Monday, 17 December 2012

Eye on the States: Shadow Boxing

Some interesting stuff in the latest issues of Hansard online. One of the more irritating facets of Hansard for me is the way that the names are incomplete. Where there is more than one Deputy for a district, their name is given, but where there is just one, all we get is the title, for instance "Deputy of St John". Where the Deputy of St John has changed, it is extremely difficult, outside of memory, to determine who the previous Deputy was.

For example, in recent years, the Deputy of St John (in Hansard) has been Andrew Lewis, Phil Rondel, and now Patrick Ryan! Phil Rondel is now Constable of St John, another title with name alone, and I had to rack my brains to remember that it was Graeme Butcher (who left under a cloud after repaying the Parish "£2,500 of ratepayers' money following the discovery of 'financial irregularities' in his parish's accounts." - JEP). But when reading it, and going back and forth, you have to follow Phil Rondel and remember which incarnation he is in - Deputy or Constable. It's as bad as Dr Who, although at least he hasn't changed his appearance, or the glasses almost always perched on top of his head. Does he ever use them?

The Constable of St Peter - who is currently John Refault - was answering a question about over-prescribing drugs, and mentioned incidentally one of the side issues to do with prescriptions:

I think one of the issues that the Deputy may be concerned with, which is of a great concern, is that there are a number of patients who get prescribed drugs and go and collect them because they do not cost anything but never take them and then they return for another visit to their G.P.s and get another prescription and then collect them again. There is evidence occasionally - and I have had one in my own Parish - where somebody has passed away and we have found large hoards of drugs and that is because they have been prescribed, collected them because they do not pay for them, and just kept them within their premises. I am not sure if that is what the Deputy is concerned about as well.

I can't really imagine why someone would just be stockpiling drugs that they didn't need to take, unless perhaps it was something like anti-depressants. But I'm normally prescribed antibiotics when I need them, and Pantoprazole on a regular basis (I need to take one a day). Of those, antibiotics are more likely to accumulate. There's a tendency to forget to take them towards the end of a course, which is not good practice of course, but I suspect happens a lot of the time. But I can see that painkillers or antidepressants could well accumulate, if taken when needed.

Deputy Montfort Tadier had a bit of a spat with Senator Ian Gorst about changes to Verita. He asked:

Will the Chief Minister explain why the Verita recommendation (agreed by the States in 2011) to "review what actions the Government took when concerns came to light in 2008 and what, if any, lessons there are to be learned" has been omitted from the Council of Ministers' proposition "Committee of Inquiry - Historical Child Abuse" P.118/2012?

Ian Gorst's reply was that "It is considered that the term of reference referred to by the Deputy is covered by the other proposed terms." and went on to comment that:

while the Deputy has made a number of accusations in his supplementary question there with regard to me, he has simply read the first sentence of the referred term of reference and not followed on because it follows on and says: "... by the various Health and Social Services committees between 1996 and 2005 and by Ministerial Government from 2006 to the current day."

This in full, as Ian Gorst in fact did not read out either was:

Examine the political oversight of children's homes and fostering services by the various Education Committees between 1960 and 1995, by the various Health and Social Services Committees between 1996 and 2005, and by ministerial government from 2006 to the current day.

As Montfort has noted, this does not exactly look the same as the missing section:

Review what actions the government took when concerns came to light in 2008 and what, if any, lessons there are to be learned

The "concerns" mentioned were "concerns of abuse". Actions regarding concerns of abuse are clearly not the same as examining political oversight of children's homes and fostering services, as Montfort point out - that "has nothing to do with the actions that the Government took in response to Operation Rectangle in 2008." However, presumably as the Senator has said the latter is covered by the former, any attempt to exclude that could be met with the rejoinder that the Chief Minister has said this is implicitly part of the remit.

Ian Gorst realised that there were problems with communication: "Perhaps we did finally hit on what his concerns were in his final supplementary there with regard to Operation Rectangle." He offered to discuss the matter with Deputy Tadier in a meeting which the Deputy says he does not want if it is "covert", which conjured up wonderful images of a darkened room, and Deputy Tadier sneaking in wearing a hoodie, to be greeted by Ian Gorst disguised in a balaclava. However Ian Gorst did also make it clear that he understands and is happy with the Deputy making the details of that meeting public.

Whether as Deputy Tadier said, the question was very clear is another matter: "If the Minister really does not understand what I am asking and the question, he receives these, I believe, on Thursday or Friday, he can contact me and in fact, this is completely disingenuous, the question is very clear."  and "I, and the public, expect a straight answer to a very straight question."

It is clear to the Deputy, because when he is asking it, he has a return to Operation Rectangle and the suspension of Graham Power in his mind, but that is just not there in the question. There's no need to attribute some kind of Machiavellian design on the part of the Chief Minister; he's just not a mind reader, and the question doesn't refer to any specifics.

Now it could have been deliberately omitted to avoid returning to well-trodden ground - especially as the inquiry is focused on child abuse in Jersey, and could be diverted away from its primary purpose, but the question that Deputy Tadier asks should have been more specific. It's the old problem. A question may make assumptions that are clear to the person asking the question, because they have that at the back of their mind, but if it is not explicit another, it can be misunderstood, so that people end up talking past one another.

It is something where a course in source criticism would come in handy. That teaches one how to read what is in a text, and see what is not there, but which has been assumed to be there, and what assumptions may underlie a question, but are not explicit in it.

Two examples spring to mind. The story of the magi, or wise men, is a common one for Christmas, but no where does the text mention that there are three of them, or that Jesus was born in a stable - the text says "they went into the house". People bring that to the text because of other narratives, but it is not there.

The second one is perhaps even more subtle, and I only came across it through the writings of the philosopher Mary Midgley. Rousseau is well know for the aphorism "man is born free and yet is everywhere in chains" and for a philosophy which called for men to be "unchained". But when he said "man" or "men", we tend to attribute this as saying "man and woman". Not so for Rousseau. For him, "man" meant precisely that; man was to be "unchained", women however, should know their place, as subservient.

Both show, I think, how easy it is to fall into the mistake of thinking that because I know what a question implies, the other person will as well. As a result, we get this kind of "shadow boxing" occurring a lot of the time in questions and perhaps discussing the matter outside of the States Chamber could lead to greater clarity in both question and response.

The other matter I find strange on this question about terms of reference is that if the loss of a term of reference is of such importance, why none of the politicians raising that matter have done what is an obvious action to take - and that is to place an amendment to the proposition to reinstate it. Why hasn't Deputy Tadier? Surely that would be the proper step to take if unhappy with the state of affairs?

More shadow boxing comes with Deputy Southern asking a question about CT Plus:

Will the Minister inform Members how many bus drivers have now been transferred to CT Plus on full-time contracts from Connex, how many driving positions remain to be filled and whether non-driving staff, that is administrators, cleaners and mechanics, have been transferred, and if not, why not?

Deputy K.C. Lewis of St. Saviour (The Minister for Transport and Technical Services):

The CT Plus contract will commence on 1st January 2013. That is the date on which staff are eligible to transfer from Connex to CT Plus. They will then start employment with CT Plus at that time. No staff have been transferred as yet, they will transfer on 1st January 2013 and their first operational day with CT Plus will be Tuesday, 2nd January 2013.

What that doesn't say, for which we have to wait for supplementary questions, is how many of the existing staff have signed contracts, not whether they have been transferred. Later on, Deputy Lewis in a reply notes that "Most have signed contracts already", but it is not until Trevor Pitman asks specifically "Could the Minister clarify, he said that the vast majority had already signed contracts. Could he just enlarge upon that for the Assembly with some figures as to what sort of percentage we are dealing with because there seems to be some dispute, confusion around that statement?"

Deputy K.C. Lewis: Yes, it is still about 30 but I believe some members are still on holiday but I believe it may be 3 or 4 who will not be transferring, they may have other jobs, they may be retiring.

If only Deputy Southern had asked the question that Deputy Pitman asked in the first place, about numbers signing contracts rather than transferring to CT Plus, it would have saved a few questions in between, during which we learned rather little in a good few minutes. Kevin Lewis is answering the question about transferring correctly - the transfer doesn't take place until 1 January. Now it could well be that he is dissembling, but then again, it is easy to see that when we grasp the import of Deputy Southern's question, which we do once it is essentially asked again by Trevor Pitman, that it gets the answer that I'm sure Deputy Southern wants to know.

What is happening is that by design or happenstance, Ministers are answering questions quite literally, and not looking to see through the question to what is in the mind of the member asking the question. The result is not the answer they expect to hear, but the question didn't ask what was in their mind, but something similar. As a result, we get "shadow boxing" as the question becomes clearer with supplementaries, until it has the precision needed to elucidate an answer.

Of course, anyone who watches "Yes Minister" knows, politicians do often try and avoid giving straight answers, especially when they think a trap may be lurking for them. Equally, members of the States asking questions often seem to shy away from a direct question, because, let's be honest, they may well be trying to lay a trap for the unwary Minister. That's how it appears from an outside perspective - a game of shadow boxing, in which quite a lot of questions and answers are talking past one another. One way or another, it's something which probably won't go away any time soon.

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