Saturday, 18 June 2011

Civil Partnerships and the campaign for equality


“There is a pragmatic view; Jersey society will only take so much of this reform”
 Deputy Roy Le Herissier, Chair of the Education and Home Affairs Scrutiny Panel

There are parallels to be made between the passage of Civil Partnerships legislation and the campaign in the early 90’s to legalise abortion and over the age of consent. This time round there is less resistance by the forces of conservatism, yet their intolerance remains evident. That intolerance comes from the political right and in particular from the religious right.

I was a member of the Pro-Choice group, of women and men, campaigning to support the Public Health Committee bring the abortion legislation through the States in the early 90’s. It was a hard fought battle. Jersey society was supportive as was indicated by a petition, then the largest ever for the time. As ever, it was convincing the political elites and overcoming the conservatism of the right to block progressive social legislation. The UK had made abortion legal in 1967 and still thirty years later steps has not been taken to modernize the law in Jersey to reflect the reality of medical practice and changed perceptions of women’s rights.

The Civil Partnerships legislation is currently undergoing Scrutiny by the Education and Home Affairs Scrutiny Panel and this week saw a number of important witnesses appear before the panel to give their opinion.

The Civil Partnerships legislation confers to gay and lesbian couples the same rights as marriage does to heterosexual couples, without calling it marriage and excluding religious involvement. Indeed the legislation is designed with religious sentiment in mind. It achieves the same end without calling it marriage. For political purposes it is a devise to turn resistance from the right and religious groups that are intolerant and homophobic.

From a purely legislative perspective is would be so much more simple to allow couples of the same sex to get married and all the rights and obligations associated with that institution as conferred by the state would follow. Instead we have a stand alone piece of legislation that involves considerable consequential amendments to other legislation, particularly in regards to inheritance and taxation. One Advocate appeared to remind the panel that the Housing Law would also have to be amended, just in case the point had been overlooked.

Senator Ozouf appeared to give evidence in his capacity as deputy Chief Minister, the Chief Minister’s Office having responsibility for the legislation. He probably wished he did not have to be there; the Chief Minister being absent in China. As an openly gay man he was sympathetic personally to the legislation and it is undoubtedly his presence in the Council of Ministers that has eased its passage, especially as there are a number of Ministers with strong homophobic opinions. Senator Ozouf’s discomfort was evident as he struggle with the conflicting tensions of principle and pragmatism. His language was measured and at times strained as he sought, under aggressive questioning by Deputy Montfort Tadier, to avoid admitting that religious sentiment was being pragmatically appeased.

Next on was the Dean and he just waffled. He did however make it clear that most religious groups in the island, but with one important exception, would not wish to hold Civil Partnerships on church premises nor offer blessings subsequent to a civil ceremony.

Representatives of the Quakers indicated that the Society of Friends held what they called a meeting for commitment as a kind of blessing at which a gay or lesbian couple would stand up and make clear their commitment. This had been happening in the UK since the 2005 Act. Ironically under the Jersey legislation Civil Partnership ceremonies cannot be held in religious premises, which would include the Friends Meeting House.

The JEP had sent a reporter to the scrutiny meeting to catch the words of wisdom as they fell from the lips of those with status in society like the Dean and Senator Ozouf. However the reporter did not stick around to hear the two women representing the Quakers and nor did the newspaper report their significantly more tolerant attitude towards gay and lesbian civil union.

In general, what one sees is that progressive opinion is simply ignored in any debate and the views of the elite take precedence, however backward and intolerant they may be. This observation holds true for other institutions that desperately need reform, be it Honorary Police, the role of the Bailiff and Crown Officers or the composition of the States.

As a final thought, it is a shame that Christopher Lakeman, Advocate and openly gay man, is not alive to see the passage of the Civil Partneships legislation. I recall that he had been officially authorised to officiate at such ceremonies.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

“Well out” – Civil Service “golden handshake” could be £700k. So who took the decision?

Senator Jim Perchard, hot from his joint victory in the States on Monday with Senator Shenton that achieved a temporary reprieve for private school subsides, followed up his earlier headline catching revelations that States CEO Bill Oggley had received a pay-off of as much as £700k. If correct, this is £200k more than the £500k he revealed in May during a quarterly interview with the Chief Minister.

Jim dropped this little tit bit during a routine Corporate Services Scrutiny Panel Meeting. This time however, the JEP were not in attendance to scoop a front page headline.

Jim further indicated that the information the golden handshake was “well out” at £500k had come from an anonymous informant.

Like the entire island, save one assumes the Council of Ministers, Senator Perchard was incensed that such large sums could be agreed as a pay-off at a time of austerity and planned States budget cuts. Had there been a Ministerial decision to approve the payment? Yes, replied the Scrutiny Clerk.  Minutes of the States Employment Board (SEB) for 16th February 2011 recorded that the negotiation of a compromise agreement for the mutual termination of employment of the States CEO had been delegated to the “Chair of the SEB” and the Chief Minister.  The “Chair of the SEB” is none other than Senator Le Sueur, the Chief Minister.  We must assume that a mutually agreeable sum was reached by the Chief Minister on his lonesome. Should this delegation have happened and did the other SEB members endorse the amount? Clearly there needs to be more information made available to States Members and the public about the “strictly confidential” decision.

Further perambulations – the Middle classes are hurting now

Continuing my perambulations around the “aul sod” (Irishism for the holy ground) of No.1 District led me to my own front door at Havre de Pas, where I happened to knock on the door of a former colleague in finance to solicit he and his wife’s vote. I was met with a sorry tale that this fellow Jerseyman and wife were both unemployed and the family facing severe financial hardship. There being no unemployment benefit and since social security benefits are not available to home owners, he was on the point of moving the family to France, whilst ringing friends in London to find a floor upon which to sleep pending the search for work.

“There are no jobs – no one would employ me even as a clerk – I am too experienced”. said my former colleague. As I turned to walk down the pathway he left me with his final thoughts “Jersey is finished” he said. Although he was bailing out, he respected my fight to retain a little dignity for the working people of the island.  

I repeat this sad tale, not to breach any confidences, rather to reveal that the true state of the economy is pretty dire and far from the one of improvement that government Ministers would have us believe.

I fully understand my former colleague’s decision to leave the island, however I am making a stand. There will be no retreat and no surrender. Now there's fighting talk!

Monday, 13 June 2011

“If the debate on school fees is lost tomorrow, the £65 million savings will not be delivered” Senator Philip Ozouf, Treasury Minister

“If the debate on school fees is lost tomorrow, the £65 million savings will not be delivered”
Senator Philip Ozouf, Treasury Minister - Evidence to the Corporate Services Scrutiny Panel 13.06.2011

The first serious challenge politically to the Comprehensive Savings Review (“Cuts” in the colloquial) will come tomorrow as the States debates a proposition by Senator Ben Shenton to maintain subsidies to private schools.

The Treasury Minister Senator Ozouf recognises that this is the first serious political test for the policy of saving £65m over three years. Will the Senator be able to muster his forces to see his policy through or is it a sign that concessions will have to be made every time there is significant public dissent?

Clearly the Middle Classes, the foundation of the Establishment vote, are not happy with having to pay an extra £500 - £1000 per year extra per child for education at a private school. The state subsidy has been a little perk to the Middle classes to enable them to afford privileged education that might otherwise, for some have, been out of reach.

Senator Shenton is up for election this October and is clearly seeking votes amongst the middle classes most affected. Like his father he is a populist. Win or loose he will be able to say he tried and that will secure his reelection.

It is ironic that Senators Shenton and Perchard should be seeking to maintain private school subsidies, as both are “hawks” when it comes to the £65m savings and cuts to public services, and perhaps more so that the Treasury Minister himself. So why are those plus royale que le roy seeking to have his head chopped off?

The Treasury Minister sees the removal of the fee subsidies as justified both on grounds of user pays and efficiency. He is not up for election this October. This illustrates the point that the current structure of the States with its 6 year term Senators, insulates them and policy from popular dissatisfaction.

As I have been perambulating around the district, several electors with children at private schools have indicated to me this is their number one political priority. We will see if the Treasury Minister can defy the voting classes. If he wins, he will become the stage villain. He is not up for election this time, but it may cost the Education Minister his seat in St Ouen. Senator Shenton will take the credit, get reelected and then support the real assault on the living standards of working people over the next four year parliament.

Friday, 10 June 2011

All publicity is good publicity - Party politics essential to a vibrant Democracy

On the basis that all publicity is good publicity, it was a pleasure to read the article about me in tonight’s edition of the Jersey Evening Post newspaper. I had not formally declared my intention to stand as such announcements are traditionally reserved for the period just before nominations, which will be in September. Not that it does any harm, because at least the electorate will be forewarned when I knock on their door to discuss politics and elections. The article was based on the Newsletter that I have been circulating around homes in District No 1 in which I do state my intention to stand. That’s as good as formal announcement.

Making an announcement early shows, I hope, my commitment. I want to be Deputy for No.1, the district in which I live. There will be quiet a number who will stand for election here and I know some who have already said they are considering their prospects. Let’s hope they declare early like me so that the electorate can see their caliber that much sooner.

There are bound to be a few “outsiders” chancing their arm that this is the soft underbelly of the States.  Traditionally District No.1 has been a back door for a number of “Establishment” candidates who have ill served the electors once firmly ensconced.

Sitting Deputies also have a tendency to think that they have a preordained right to be reelected. Disillusionment with the existing Deputies is everywhere I go. To be fair to them, its disillusionment with the possibility that change is possible. Working people understand instinctively that there is much wrong with the “Jersey Way” but cannot articulate it in a systemic way nor suggest any real solutions. One of the questions I ask is can you name the deputies in this district. Very few can and that applies equally to those who say they vote at every election.

Political parties

The tone of the JEP article was to emphasise my support for the idea of political parties. Its true I do. The banner headline was “Political party backer to stand for Deputy”. However, my Newletter did not mention anything about political parties, so I can only assume it was either deliberate and mischievous or simply poor journalism.  I was not contacted by the JEP to discuss my newsletter, although I did have one missed call from them on my mobile. The journalist clearly was not that concerned to call back and tell me they were doing a story and find out more about my intentions.

I describe Time4Change in my Newsletter as a “pressure group” and not as is described in the article as a political party. It is not a political party and has never been conceived of as such, let alone being registered legally as a political party for election purposes.

For the JEP the use of the expression “political party” is a code word for “left wing and dangerous” and by association anyone who might favour such developments is to be considered in such terms.

We have a long way to go before there is a credible opposition. Those that might constitute one prefer to be prima donnas and hate the implications of accountability that would flow from their being part of an organised and mandated group.

Elsewhere in the world, political ideologies and differences are expressed in the form of political parties. A number of the major offshore finance centres in the Carribean and elsewhere have them albeit there is very little political difference – just an in and out group of elites. That parties do not exist in the Channel Islands is a reflection of their political backwardness, or more precisely that the interests of working people have not been translated into a coherent political representation. Parties and party politics are vital ingredients of a vibrant democracy.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Portugal’s elections see a 41% abstention. Hold on, in Jersey we have 70 - 80%!

 Reading an article about the recent elections in Portugal, I was struck by the following remarks:
“……it is remarkable that more than 41 percent failed to cast their votes. It is a disturbing sign of a feeble democracy in which the divide between politicians and voters keeps growing.
The political bubble in which many of these politicians operate is a different country from the one in which a great part of the population lives. And although ‘guilt’ can never be one-sided, it is ultimately those who are elected as representatives that must make an effort to reflect the voters' will.” (*)

So, voter abstention is a sign of a “feeble democracy”. Why does no one take this issue seriously in Jersey, when we have voter abstention in the region of 60% to 80% depending on Parish and District? The fault for this argues the author lies with the representatives failing to make an effort to reflect the voter’s will. I am only  aware of States Members expressing contempt or indifference towards those that do not vote. No one is the slightest bit interested to find out why they do not vote, let alone suggest how this might be rectified. When did one ever see the local media take up the issue or ask a committed non-voter for their reasons. This surely is the elephant in the room of Jersey politics. Yes, they really are living in a political bubble, just like the political class across Europe.

(*) Portugal: the day after  Sofia Diogo Maeus (06.06.2011) openDemocracy

Friday, 3 June 2011

"They don’t do anything for people like us” - overcoming voter abstention and cynicism.

Distribution of the June District No.1 Newletter to all households in District No.1 is nearly completed. If you have come to the blog having followed the link, then thank you. There may have been something in the leaflet that stirred some interest, so let me know what it was.

As I and supporters have been going around delivering those leaflets, we have sought to engage residents in political discussion with a view to winning a vote in the October elections. There have been some fruitful discussions and many have appreciated that I gave them the courtesy of a personal visit, even this early in the electoral campaign. Thanks to the two gentlemen in Pier Road who gave me an ice cold lager one hot June Thursday.

One couple were off to Canada on holiday from August through to October (yes, lucky them!) and I advised how they could download a Postal Vote request from the St Helier Parish internet site soon after the nominations for Deputy on 7th September. The request for a postal ballot will have to be sent signed, direct to the Judicial Greffe in the Royal Square, and for them to send out the ballot form. The six weeks between the nominations on 7th September and election on 19th October should be enough for them to complete the process. The completed ballot must arrive a few days before the election date to be valid. Cut-off dates and times will, no doubt, be printed on the form.

The big enemy in this election is not other candidates – I don’t take them too seriously – it’s the fact that eighty percent of the electorate abstain from voting. Everywhere I go, I encounter the same cry about the political class – “They don’t listen to us”; “They don’t do anything for people like us”; “They say one thing at election time and once elected do the opposite”. I hear all these comments and then set about trying to sort out the complexity and confusion that lies hidden in these sentiments. Most of the time, I do not succeed, but at least I try. I tell them I follow an old Socialist slogan, yes remember Socialism, and  that slogan is “Pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will”. What does it mean? It means even though the task may seem impossible, it is human action that can find a solution through the very act of doing. Even though so few vote, I do not give up on trying to engage everyone. Essentially its a political issue that I cannot address on my own. It will require sustained education by those committed to democracy and social justice.

Voter abstention is not because the electorate is somehow basically content. Quite the contrary, there is deep anger at the conduct of the government, as personified by Senators Le Sueur and Ozouf. That sullen resentment is not as yet mobilised into political action. I try to explain that disengagement of the individual voter is precisely what the Establishment want. They have no desire for working people to get out and vote for candidates that express their social and economic interests. Better they stay at home on election day and remain frustrated and passive. I see my task as giving potential voters sufficient confidence that change is possible.

Voter abstention is ignored by government, politicians and the media. Both government and elected politicians got there with the existing electorate and for them that is enough. Over the coming weeks I hope to do some video blogs and examine the arguments that are used. They will be familiar ones and I want to deconstruct the malaise that affects potential voters. I work from the basic premise that bad governments are elected because good people don’t vote.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The Havre des Pas Monte Carlo Rally - speeding deterrant at last

Several months ago BBC Radio Jersey’s Talkback programme had as their theme of the day the issue of speed limits across the island. I rang in to the programme to speak on air about the situation at Havre des Pas and in particular the way drivers tend to speed down Mount Bingham, especially at night. Living as I do on the front at Havre des Pas,  I was not aware there had been any speed enforcement in the area.

Behold, this afternoon a Police officer was situated on the road opposite the swimming pool armed with a speed gun. He caught several vehicles speeding, amongst them two BMWs and a Mercedes. The officer duly took the details of the offending drivers, who one imagines will be summonsed in the Magistrates Court.

As the weather improves, more children will be using the pool and elderly taking to the promenade. Consequently, I am pleased to see that the issue of speeding is being taken seriously. The knowledge that there have been Police at the bottom of Mount Bingham and along Havre des Pas may act as a deterrent to speeding drivers in the future.