couple of occasions recently where they have been initiated by Parishioners and the Constable has then gone on to completely ignore the verdict of the requête!

Most Deputies do not represent the Parishes in the States. They are elected in their own districts, on the basis of their political views. Each Parish, as a corporate body, is represented in the States by its Constable similar to the way each Department is represented by its Minister.

So one minute the Constable is there to represent the Parishioners, the next moment they are there to represent the corporate entity of the Parish. Inconsistency or what?

Democracy is about people being represented, not corporate entities.

If there is a need for the Parishes to have a direct line of communication to States bodies, it is entirely possible to do that without the Constables being members of the States.

The removal of the Constables has the potential to de-stabilise Jersey's Government. Offshore business requires confidence in government. Radical changes in the structure of government could damage this at a time of economic uncertainty. 

This is what it is really all about.

It isn't about protecting our honorary system or promoting government efficiency, it is about making sure that every States Assembly is stacked to make sure that the ruling block in Jersey always has an inbuilt majority, no matter what the people of Jersey want.
Keeping the Constables in the States means the conservative rural Parishes are over-represented at the expense of the more liberal urban Parishes. That is anti-democratic and there is no escaping that point.

There is a suggestion that Constables have a "block vote". While they may vote the same way, they do so as individuals bringing Parish concerns to the assembly. Statistics show that Senators vote the same way as often as Constables do, but this goes unremarked. It is worth noting that a Party System would be one in which Party members had to vote the same way and take the agreed Party line. That would be a real "block vote".

I've already addressed the illogical assertion that a Constable can bring Parish concerns to the States, but at least they have admitted the Constables have a block vote.

But it's funny to see them criticise an alleged party block vote as somehow being bad, whilst justifying the Constable block vote. At least a party has the good decency to actually be honest about it's aims and intentions and put it to the voters before an election, rather than the Constables who pretend they aren't and have no democratic legitimacy to act like a party.

Constables have proven they are reforming States Members. They led the way towards a single election day, a four year term and spring elections. They also removed their own policing powers. Without them reform becomes more difficult to achieve.

I wonder if anyone will believe this claim that Constables are reforming States Members. Their record shows that they are the complete opposite. They are the biggest stumbling block to any meaningful reform in the States.

A vote to keep them in the States is a vote for no immediate change, and therefore it takes us back to the drawing board again to determine any future reform.

But isn't it ironic for them to claim that removing the Constables from the States will weaken the Parish system, yet for them to stay in the States they have had to give up powers it's considered in appropriate for a parliamentarian to have?

But now here is the real whopper -

The retention of the Constables IS compliant with the Venice Commission, which makes allowances for different jurisdictions: "The geographical criterion and administrative, or possibly even historical, boundaries may be taken into consideration." Our Parish boundaries are both administrative and historical and thus meet these requirements.

This is a lie.

Every expert opinion that has been given on Jersey's electoral system has confirmed that this is not true.

Our system does not comply with the Venice Commission and the proposed Option B last year (which kept the Constables) was still deemed by the Electoral Commission's advisers to be non-compliant, despite the exemptions that the Yes campaign have cited.

The purpose of the Venice Commission is to try to keep a degree of proportionality in electoral systems, whilst still respecting local custom. The Constable of St Helier has an electorate that is 20 times as great as the electorate for the Constable of St Mary. That is unjustifiable.

So there we have it. I've written this in a bit of a rush, so it's not as in depth as it could be, but you should get the idea.

The 'Yes' campaign has been incapable of producing an honest argument as to why the Constables should remain automatically in the States. That unwillingness to engage properly on the future of our municipal government system is to blame for why so many islanders feel so distant from these institutions and have no interest in taking part in them.

If you agree - vote Non Mercie in the referendum on the 15th October.


  1. Sam.

    Deputy Sam Mezec unelected States Members part two. CONSTABLES.

  2. Sam

    If the no vote wins. Does that mean we still have to wait 4 years (next general election) for it to be implemented?

    1. Almost certainly yes I think.

      It would be strange for the States to kick out 12 members halfway through their term.

      There would also need to be further reforms agreed with what happens to those 12 vacant seats. i.e. whether we have more Senators in their place or increase Deputies etc.

  3. I watched your fantastic interview on the VFC blog about the Constables. Why don't you embed the Youtube video on here?

  4. Cannot agree with your views, as the constables are the head of the parishes and it is the 12 parishes that make up the Island therefore it seems perfectly acceptable for the head of each parish to sit in the states. I am also tired of hearing that they are unelected as when their term of office is up they are up for re-election, the cause of many of them not facing a contested election is due to the move to this general election as if they were all elected on a separate constables election day there would probably be a number of contested elections. They should also elect all the deputies on a separate day from the senators as the new system mean the candidates are spread to thinly, although I would not expect you to agree as you and your puppet master Geoff Southern would then face sterner opposition.

  5. Ask yourself how effective is the administration of your Parish compared with the States of Jersey

    I'd take the States every time!

  6. Did you hear Phil Bailhache & others spouting off about democracy on BBC radio bean's election call? What a load of garbage.

    To summarise Bailhaches comments: Democracy & separation of powers is a good idea in theory. Except Jersey has 800 years experience of feudal rule by the elite (Me & my brother) - so why change?

    Also- the Bailiff's position in polite society would be diminished if he were not speaker in the States and head Judge.

    There you have it.

    Appearing to be a very important fish in a little pond is much more important than democracy.

    So Vote for me you fools!

    What a clown.

  7. Sam.

    Should Constables remain as Members of the States as an automatic right DEBATED.