Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Option A weakens the Parish System

I keep hearing it stated that removing the Constables from the States will actually strengthen the Parish system. It is stated by the proponents of Option A with some vigour, perhaps because it looks rather obvious that it would not.

Let's look at the reasons given, and deconstruct them. While I support Deputy Montfort Tadier in many of his initiatives (especially with regard to the Historic Abuse Enquiry Terms of Reference), I think the arguments he has made online about removing the Constables are quite fallacious, and are a special pleading which simply doesn't hold up to examination. He was asked:

"How removing the ex-officio role of the Constables, will actually strengthen the Parish system. Below is an answer I gave on my blog to a question I was asked about reform:"

"Thank you for the question. It is a good one. The first thing to say is that, currently, the 'health' of parish democracy is currently in a critical condition. Turn out at parish assemblies, even on important matters such as the setting of the rates, is very low. In St Brelade, for example, such a meeting will attract perhaps 50 people at most, from a voting population of 8, 000 plus). The last time a contested Centenier's election took place in St Lawrence, the turnout was around 6%). This is the current state of things with Constables in the States. "

"Contrary to how it may have been in the past, being a States Member nowadays is a full time job. If the numbers are further reduced to 42, there will be more work for fewer members. So, there would be even more work for the Constables, were they to remain in the States. This would likely lead to them spending even less time in the parishes."

"However, were they not obliged to attend the States, as they are currently, they could and, I believe would, be able to focus their full attention to parish matters.  Remember, the parishes exist separate to the States Assembly. Members there act and legislate for the whole island, in what is effectively a 'national parliament.' Their [the parishes'] existence and legitimacy is not dependent on Constables being in the States."

So let's examine some of these observations, and see if the conclusions follow from the premises.

1. "....the 'health' of parish democracy is currently in a critical condition."

His evidence is the low turn out for Parish Assemblies. That has been the case for years and I don't see the logic in suggesting that if the Constables were out of the States somehow and miraculously people would start turning up. It doesn't happen in Guernsey. Does he explain why this should suddenly be reversed? Are we to see Constables like charismatic preachers, bringing in crowds of faithful parishioners? Or are we to go back to the old days and when churchwardens were given sticks to beat people into churches? Of course not! The whole idea that removing the Constables from the States would alter this state of affairs is simply nonsense.

As a matter of historical record, and one I have examined in depth on this blog, the case of Donald Lucas dismissal as a Parish employee by the Constable led to a divided and angry Parish in St Brelade, and a series of Parish Assemblies at Les Quennevais School Hall, so that everyone could attend; given the issues involved, Parishes can have large attendance.

There were also large attendances at the Parish hall for an Assembly discussing the demolition of the old Chateaux des Roches, and on another occasion, when a vote was taken  to reject moving a footpath from the road to the promenade. If the issue is there, the people will be fired up and attend. But mostly, it is routine stuff, appointment of a member of the roads committee or Procureur du Bien Public, election of a member of the honorary police, voting on a liquor license. These have to be put to the Parish Assemblies by law, but the average Parishioner sees no need to attend, and that has nothing to do with the health or otherwise of Parish democracy.

And on the subject, can we have some statistics on Parish Deputies attendance at Parish Assemblies? If Deputies don't attend the Assemblies now, why on earth would they bother if the Constables were not in the States? And how many Option A supporters do support the Parish by taking on honorary positions in the Parish, or standing for election for those?

2. "....even on important matters such as the setting of the rates"

In the great scheme of things, the rates assembly is not the most important for two reasons. (a) The Parishes have consistently either held the rates or made very modest increases normally with regard to an identified problem that needs additional funding.  (b) the recommended rate is published in the Gazette which, if folk had a problem with would turn up. If they are happy with the recommendation - why bother!

In fact, St Helier did see a significant "rates revolt" in the time of Constable Bob Le Brocq, with a stormy meeting held at Fort Regent's Gloucester Hall, as the extra capacity was needed to ensure everyone who wanted to come and vote could attend. The Constable was running what many held to be a profligate Town Hall, no expenses spared, and increasing the rate significantly to pay for that. Simon Crowcroft cut Parish spending, and cut the Parish workforce, and kept the rate rises low. I'm sure he hasn't had significant attendance needing Fort Regent since he has been Constable.

3. ".....even more work for the Constables, were they to remain in the States. This would likely lead to them spending even less time in the parishes."

Since when did  Deputies have the power to dictate the workload of Constables or determine whether a workload is onerous or not? It insults the Constables who will seek the right balance. He clearly has no idea of what the Constable actually does within the Parish or the extent of their day-to-day involvement. A Constable is not an administrator nor even a CEO (in the sense that Simon Crowcroft suggests) - but a civic head - Chairman of the Board if you like.

4. "However, were they not obliged to attend the States, as they are currently, they could and, I believe would, be able to focus their full attention to parish matters."

In fact, he is wrong on a matter of fact. Constables are not obliged to attend the States. They are no more obligated legally that he is as Deputy. It may be bad form and Privileges and Procedures or the Bailiff may have something to say about that, not forgetting their electorate, but no States member is compelled by law to actually occupy his/her seat. It is only if they are absent for a period beyond 6 months that they will automatically forfeit their seat.

And could he spell out the Parish matters that he alleges the Constables are implicitly neglecting? It's only right that they have to opportunity to respond to such criticism.

5. "Their [the parishes'] existence and legitimacy is not dependent on Constables being in the States."

Well, nor for that matter is is the States dependant solely on Deputies or is an Assembly of all 'classes' of legitimately elected representatives. We elect a Constable in the full knowledge that they are being elected to both the Parish and the States.

The weakness of Option A is that removing the Constable will weaken the Parish system. But to say that would lose votes, so instead we have this strange special pleading, rather like a conjurer's trick, that actually it will strengthen the Parish. It is not just Montfort who is saying this; Sam Mezec and other Option A supporters are all making the same claim.

Why don't they come out and say that (1) it will weaken the Parish system (2) that is no bad thing, because that's a feudal legacy that we no longer need (3) Guernsey States manages well without it and has done so for many years.

That, at any rate would be an honest position, and I would respect that. As an argument, I think it has some merit. If I was supporting Option A, that's the kind of argument I would make. Fear of losing votes would not come into it, and that, I suspect, is at the root of the strange counter-intuitive position by Option A supporters on the Constables. They are trying to persuade people that there will be no substantial difference in the role of the Constable if they are not in the States, but of course it will. Why hide the truth?

But I find it hard to have much respect for the kind of bogus argument that says the Parish system will be stronger with the Constables out of the States. As can be seen from my analysis of it, it simply doesn't add up.

1 comment:

Nick Le Cornu said...

There is no doubt that Option A will change the status of the Constable and of the Parish. Whether that is to the detriment of those institutions depends on their ability to modernise and democratise. Meager attendance at parish meetings and the absence of contested Constables elections in 9 of the 12 parishes in 2011, are indicative the system is moribund. It is part of the malaise that sees 60% voter abstention at elections.

To date, the Constable in the States, has been the political veto to alteration in the power balance. Structures and institutions have been protected that would otherwise have been reformed and possibly abolished long ago. The Honorary Police have survived against the logic of an island wide Paid Police force. Welfare was removed from the Parishes, precisely because they were unable to deliver a modern and humane system. Income support is a statutory entitlement for the Poor, albeit bureaucratic, it is not patronising and arbitrary as before. It has appeal systems, again, albeit little used. It is part of the structure of a modernised welfare state along with pensions and health benefits.

Parishes and Constables will not disappear overnight were Option A to be implemented. Constables will undoubtedly stand and be elected as New Deputies, but their role will change. They will be expected to commit fully to their work in the States. In a reduced Assembly that will be even more vital if the legislature is to function. Scrutiny risks marginalisation to Executive fiat.

The larger electoral Districts are in effect creating miniature Senatorial elections. Senators have in the past been the more strategic thinkers and policy makers; an altogether higher caliber of individual capable of representing the interests of the political class. It has been possible for them to control and win Senatorial elections through the strategic use of the media. Parish elections have too often been subject to local issues and personalities. This is the favoured option of the political class, but for reasons of real politique and the balance of forces, they know they cannot exclude Constables. They may not pull their weight, but they vote loyally for the Executive.

The real advantage of Option A is that through one category of States Member, it will create an individual who will be dedicated to doing that job exclusively. This, hopefully, will diminish the silo mentality and blinkered vision that limits horizons to the parish boundary and issue of yellow lines and speed limits. What may emerge are individuals capable of dealing with island and international issues. It has to be said, that Finance has tolerated the absurdities in government structure and expense, because it has delivered political stability for decades. Now it is seen as an obstacle to good government, as they would perceive it. An electoral system that returns large numbers of backwoodsmen to the Assembly is regarded as detrimental to modern conceptions of business friendly government.

What we see is a cultural battle, but it is not a new one. Today is a repetition of the battles of the 19th century, of Liberals against Conservatives, of the Town against the Country, of the Manichean struggle of Jersey nationalism against the incursions of modernity if the guise of Englishness. Yes, the Jersey Beans, love their quaint institutions, and some Englishmen even go native and join the Honorary Police, but it’s on its last legs. Like the Jersey heard, it only takes an outbreak of foot and mouth for it to disappear entirely.

The Parish is not going to disappear, provided it continues to provide a lower tier of quality public services. Constables will just have to up their game if they are to survive. No more special pleading will be tolerated.