THIS States’ term has started no differently to its predecessors, with very little substantive business scheduled for the first few meetings – and most of that has been in the pipeline and inherited from the last term.
Each meeting begins with a number of presidents making statements about the work of their committees. These are scheduled by the rules of the States on a rota basis. This meeting it’s the turn of Education, Sport & Culture, Environment & Infrastructure and the Development & Planning Authority. At this stage in the term, these statements can be little more than statements of intent and an opportunity for us all, like Kremlinologists of old, to read not only the lines but between them, to identify both the new committees’ priorities and the things they are dropping.
Although not confirmed, I think we should also expect to hear statements from the Policy & Resources Committee on both the UK Fisheries Bill (of which more later) and the state of Brexit – technically the state of the UK-EU future relationship negotiations and how they impact us.
Next up are oral questions to the presidents. These have to be submitted a week before. Other than those which I may ask – and this time I have one to Health & Social Care asking about the delay to the work promised on end-of-life care – none of us know until the day before (after this column has gone to print) what other deputies may have asked. By the way, the answers to the questions must actually be given to the questioner by 5pm the day before. So the question and answer in the States is a piece of choreographed reading. The most interesting bit often follows – the supplementary questions arising from the answer, which any deputy can ask. These do not require prior notice and from prior personal experience I know that it is often here that the presidents can come unstuck or demonstrate their lack of interest in or understanding of the issue.
Then come Statutory Instruments (SIs) – regulations made by committees using authority delegated to them – and legislation. This is often seen as the dull part of government’s work but most important policy changes require legislation of some kind. 99 times out of a 100, all these items are ‘nodded through’ in a matter of minutes. Legislation can be amended, if amendments are submitted in advance (of which there are none this week) but SIs cannot be amended – they can only be approved or scrapped (again with notice.)
This meeting there are important legislative changes to social security contributions for the self-employed ensuring, for the first time, alignment of their calculation with income tax – as well as calculating them on the actual income in the year rather than (as before) earlier years. For anyone trying to understand their tax and social security bills, these changes will be welcomed as simplification. There are also other sensible changes to provide relief for the impact of Covid on incomes this year – bravo!
One legislative change likely to be welcomed by employers includes measures to prevent vexatious or meritless claims to Employment & Discrimination Tribunals.
There is also some quite technical legislation which may limit the total cost of personal injury settlements. This is needed, frankly, so our doctors can continue to be insured, without which they can’t treat us.
Our Latvian community will, I am sure, also be pleased to see the final approval for a reciprocal social security agreement with Latvia. This will ensure that after they leave the island, they do not lose any rights they have earned to the benefits (particularly the old age pension) for which they have paid social security contributions whilst working in our community.
This then only leaves two key items of substantive business. Both policy letters are also accompanied by legislation – allowing the States to make the policy and the legislative change in the same meeting. This is unusual, as normally the legislation is only drafted weeks, months or even years – but that’s another story – after the policy decision has been made.
The first item relates to the minimum wage proposals from the Committee for Employment & Social Security. While the States have a policy to increase over a number of years the minimum wage to 60% of median earnings by 2023, because of the economic stress of the pandemic, the committee have decided to recommend a pause in that process next year and have recommended an inflation-only increase of 2.4% from 1 January. This topic is a really interesting one to watch in future – and indeed any debate in the States this week. Deputies who present themselves as ‘business friendly’ may argue for no or as low a minimum wage as they can get away with, to reduce the cost burden on business. A consequence of this approach is if the individual cannot actually earn enough from their employer to live, the States will give them Income Support, increasing the burden on taxpayers who pay for it – an increase often opposed by the very same deputies. They cannot have it both ways and ultimately, like Solomon, will be faced with the unenviable decision of how to share the cost between taxpayers and business of supporting the lowest paid workers performing vital roles in our economy and community.
The final item is one submitted at short notice. It is a highly technical set of changes to provisions in UK immigration law, driven by the Brexit process, which require our agreement. This item is the first time that legal changes to the Reform Law made in the last States’ term have been engaged. These now require that the States of Deliberation consent to UK legislation before it can be registered and take effect locally. The significance of this is highlighted by the UK recently inserting a ‘permissive extent clause’ in its Fisheries Bill that purports to allow it to legislate directly for us. If in due course they did that and the States subsequently decides not to approve that legislation, then we enter uncharted legal and constitutional territory on what happens next, which is a deeply uncomfortable place for any government and community to be in.
The stakes are high.
Watch this space.
Next time: the 2021 Budget