Wednesday, 13 May 2009

The Curious Incident of the Vote in the Daytime

I've just been looking at the report - "BREACH OF PRIVILEGE: IN CAMERA DEBATE"

It notes that:

The Committee agreed that it would be helpful to research the position in other jurisdictions and the Greffier of the States was requested to contact colleagues in other Commonwealth jurisdictions for advice. In addition, the Committee discussed the matter on 27th February 2009 with the Bailiff as President of the States.

So far, so good. But of course there is a problem. As the report notes: "It can be noted that other parliaments virtually never sit in camera and had therefore to seek parallels with other matters, the most common being the premature leak of committee reports or the disclosure of confidential committee proceedings."

But is that a fair comparison? I think it is clutching at straws to try to find something which will fit, and it overlooks the greater question: should the States Assembly be carried on "behind closed door", or should it be transparent and open, as befits a democracy.

After all, the appendix notes that, in Australia, "In response to your inquiry, I advise that the Australian Senate has never met in private session". The Clerk of the Australian House of Representatives says that: "The basic premise of all our meetings is that the Parliament conducts its meetings, with the rarest exceptions, in public. There have been secret sessions, during war times, when Hansard reporters were excluded. However, the clerks and Members remained in the secret sessions."

When it comes to Canada, a similar picture emerges - the  Clerk of the Senate of Canada notes that "In modern practice, the Senate no longer meets in camera, although in theory it remains possible." With regard to the other chamber, "The Canadian House of Commons has sat in camera only a very few times and not since World War II. As well, we do not have any specific Standing Order dealing with the disclosure of in camera information."

Not surprisingly, the Clerk of the Journals, UK House of Commons, does not know of any post-war occasion when the House has sat "in camera."

But what about smaller jurisdictions? The Cayman Islands gets a brief mention, but Bermuda does not. Again with Parliamentary or Senate debates, according to the Executive Aide to the Premier (who was very helpful) there is no provision for sitting in camera, and on the contrary, they are all broadcast live on radio. Even the committee meetings are due to be opened to the public.

Yet the really curious incident in this report is that there is no response from Guernsey, or if there was a response, somehow it did not make its way into the appendix. Why could this be?

David J. Robilliard, the Principal Officer of the States Assembly and Constitution Committee of Guernsey was good enough to tell me that:

1.    There is no provision in the Rules of Procedure of the States of Deliberation for the holding of in camera meetings.

2.    I cannot recall such a meeting ever having been held.

Why is Jersey so much out on a limb? The question which should be asked is why there should be - in a modern democracy - "in camera" debates in the first place, not about issues of whether their secrecy should be breached. Quite clearly, as far as the world wide practice goes - even for our neighbouring Island of Guernsey - this practice simply does not happen. When the elected representatives meet to decide and debate in the Chamber, whether a unicameral or bicameral Government, there is never any question of keeping matters secret from the electorate.

Perhaps it is about time the whole principle was reconsidered, both with regard to the Chief Officer of Police - clearly not a problem in Guernsey - and other matters, such as the debate over Pierre Horsfall's position continuing as Chairman of WEB. If Guernsey can manage without this kind of secrecy, why can't we?


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