Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Unelected Classes of States Member - the Dean

The Commissions' brief is to consider:

"The classes of States member"

"all other issues arising in the course of the work of the Commission which are relevant to the needs stated above"

While the Commission website focuses on the elected members of the States, surely it should consider ALL classes of States Member, and to ignore the unelected, ex-officio members of the States is to diminish the scope of its terms of reference - which nowhere state that it is elected members alone that should be considered in its four paragraphs.

In this respect, two members of the States should be considered - the Bailiff and the Dean. In this submission, I'd like to focus on the Dean, and put forward a framework in which the Dean's continued presence in the States could be validated.

I'll start by looking at February 2009, when there was a discussion on the role of the Dean in the States. In this debate, Deputy Paul Le Claire asked the following questions:

Is the Dean representative of the vast majority of the Island's religious attendees?  Does his moral guidance extend from his religion through to all people in Jersey?  Are these questions necessary to us?  Can they be satisfied?  Unless we have a review they will not be satisfied.

The Lieutenant Governor and the Dean are both eloquent and hard-working and very nice individuals.  I personally like them both, but it is not about whether or not we like these individuals, and 9 times out of 10 we are going to because these sorts of appointments are made to capable individuals, affable people.  It is not about the individual.  It is about whether or not we have a fully functioning democracy in Jersey.

If we are going to have moral guidance, is it right in this day and age that we appoint a particular religion to give us that moral guidance because that particular religion happens to be hundreds of years old?  That moral guidance and that political direction and that Christian direction may suit me, and largely the advice and the contributions that the Dean has made do suit my way of thinking, but they do not necessarily suit the entire population's way of thinking.

The Constable of St Helier, Simon Crowcroft commented:

Let us accept that, certainly in the case of the Dean, there is an opportunity for a Dean to influence political matters.  I am not saying that this Dean does that, but clearly there is an opportunity because the Dean is able to speak.  I think it would be a serious shortcoming if this review were to proceed without reviewing that role.

While Stuart Syvret, then a Senator, commented:

We are a multi-denominational, multi-faith society now and the concept that merely one representative of one denomination has an official seat in this Assembly would appear to me to be certainly unsustainable, but nevertheless, even if Members ultimately agree or disagree with that view, what possible objection ... or let me rephrase that, what possible credible objection could there possibly be to examining the subject and taking a review of it?

I've no really seen any really coherent arguments against these apart from the well-worn "time immemorial" one that I remember from Frank Falle's history lessons - it used to be always an argument used by Jersey people (usually landowners) against removal or questioning of their rights.

This is the variant of it given by Deputy Ian Gorst:

I am absolutely 100 per cent behind the position of the Crown and the established church in this community.  This is our history.  We should not just turf it out, turn it aside; it is the bedrock upon which this society and this community was built.  I am, and I recognise that I am, an incomer; I have married into a Jersey family.  Perhaps that puts me in a position of wanting to support and fight for the traditions of this Island in a way that some people who have been here for generations perhaps do not.

Now while I can see dangers in wholesale adjustments to the political system, the problem with this argument is that it could equally well have been applied in the 1940s, just before the Rectors were removed from the States. Yet no one today would deny that the change in 1948, when the Rectors were removed from the States, was a necessary one. But back then, this argument could have been made with just as much force. So why keep the Dean as a special case?

I think to answer in part some of the criticisms levied at the role of the Dean, one would have to look further afield, at the position of the Bishops in the House of Lords. Now the Bishops can not only speak, they can also vote, so there is to some extent even less rationale for keeping them.

But Tom Wright, when Bishop of Durham, noted that there could be definite advantages to the non-elected House of Lords. He's speaking generally, but the main thrust of his argument has to do with the Bishops:

Our present system, where you have a non-elected House of Lords -- it is mostly people who have been selected by their peers through whatever business they're in or profession they're in who eventually get put in there -- has had a very good effect of having people who are not career politicians able to provide a very strong check and balance on people who are career politicians. (1)

He looks back at the way in which early Christians looked at power, and of course, they were living in the 1st century in a Roman Empire that was hardly a model democracy.

The early Jews and the early Christians were not very worried about how people came to power. They were very concerned about holding people in power to account. Somebody has a military coup: "OK. So-and-so is now in power. That's the reality. Let's not pretend. Let's not say, 'Oh dear, you weren't voted for, so we're all worried about that.' "No. You're in power. Now we are going to remind you what your God-given responsibilities would be." (1)

So he sees the advantage of having people like the Bishops as non-career politicians, who cannot really do more than persuade (the Upper House has largely lost its power since Lloyd-George's day), but who are independent in a way that a career politician, always with an eye to re-election, may not be. The Bishops can, to use a phrase of the Quakers, "speak truth to power".

There is no party whip to call them to order, and make them tow the party line, which is why they can stand up to speak out at injustices in the government of the day; seldom, of course, is that as strongly felt as in the Diocese of Durham, a mining community which has been variously dismembered by respective governments following their own agenda, and often (of course) with an eye to the more prosperous southern voters. Who can forget David Jenkins, the thorn in Mrs Thatcher's time. Tom Wright is also keenly aware of the ravages that the loss of an industry can have on community, as anyone who reads his book "The Cross and the Colliery" will see.

Clearly the Dean in Jersey can remind the Assembly - and Bob Key has often done so - that government is not just about managerial decisions and pragmatism, or about being provocative with an eye to votes from the disaffected electorate. But unlike the Bishops, he can only speak; his only voice is that of persuasion. It may be argued - as Simon Crowcroft does - that he can influence that States, but he can only do so by the cogency of what he says, and the strength of his arguments.

It's not that great an influence, except where he has respect for making wise contributions that may help clarify muddle, and ask valid question matters of social concern. And if he were to be a cantankerous, venomous arrogant individual like the Rev. Mr. Parker, of Oddingley, not only would he be properly ignored by States members, but complaints could be made to the Bishop of Winchester.

The comments by Tom Wright are echoed in the select committee interview with Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, where he notes that:

Our view is that a second Chamber should be composed so as to ensure the just use of power entrusted to the Government of the day, one which commands a majority in the House of Commons; so as to ensure true and impartial accountability, scrutinising and revising government legislation with a degree of independence not possible in the House of Commons; and so as to represent the diversity of what I and others have called non-partisan civil society and intellectual life. (2)

And he notes how Bishops are often better placed that career politicians to be in touch with grassroots.

One of the things that we hear most often in the Crown Nominations Commission from non-church representatives from the diocese who have been consulted is that they want someone who will speak for the city, speak for the county and speak for the region. That is not just a matter of empty words, as I think is shown by the number of diocesan Bishops who have served and continue to serve in regional partnerships, often in the chair. The rooted presence of the Church of England in every community of England and the committed membership of nearly 1 million regular weekly attendees gives Bishops personal access to a very wide spread of civil organisation and experience-perhaps wider than is enjoyed by many comparable public figures. Their personal contribution to the work of the House of Lords therefore draws not on partisan policy but on that direct experience, as well as engagement generally with questions of ethics, morality and faith. (2)

Rowan Williams also addresses the problem raised of the representation by one denomination in the States. Speaking of the Bishops, he notes that the Chief Rabbi is in favour of them remaining, because they can act as spokesmen for other faith communities, to ensure that they are also heard:

The Chief Rabbi has said that if the established church is removed from the public square, common values become more difficult to articulate. It is also fair to say that some Members of both Houses of Parliament look to the Bishops to offer a faith perspective, which they may sometimes hesitate to volunteer in their own right.(2)

Dr Williams said that the bishops "are not there to represent the Church of England's interests: they are there as bishops of the realm, who have taken on the role of attempting to speak for the needs of a wide variety of faith communities."

Finally, Rowan Williams notes that while change might take place, there will be a loss if change "is brought about in a simply formulaic way and if we have not addressed what we want the House of Lords to do before considering what composition and basis of appointment best deliver that function."

I'm not saying that the system with the Dean in the States is perfect, by any means, but there are some advantages to having an independent voice, not subject to the lure of ministerial office, or with an eye on the ballot box, neither of which may always be in the Island's best interest. But I've laid out here some of the rationale for keeping the Dean in the States. I expect some flack will come my way as a result!


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