Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Bloggers and citizens meet Justice Select Committee MP's to press urgent UK assistance in development of island democracy

The need for more active intervention and scrutiny by the Ministry of Justice in effecting the implementation of democracy in Jersey was a point made forcefully by islanders and bloggers at a press conference yesterday, held by the Justice Select Committee enquiring into the relationship between Jersey and the UK following its earlier Report “Crown Dependencies: developments since 2010”.

The event was significant in that this was the first time that citizens and bloggers had been afforded the opportunity to meet with the Committee, represented by a visiting delegation of MP’s Sir Alan Beith (Liberal Democrat) (Chair), Elfyn Llywd (Plaid Cymru) and Nick du Bois (Conservative).

The Committee has been receiving written evidence from the public, however the feeling is that meeting only government officials in the Crown Dependencies provides them with a very select view of what actually goes on in the islands. One example suffices; as part of their short visit the three MP’s had been wined and dined the previous evening at the exclusive Atlantic Hotel by the Chief Minister Ian Gorst. We can surely assume  the small talk was one of reassurance of ever improving bureaucratic relations between island government and Ministry of Justice.

That morning the Chief Minister was interviewed on BBC Radio Jersey regarding the visit, but no reference was made to the submissions by islanders to the enquiry. The governments of the three islands have all made submissions and my own can be read here. It is enlightening to read the submissions from residents in the Isle of Man complaining about the absence of “good” government and failures in the judicial system; all issues with which those living in Jersey share and can readily understand. Submissions already made can be read on the Committee web site and more will, we are told, be added soon; scroll down to the page bottom and open "Written evidence".

"Banjo" Press Conference

The press conference was arranged for 2.30pm in Banjo restaurant, the recently refurbished Victoria Club in Beresford Street. The other island media had also been afforded 15 minutes to interview the MP’s and we followed them last. The event was carefully controlled by officials from the Jersey government and Committee staff. Deputy Montfort Tadier, Mike Dun and I arrived, waited in a cubby hole beneath the stairs, before being ushered up to a room on the first floor by civil servants, who dutifully flickered the lights on the chandelier to indicate the allotted time had passed. Our presence before the Committee was met with tolerance if not enthusiasm. At least it was an important beginning and we are not alone as others in the British islands demand reforms.

 Justice Select Committee MP’s Sir Alan Beith, Elfyn Llywd and Nick du Bois in discussion with Jersey Bloggers Deputy Montfort Tadier, Mike Dun and Nick Le Cornu

Following the press conference the MP’s traveled by taxi from Banjo the La Société Jersiaise Member’s room, where they met with around 17 States Members for a further 45 minutes of questions and answers.

A longing for democratic reforms and overdue modernisation

The point that comes out of the meeting is the deep reluctance of the UK government to intervene directly and the high threshold for doing so.  As the Committee notes in their Report:

...independence and powers of self determination... [are] only to be set aside… in the most serious circumstances, such as a fundamental breakdown in public order or the rule of law, endemic corruption in the government or judiciary or other extreme circumstances.”
subject to the caveat,

… in very small jurisdictions, it is possible for the existence of very significant economic, legal or political power to skew the operation of democratic government…[and] the Ministry of Justice should remain vigilant.”
this is because they consider,

"the Crown Dependencies are democratic, self governing communities with free media and open debate"

The "Sark Model" of democratic reform

All the Crown Dependencies have recently been under pressure to accept the requirements imposed by the British government from the USA in the form of FATCA and the UK’s own “child of FATCA”, as well as changes to financial reporting following the G8 meeting in Northern Ireland, so they are most certainly told what to do, albeit with a polite public request to maintain the forms of etiquette.

The “Sark model” is clearly one of active intervention by the UK government to force the pace of democratic change in the face of stony reaction. It follows that such active engagement to break the reluctance of “feudal” elites and restructuring allows democracy the change to establish and grow. The frustrations of those seeking democratic change in Jersey is apparent, especially in a system that lacks political parties and structured political debate. We are not alone however, as the evidence submitted by islanders in the other UK Dependencies clearly show.

With the States of Jersey due to debate next month the legislation embodying Option B in the April Referendum, that vigilence of the Ministry of Justice to which the Select Committee refers, will be essential were the "Great Gerrymander" ever to be passed and presented for Privy Council approval, by reminding local elites that democratic principles embodied in the Venice Commission are not mere niceties to be ignored.