The long and short of it
LAST WEEK saw one of the longest budget debates for many years. Not surprising given the poor state of government finances and the prospect of the States discussing the possibility of new taxes in January.
What was a surprise was the number of comments suggesting the length of the debate was a bad thing, that perhaps there should be a limit on speeches to stop long debates, and just how very tiring it all was for deputies.
When I heard this, I was disappointed for two reasons.
Firstly, the budget is one of the most important debates of the year. Not only does it set the level of taxes, it also defines next year’s spending for each committee. In addition, this debate gives each deputy the opportunity to comment on P&R’s budget, explaining what they support, but more importantly to explain their concerns and worries about the budget. Something which could influence the actions of P&R, especially important as the amount of power and authority being delegated to that committee seems to be increasing.
Apart from the opening speech, all debates start by considering any amendments so it is not surprising that a lot of the focus and debate is on these amendments.
With some subjects an amendment can be so fundamental that the debate is all encompassing and there is little left to say for general debate. The budget debate is different, as amendments tend to be quite narrow and focused so they never encompass everything included in the budget.
It does seem bizarre that deputies are perfectly happy to spend hours and hours debating subjects such as bonfires or their own pay, yet expect the important budget debate to be over and done in a day.
For my second reason I ask that you forgive the bluntness, but isn’t that what deputies are paid more than £40,000 a year to do – to be in the Assembly and fully debate important issues?
OK, I accept that my comment is a bit superficial – there is more to being a deputy than being in the Assembly, but some of the comments I heard do raise a couple of points.
Firstly, I accept, indeed I know from experience, that being in the Assembly can be tiring. But there again so can being in any work, and the States members do have a rather nice two-hour lunchbreak to recover.
Unlike virtually all other jobs, deputies are not supervised; they can leave the Chamber at any time, for coffee, a chat, to read the paper or deal with other work. Indeed, with the improvements in technology, it is easy and convenient to do this work while in the chamber, and many do so.
Those four days might have been tiring, but not any more tiring than any other office job, and certainly a lot less tiring than occupations such as aboard a fishing boat.
I am not suggesting that deputies should have to sit in the Chamber for the whole of each session. To be honest, there were occasions when I left the Chamber, or at the end of the day bemoaned the lack of progress. I am not criticising deputies who do leave, or read other reports while in the Chamber, it is just that there should be an appreciation of the flexibility they have while in the Chamber which does not exist in ‘real world’ jobs.
I agree that some speeches are very poor, long and tedious – especially those from deputies who, having written a speech, are determined to read it, even if everything they say has already been covered by other deputies.
Not surprisingly, this leads to the old chestnut of introducing time limits on speeches, which was raised again and is something I would oppose. Hearing differing views is important, and occasionally the most unlikely deputy can come out with a gem which makes you stop and rethink the issue.
I fully agree with Deputy Green’s comment that deputies should show greater self-restraint and limit their own speeches, especially since the longer speeches tend to be less effective.
On a loosely similar theme, the Assembly agreed a couple of meetings ago that deputies who had newborn babies would be able to vote by proxy if they could not attend the actual States meeting.
Had I been in the Assembly, I would have opposed this because I believe the fundamental importance of the Assembly is to listen to the views and arguments put by other deputies. I raise this issue not to discuss the pros and cons of the decision, but to point out what could be one of the greatest contradictions by some deputies.
According to reports, a number of deputies (four I think) voiced opinions along the lines of having entered the Assembly with the intention of opposing the suggestion but, having heard some of the comments, they would now support the introduction of proxy voting.
Surely their views and their voting are inconsistent?
Let me explain why.
They started the debate with one viewpoint and, having listened to the debate, they changed their mind.
Surely the fact they changed their minds as a result of listening to the debate is evidence of the importance of being part of the debating process and therefore a reason for them not to support the introduction of proxy voting, which allows voting without being present at the debate?
Finally, as an aside, I remember being told the reason for the two-hour lunch break was to allow deputies from the western parishes time to get home for lunch.