Piles of paperwork
With an election on the way, Peter Gillson warns prospective deputies that there’s a lot of reading ahead
SINCE we will have an election in October I thought it might be a nice idea to consider an issue that will be of interest to potential candidates.
Something which comes as a surprise to many newly-elected deputies is the sheer volume of documents to read.
There is a huge number of reports ranging from Billet reports which are debated, to reports which are not, papers and reports from your own committee, reports from Scrutiny, reports produced by other committees, reports and papers produced by non-governmental bodies and advisers – such as economic reviews and reports from outside lobby groups.
It is a large volume of reading.
I suggest it is so large that it is virtually impossible to read everything and have a life outside politics. Therefore, deputies need to be selective and prioritise what to read and, importantly, what not to read.
I admit that I did not read everything which crossed my desk. I prioritised the documents depending on their importance. In essence this was simple – documents fall into one of two categories: ‘must read’ and ‘nice to read’.
Obviously, in the ‘must read’ pile were all States Billet reports which were to be debated and voted on. My view is very simple – if I was going to vote on something I should understand it.
Not all deputies took this view. I recall one former deputy explaining that he would read the report only if he did not support the propositions. There is some logic to this, but I think that morally a deputy should read reports they vote on.
Equally important were reports presented to the committees I was a member of. Committee papers can generally be either those which form the basis of a committee decision, or those relating to reports submitted to the States for debate.
Both of these are very important for slightly different reasons. All committees make decisions which can immediately impact on services or the lives of islanders, therefore it is right and proper that the deputies making these decisions have read the supporting papers so they fully understand the implications of those decisions.
Submitting a policy report to the States of Deliberation is similar: if a committee is recommending the States approve a new policy, or requesting capital expenditure, it is important that those deputies are fully briefed, understanding the good and bad of what they are proposing. This is why it is essential that committee members read all of their committee papers.
The third category of ‘must read’ documents and reports were those by other committees or bodies which impinged on the mandate of the committee of which I was a member. For instance, a review of mental health services could impact on policing, the prison service and justice systems. In the position of Home minister, such a report could be informative.
Now the ‘nice to read’ reports.
A number of reports are included in States Billets for information rather than debate, such as the accounts of the GFSC. These would not normally be debated so would be low priority. Obviously, it depends on the committee you are on – when on Commerce and Employment I definitely read the accounts, but when on Home, not so important.
Most Scrutiny reports would be in this class. I‘m not saying I didn’t read Scrutiny’s reports, just that if they did not relate to my committee then they were lower priority.
The guiding principle I used was that if the reports related to a decision by my committee or a decision by the States, then it was a ‘must read’ document – otherwise they fell into the ‘nice to read’ pile which I would get around to when time allowed.
Although I believe it is part of a deputy’s job to read all of the important papers, there is an exception to this. Sometimes, our lives take rocky paths and there are times when personal circumstances, say, illness or bereavement, when it is difficult to focus on even the most important reports, and we do need to be compassionate and understanding towards deputies in these circumstances.
So, prospective deputies – be aware of the amount of reading you will have to do.
But don’t worry, you don’t have to actually read anything. There is nothing in any rules that says you need to.
This is not just me suggesting this – I have an example.
You may recall in a column earlier this year I explained that Education had issued an incorrect and misleading media release about why the car parking at the new secondary schools would be limited – they explicitly stated that it was limited by a States-agreed planning policy, when no such policy exists.
I am not rehashing that subject, merely using it as an example of what I mean, so bear with me.
You may also recall that my code of conduct complaint against the committee in relation to the issuing of the media release was not upheld.
It was disappointing that the conduct panel’s media statement did not refer to the most significant piece of evidence I submitted – Education’s own traffic impact assessments (TIA).
The TIAs stated that the actual planning policy was ‘assessed on the merits of the proposals’ which got misleadingly ‘translated’ into the media release as being: ‘It (75%) is the maximum any new development is able to provide under the planning policies approved by the States.’
The defence of the committee members was that they were not aware what the actual planning policy was, relying on what the staff had told them. I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of what they say – that they were unaware of what the actual planning policy was.
Now follow this logic.
1. Education’s deputies did not know what the actual planning policy was.
2. The actual planning policy was clearly detailed in the TIAs.
3. If they had read the TIAs they would have known what the actual planning policy was.
4. Therefore, since they did not know what the actual planning policy was, they cannot have read the TIAs.
So, it seems that despite the TIAs being an integral part of a planning application, they had not read them before making the planning application, nor when the issue of parking became one of great concern to teachers and the public.
I said earlier that deputies do not actually have to read anything. It seems that commissioning a report but not reading it, relying totally on what you are told by staff, saying what they suggest you say, is an excellent way of avoiding criticism.
There is no other job quite like being a deputy.