Wednesday, 1 August 2018
The Parish System - What Democracy?
A couple of years ago a senior Constable said in the States Assembly that Jersey's Parish system was a 'beacon of democracy'.
It's a nice thought, and you can see where he was coming from.
We have this rather unique system of local government where, at least once a month, a public meeting is held which any Parishioner can turn up to speak and vote for or against a binding motion on matters within the Parishes competency. Not only that, but Parishioners set the budget and vote on what level of local tax they pay. Pretty nifty! Where else trusts its population to be the sovereign decision makers in this way? Not many places I can think of. Isn't that wonderful?
Well... no. It isn't wonderful.
As lovely as the concept may be, the fact of the matter is that the Parishes are far from the democratic beacons they theoretically could be. In many instances, they actually operate in way which is unashamedly anti-democratic.
I'm provoked to get this off my chest here because of a recent incident in the States Assembly where the Comité des Connétables was so brazen in their contempt for democracy, that even I was a bit surprised at the hubris they showed.
The States recently debated P.89/2013 which was brought forward by the Comité des Connétables to change the law to reduce polling hours in elections for Procureur de Bien Public from 8am-8pm to 12pm-8pm.
Yes, you read that correctly. They actually went to the efforts of bringing a proposition to the States to reduce the amount of time that people can turn out to vote in.
On an Island which we know suffers from appallingly low election turnouts and poor engagement with Parish democracy, they wanted to make it even less convenient to take part.
There is no reason for doing this at all, apart from the Parishes finding facilitating elections to be a bit of a nuisance and wanting to mitigate it.
Well, I'm sorry to say to the Constables, that democracy is meant to be a nuisance. It's difficult, it's noisy, it costs money and it often doesn't go the way you want it to. But it's democracy and it's sacrosanct.
This move was anti-democratic. The States saw through it and managed to embarrass the Constables enough into withdrawing it when some of the new Constables stood to speak out against it (which is a positive sign).
But this is not an isolated incident.
The day before, the Constables brought an amendment to move a proposed referendum from being held on a Saturday to being on a Wednesday instead. Something which was done purely because holding a public vote is a nuisance for the Parishes, irrespective of the obvious fact that a Saturday would be more convenient for the vast majority of the voting population to vote on.
Just before the recent election, the Constables brought a proposition to change the law to introduce a new criterion for being allowed to stand for election as Constable, that you must be a British citizen. That requirement did not exist before. A group of politicians, 11 out of 12 of whom did not face a contested election last time (some have never faced one), actually went out of their way to reduce the number of people who could potentially be candidates for their office.
In 2014, just after the previous election, the Constables brought a proposition to increase the number of people that are required to sign a letter forcing a Parish Assembly on a proposition, from 4 to 10, despite there having not been a single example of Parish Assemblies being called vexatiously.
As well as these clear incidents of the Constables trying to roll back democracy in Jersey, I think it is worth passing comment on a few other areas that just show how dead the system is.
These are the regular meetings held in the Parish Halls for Parishioners to vote on matters which the Parish is responsible for. Anyone can turn up and speak, or even propose amendments or their own propositions.
In theory, it doesn't get more democratic than this. In practice, it is no such thing.
Turn out at Parish Assemblies is very low. At the St Helier Rates Assembly last year, aside from members of the municipality, there were 5 members of the public in attendance. I couldn't tell you how many were there this year, but I bet it was pretty poor too, seeing as the meeting was organised to be held at the same time England were playing in the World Cup Quarter Final (I was watching the match, not at the Town Hall). Would it have been too difficult to just have it on another night? There really is no excuse for this.
But, ironically, on an occasion where there is a big turnout for a Parish Assembly, they can't even get that right either.
For example, earlier this year there was a massive turnout for a Parish Assembly held in St Lawrence to decide whether the Parish Church would be extended provide toilet facilities. Initially, the Constable refused to hold the Parish Assembly at all, even though 10 Parishioners signed a letter demanding one (as they are entitled to under the law). Then eventually she had to cave in, and decided to ban the media from attending! You couldn't make it up.
In the end, 500 people turned up and could not be adequately accommodated in the Parish Hall, with people having to stand outside in the freezing cold for hours.
There is no reason whatsoever why that meeting had to be held in the Parish Hall itself. They could have convened in a bigger premises to accommodate everyone, but chose not too. This was unfair and inconsiderate for the attendees, and will no doubt have put people off taking part in this sort of thing in future.
These committees are the closest things we have to local councils. Their members are elected at a Parish Assembly every 3 years.
There is no information whatsoever online about when these elections will next take place. Some Parishes don't even have the names of the people who serve on them on the Parishes website.
Apart from in St Helier, all of their meetings are closed to the public, so there is no accountability.
The most recent election in St Helier took place on 20th December, a few days before Christmas, with an ad hoc hustings beforehand which the organisers made up as they went along.
I met with the previous Comité to suggest to them that it would actually improve engagement if they synchronised these elections so they could publicise them together and create a real focus on Parish democracy. I left with no confidence that this simple idea would be adopted.
On 12th September there are due to be elections for Procureurs de Bien Public in each Parish. The nominations are imminent and there is almost nothing at all on vote.je or the Parishes websites about this role and how to become a candidate. At the time of writing, only 5 Parishes have confirmed when the nomination meeting will take place (which they are doing with just a few days notice).
Honestly, how difficult is it to sit down and consolidate this information and just stick out a press release so people are able to figure out what is going on?
The Parishes have struggled to recruit to the honorary police for several years now. St Saviour was fined £5,000 in 2015 for not being able to meet their legal obligations in filling particular roles.
Earlier this year two former Centeniers publicly stated that they feared the honorary police system will die out unless work is done to reform and modernise it. They were instantly dismissed by the new chair of the Comité.
So far the most innovative suggestion made by the Constables has been to raise the age at which you have to retire from the honorary police. I wonder if they realise that all that does is delay the problem reaching a head by a few years and doesn't actually solve the underlying recruitment problems.
I have been concerned about all of this for some time, and now is my opportunity to do something about it.
Since my appointment as Minister for Housing and, more recently, Minister for Children too, I've been getting to grips with being on the "other side" of politics, trying to make a difference in government rather than shout from the opposition benches. It's a very sobering experience and I'm finding it frustrating how slowly the wheels seem to turn to be able to impact change. But it is still early days and I'm rearing to go and looking forward to developing on some of the things we have begun behind the scenes (watch this space!).
But one thing which is giving me withdrawal symptoms is that I am now not able to ask questions on the floor of the States Assembly of Ministers. In the last Assembly I was 2nd on the list of members who asked most questions (Geoff Southern was number 1, of course), and I believe that question time is a fundamentally important way of holding the government to account. But now with my new responsibility, I have to ask my questions round the ministerial table and make sure there is early feedback as policies are developed so we get things right.
I am delighted that my new colleagues Deputy Alves and Deputy Ward are taking up the mantle and proving to be excellent contributors in the Assembly right away. But, as for me, since I can't ask my parliamentary questions of my ministerial colleagues, I can ask the Comité des Connétables questions and hold them to account on Parish matters in the Assembly.
Now, most right thinking democrats know that the Constables shouldn’t be in the States anyway, but since they’re there, I am making it my intention to hold them to account for everything they do.
They are not the beacons of democracy some think they are. In fact, they are showing themselves to be the opposite.
It's sink or swim time. Modernise and get with the times, or become an irrelevancy.
I happen to think it's important to have a healthy democratic municipal government system and I want to see it thrive in Jersey. This doesn't make me an enemy of the Parish system, although that is certainly how they will try to tar me for having the sheer nerve to hold them to account.
If you are concerned by any Parish matters at all, please get in touch and I'll be happy to try to raise these issues in the Assembly.