Tuesday, 11 August 2015

The Future of Jersey's Honorary System

Last night at the Town Hall I proposed Geraint Jennings for election to the office of Procureur du Bien Public of St Helier.

The job of a Procureur is to look after ratepayers money better than they would their own. They are also able to deputise for the Constable in his or her absence. The role is honorary and they receive no payment for their services, merely the gratitude of a grateful public for their service.

Geraint is the author of a paper (see Appendix 1 here) written on the history and potential future of municipal reform in St Helier, to enable the capital of this Island to take on more powers and responsibility in affairs which concern residents and businesses and to provide a better democratic framework to allow this to happen.

He envisages a 'Conseil Municipal de Saint Helier' to replace the currents odd and incoherent system of Roads Committee and Procureurs. In other words, he will be the turkey who votes for Christmas, as he believes in a new system which is fit to meet the needs of St Helier for decades to come.

I stress that he is not a Reform Jersey candidate, however I am supporting him in this election as I believe his manifesto is the one which, if implemented, would best secure the ability of St Helier to provide for our residents and businesses what they need.

The election is on the 9th September at the Town Hall. I hope those who support positive change will vote for him!

Whilst this was going on, in another Parish they were holding elections for Centeniers (the senior honorary police of the Parish).

In St Helier our three incumbents were re-elected and those who were there were very grateful for their voluntary service over the past three years and for their commitment for another three ahead of them.

However, in St Saviour they once again failed to find a single candidate for the vacant post, having missed their previous deadline and having to be fined £5,000 by the Royal Court.

This follows a huge amount of work done by Constable Sadie Le Sueur-Rennard and the Parish to engage with the public and attempt to find a candidate who was willing to offer their service.

Previous to that St John had also come very close to being fined, having only found a candidate just before the deadline.

So naturally there has been a whole lot of talk about the future of the honorary system.

Various commentators have come forward with various suggestions. Hugh Raymond (President of the Honorary Police Association) has said that the age limit for Centeniers could be lifted and perhaps restrictions on which Parish you can service in may be lifted.

I think there may be some merit in those suggestions, on the basis of practicality, however I have yet to see any commentator get to what I believe is the real issue here.

Jersey has a long history of honorary service. Most of it I believe is something to be proud of, with only a few elements having an overall negative impact.

The fact we have so many people who are willing to give up their time to take up a community policing role is good, not just for that community, but also saves a huge amount of money that would have to be spent on extra professional police.

In our municipal administrations we have many people who have given up time to serve on the Parish Roads Committees or as Procureurs. The equivalent positions in the UK also do not accord salaries.

Historically being a States Member was also an honorary role. This, in my view, was always wrong and Jersey paid the price for it. We did not have a working class member of the States until 1966. Right up until the early 2000s when salaries were introduced, the public of Jersey were denied a proper democratic choice by the fact that an office carrying such a workload was not remunerated and therefore something that only those of an independent means could do so effectively.

I recently heard a Constable say that he considered his role to be honorary. I had to bite my tongue to avoid pointing out to him that that was nonsense, but those who believe things like that aren't often open to allowing facts to change their mind.

You would think that because Jersey's population is the highest it has ever been, and that these offices have existed for hundreds of years when our population was minuscule, that the greater pool of people to ask to volunteer, there would be a greater number of candidates, yet the opposite is the case.

Here is the elephant in the room that no one has thought important to mention yet -

People are more stressed out about their jobs, pay is worse and poverty is up.

Years ago most families could get by with one breadwinner, unemployment was lower than it is now and finding a new job if you lost yours wasn't so difficult.

We had the news today that unemployment has risen once again. This follows further news that of the jobs which have been created over the past year, 50% of them have been zero-hours contracts.

Is it any wonder why somebody who is struggling to pay their extortionate rent, is stressed out by their job and is facing even further tax rises might not have the inclination to want to take on the burden of giving up lots of hours of volunteering?

What will revitilise our honorary system is to accept that Jersey has been letting down our working and middle class residents and been decreasing their standard of living for years. It isn't a uniquely Jersey problem as many other places have seen that cultural shift too, but we have the ability to turn our economy round by pursuing policies which will actually improve ordinary people's lives, not make them harder.

If the government makes people's lives easier they'll be more likely to want and be able to volunteer to do something good for their community.

It's not rocket science.