Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Question Time – Part 1

A very good “Question Time” last night, arranged by the Change.Je group, Christian May and James Rondel. There was a Parish Hall of about 70 people at St Brelade, and unlike the Hustings, this was lively.

Part of the credit of that must go to the Chair, Ben Quérée, so that he would alter the order in which he posed the question to the panellists, and also warned the politicians, and ex-politicians in the audience from getting speeches in place of questions. As a result, the whole atmosphere was very different from the stuffy Hustings meetings of last year, and while the answers were interesting, there was also a sense of fun, which came out in the odd humorous ripostes from the panel.

Another advantage over Hustings was that the panel was specially selected to be diverse, while at the same time consisting of people who could speak well. That was as well, because there was no microphone in use, and I had to strain the odd time and adjust the volume of my hearing aid up a bit.

The Panel consisted (going left to right, but not necessarily politically!), Constable Steve Pallett, now sporting a beard, Deputy Judy Martin, former Senator Ben Shenton, Vicky Boarder of the Fresh Fish Company, and Senator and Chief Minister Ian Gorst.

What is more, the less formal atmosphere, meant that certain asides slipped out, which would probably not have actually come to light. Judy Martin, for instance, when Ben Quérée said that she had chosen not to remain as an Assistant Minister, told the audience that it had not been her choice; she had been pushed out.

And Ian Gorst was clearly struggling at times not to reveal too much of the forthcoming plans of the Council of Ministers, or to commit his fellow Ministers to do particular things, despite saying that the he was “not going to avoid difficult questions but to face up to them”.

Denise Waller asked a question about property taxes – should they change, or stay with the Parishes.

Steve Pallett, not surprisingly, came out strongly for the Parishes retaining control of the rates. He noted – accurately – that Parishes are extremely well run, and “we only raise what we need for rates”. He suggested that the Parish rates should be left well alone, as it was unlikely that central Government could run the Parishes as frugally as they did.

Judy Martin was also in favour of the Parish Rates system. While Council Tax was not the same as rates, so it was “apples and pears” when it came to a comparison, she could understand people’s concerns, and remembered packed Parish meetings at Fort Regent when St Helier had excessively high rates. Fortunately the current Constable had managed to bring the rates down to more comparable levels with other Parishes. She did think that the States should pay rates on public buildings in St Helier. That made me wonder if they should also pay rates on the Prison on St Brelade, by the same principle.

Ben Shenton said the rates system worked well, and there were a lot of people, especially the elderly, who were asset rich but income poor, living in their own houses, and fearful of some revamp of the system which would increase rates.

Ian Gorst concurred that the Parish rates system would stay with the Parishes, noting the adverse reaction at the Hustings last year in respect of the Property tax reform consultation. He did say, however, that commercial rates should be looked at, as reform there might enable the States to get money back from overseas owned retailers who paid no tax locally except the rates. But that would also effect local retailers, struggling from the recession.

Ian Le Sueur asked about how the 12 million projected deficit was going to be tackled, and was a freeze on jobs the right way to go.

Ian Gorst said that the government were going to have to do things differently, and where jobs were replaced when they became vacant, this should not be automatic. He also wanted to centralise administration, so that under one roof, there would be opportunities to be more efficient rather than have more administrative staff. “The departmental structure we have is a monument to last century’s problems” he said, and savings were needed because of the need to pay for growing health care demands.

Ben Shenton who had been Health Minister around 2003-2004 noted that when GST and 20 means 20 were brought in, the deal was also to cut the States overall budget but that had not happened. He thought the Treasury Ministers notion of cutting 2% off every department’s budget was a bad one, and that the States should look holistically at the system, and see what was essential, and what could be pruned. By way of analogy, he cited the private sector, where a business cutting back will look at what can be done without, and what cannot be lost – the core areas. He suggested that what would happen with a 2% policy on cuts would be that rather than removing layers of middle management, the civil service proposals would be to cut front line staff, and cause conflicts with the Unions, concern from the public, and nothing would get done – as had happened so often in the past.

Ian Gorst said that “to be fair, in the past, Ben was right”. But he suggested that centralising the States administration meant that redundancies could be made in middle management, and the States needed to increase front line staff like teachers and nurses.

Caroline Hathaway asked if the gradual loss of parking spaces, and the recent loss in Green Street and the Esplanade would be a major factor in stopping people coming to St Helier.

Judy Martin said that this was a problem, also if visiting people in town where they would become more isolated. She thought that the solution would be a park and ride scheme, like that successfully run before. There was not likely to be more space for parking on the street or in car parks, but the park and ride scheme at La Collette had increased commuters and shoppers coming to St Helier.

Vicky Boarder noted that the result of less parking was that people went to shops where they could park, either in town, or out of town. This did not help footfall in the centre of St Helier.

Ian Gorst commented that planning in the past had followed a policy that you did not need so much parking for new developments in St Helier, and we were “paying the price for that policy”. It will be interesting to see if those comments effect the proposed Gas Place development, which has no visitor parking, and fewer spaces than flats.

A question was asked about whether the unelected States members should remain.

Steve Pallett thought the Bailiff should stay, but wondered about the role of the Dean. Why should be have on particular denomination? He also suggested that the Dean sometimes was not quite as impartial as he should be when speaking – “comes close to going over the line”.

Judy Martin agreed with the Carswell report on a separation of powers. The Bailiff should be replaced with a Speaker. And the Dean only speaks, but he can be political. She thought that religion and politics should be kept apart.

Ben Shenton thought there should be an elected member of the States, and a separation of powers between the judiciary and the executive. A modern democracy should not have the Bailiff in the States, and was it really a good use of taxpayers’ money to have a Bailiff sitting in the States listening to some very long boring debates, and being paid £300 an hour to do.

Ian Gorst thought that while there was an established church and house of Bishops, it made sense for the Dean to sit in the States. He was less comfortable with the Bailiff there. He noted that most members of the public were probably not that interested in the States discussing the matter. However, the separation of powers was an important principle, and how Jersey was seen by the International Community, should also be considered. The question was how the Bailiff would be a Civic Head of Jersey if removed from the States. What exactly do we want from the Bailiff? How would he fulfil his role, and who would replace him in the States. This was a conversation where the States needed to talk to everyone, as the matter was complex. Removing the Bailiff from the States was the way forward, but what this would entail was another matter.

I will be posting more from my notes later, but for now, I’m off to bed. It was a very enjoyable evening, a good format – let’s hope the BBC don’t charge royalties – and I think that most people found it made politics come alive in a way that we have not seen in the past, and certainly not at the hustings. My apologies for those panellists whom I may have not reported enough on, but I can’t always read my own writing.

The one question I failed to ask was about Steve Pallett’s beard. Now that Rob Duhamel has left the States, is there a secret policy that the States members put their names in a hat, and the one who is drawn out has to grow a beard? We may never know.

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