Billet Blog: 24 October 2018

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Billet Blog: 24 October 2018

The pace of States’ business picks up in October, with an agenda that ranges from benefit rates to airport runways. A report updating the Rules of Procedure will provide some opportunities to improve the ways that States meetings run, and will no doubt attract a fair share of amendments.

A couple of weeks before the October debate, the Referendum on Guernsey’s voting system will take place – more information is available here. There is still time to get yourself onto the electoral roll, and even to sign up for a postal vote if you can’t or don’t want to vote in person. The five options range from a single island-wide election for all 38 seats, to a continuation of the parish-based system as it is at present, with several intermediate solutions designed to offer practical solutions to those who value elements of both the parish-based and island-wide approaches. The more people show up to vote, the more impact every vote will have – if 40% of people on the electoral roll turn out to cast a vote, the States has agreed to implement the winning option.

Billets d’Etat XXIII – 24 October 2018 (read it online here)

Statements and Questions

There will be two general update statements, from the President of the Development and Planning Authority and the President of Education, Sport and Culture. Both are likely to be followed by a lively period of questions and answers – the ongoing changes to secondary education will be at the top of everyone’s minds, especially as we’re expecting to find out the sites of the two new schools around the same time. And planning-related concerns have dominated Deputies’ inboxes throughout the summer, with a growing discomfort with the realities of the Island Development Plan. These update statements provide an opportunity to explain and explore the issues in more detail.

Elections and Appointments

The States is asked to appoint four new members to the Population Employment Advisory Panel, as three current members have come to the end of their terms and one has resigned. The Panel is a six-member group which was set up to represent the experiences and workforce needs of Guernsey’s different economic sectors, so that permits for different kinds of job (and the length of time those permits last) can be tailored to meet the island’s needs under the new Population Management regime. Elections don’t normally attract much debate, but, given ongoing concerns among some employers about the effectiveness of the regime, and with the unknown quantity of Brexit around the corner, I wonder if this one will be an exception.

We are also being asked to re-appoint one of the ordinary members of the Guernsey Financial Services Commission for a further three-year term, and to appoint an ordinary member of the Planning Panel for a six year term. The Planning Panel report notes that two members have recently resigned.

Legislation

There are nine statutory instruments to be noted by the States, and a couple of them do some quite significant things.

For example, the Air Transport Licensing (Exemption of Non-Essential Routes) (Guernsey) Regulations, 2018 switches on the “quasi Open Skies” regime which the States decided on in July, under which only the Guernsey-Gatwick and Alderney-Guernsey routes will be subject to licensing. This was a decision I opposed, because I doubted it would bring the cheap, frequent flights that islanders want, on any kind of sustainable basis – in the long run I fear it’ll damage our connectivity, and future States will have to shoulder the burden of sorting that out. I will be watching with some trepidation (and hoping to be proved wrong!) as the new regime takes effect.

Then there are the Income Support (Guernsey) (Amendment) Regulations, 2018 which formalise something that has long been a policy of Social Security – limiting the availability of financial assistance with medical costs to people receiving Income Support who have low capital (savings). This is a policy I disagree with, and I dissented to the making of the regulations – especially as we provide the same kind of financial assistance to some people who don’t need Income Support, and as the States has agreed that primary care needs to become more affordable. (The interim In-Work Poverty report and HSC’s Partnership of Purpose policy letter both make this clear.) The issue is also set out in ESS’s policy letter on Non-Contributory Benefit Rates (paras 3.44 to 3.46) and it’s during that debate that I hope the States will look again at this policy.

In among the other Statutory Instruments, there are sanctions on the Maldives; a clarification that donations to campaign groups don’t count towards the limit of £100 that individuals can spend on promoting the Referendum; a change to the certification requirements for imports of low-cannabinol products; and several additions and alterations to the white list of prescribed drugs.

There are a further five laws and ordinances to be approved by the States. The first is part of the States’ continued response to Brexit. We have already decided that any EU law which is currently in effect here will be carried forward into local law on the day after Brexit, so that we aren’t plunged into a period of legal uncertainty. This law is one of the mechanisms for changing ‘preserved’ EU law after Brexit, where the States considers that there are good policy reasons to do so.

There are two ordinances relating to waste management: one makes arrangements for the Parish waste rate – a flat fee which Douzaines will charge households within their parish to cover the cost of collecting and transporting their waste. The other provides for the States’ waste disposal fee and per-bag charge. These three fees together are intended to cover the cost of household waste management locally, and will come into effect from the beginning of 2019.

Finally, there is an ordinance relating to the responsibilities of Sark government committees and another transferring responsibilities from the former Director of Income Tax to the new Director of the Revenue Service, which will take over the collection of taxes and social insurance contributions from the Income Tax department and from Social Security in due course.

Propositions and Policy Letters

There are seven policy letters on the agenda, some of which will attract quite substantial debate.

The first policy letter sets contribution levels and the rates of contributory benefits for 2019. Contributory benefits are those funded from social insurance contributions – they include pensions, work-related benefits such as unemployment and sickness benefit, a number of health-related benefits, and long-term care benefits. The usual policy is to increase pensions and work-related benefits by inflation plus a third of the additional increase in earnings. However, for the second year in a row, earnings have increased by less than inflation, so all contributory benefits are being increased by the rate of inflation only. (Click here to find out more about benefits, and here for contributions.)

The second policy letter sets the rates of non-contributory benefits – these are predominantly welfare benefits, including Income Support and related allowances. The decision to present these two reports separately was made because these benefits are funded from General Revenue (taxation) rather than social insurance. P&R would ultimately like this report to be bundled into the States’ Budget, but I think that’s mixing up “policy proposals with a financial cost” (which this policy letter, like those of many other Committees, involves) with “the allocation of finances” (which is what the Budget is all about).

The policy letter points towards some important pieces of work which are to be done in the next year, including a review of outstanding questions about the shape of Income Support – such as whether there should be a benefit limitation; how earnings should be taken into account for people receiving Income Support; and whether the personal allowance (often referred to as ‘pocket money’) for people living in care homes is set at the right level. The question of the benefit limitation has become much more relevant because a lot of the people affected by it – mostly families with two or more children – live in social housing. Previously, the rebated (lowered) rents gave them additional financial support, which no longer exists in the new system. The risk is that, unless the benefit limitation is properly tackled, these families will face unacceptable hardship when the three-year transition period is over – hardship that the new system was explicitly designed to avoid. The policy letter provides a more detailed explanation of how this has happened, and explains why the Committee proposes to increase the limitation (which affects both earned income and benefit top-ups) to £750 per week in the interim.

The third policy letter on our agenda recommends further (minor) amendments to the Transfrontier Shipment of Waste law to clarify and strengthen the law in a number of places. Guernsey is already bound by certain international standards, set out in the Basel Convention and the OECD Decision, in respect of waste which is shipped into or out of local waters. Local laws have been in place since at least 2002 to reflect this. In September 2013, the States agreed to update the law to reflect changes in EU and international requirements, and these proposals further refine those decisions.

The policy letter also presents the draft law and the waste import and export plan to the States for approval. Although this is connected to our international responsibilities more so than to our recent decision to ship waste overseas for disposal, it’s obvious that the recent changes make it all the more important to have an up-to-date law and plan in place for waste that’s being sent off-island.

The fourth policy letter relates to contracts made by electronic agents (essentially, computer programs). It is linked with the Committee for Economic Development’s Economic Development Strategy which, among other things, aims to ensure that Guernsey’s financial services sector can continue to flourish. One element of this is an emphasis on “fintech” (technology for finance) and the role of recent innovations such as blockchain.

The policy letter recommends making an ordinance under the Electronic Transactions (Guernsey) Law, 2000 to make it clear that a legal contract can be formed in respect of a transaction in which one or more of the parties (a person or business) is represented by an electronic agent (a computer program, which may be acting automatically, in accordance with its programming, without any direct human oversight). Since the way we do business is increasingly online and automated, there are obvious benefits to making sure that the law is absolutely clear in this area.

At the same time, something sits uneasily with me – I am not so concerned about investors with deep pockets, or tech firms with extensive know-how, but I am worried that there may be unforeseen consequences for ordinary citizens. The short policy letter unfortunately does not give us much insight. This is not an area I know much about, so I would welcome your insights and advice – please email me if you know more about what’s at stake here, and would like to share your thoughts. I have, of course, set up a meeting with the officers and politicians responsible for the proposals, but I’d also welcome other perspectives.

The fifth policy letter is a brief and, I think, uncontentious proposal to amend the rules governing appointments to the Board of the Banking Deposit Compensation Scheme (for more information about the Scheme, click here). The changes would allow the Committee for Economic Development to specify terms of appointment for Board members and to require a notice period for resignations, so that there is proper continuity and transfer of knowledge.

Then there is a policy letter which is bound to attract a substantial number of amendments and debate – SACC’s policy letter on amendments to the States’ Rules of Procedure. The Rules of Procedure (or “Red Book”) govern how the States works (in particular, how States Meetings are organised, and what Members can and can’t do) and were substantially revised as part of the 2016 government restructure. As we’ve now had a couple of years’ experience of how they work in practice, SACC has consulted Members on what’s working well and what’s not, and has come up with various recommended changes.

SACC’s changes include reducing the lunch recess from two hours to 90 minutes; setting a fifteen-minute time-limit on all statements given to the States and allowing Members to correct information they’d given in an earlier statement; ensuring that Committees sign off on statements and answers that are given in their name; allowing States Members to annul an appointment to a non-States body; requiring Members to declare certain interests held outside the Bailiwick; and either getting rid of, or making it harder to use, the ‘guillotine’ motion that cuts short debate. The proposals would allow Members to ask a speaker to “give way”, rather than just standing silently (or coughing gently!), but would also limit their interruption to a maximum of two minutes. They would also allow Members to attach an explanatory report to an amendment or sursis where necessary – something which should lead to more informed debate, and a more complete public record of the policy thinking behind certain decisions – and would allow amendments with major implications to be submitted up to five working days before the debate, rather than the current seven-day deadline.

After the tied Presidential election at the start of the States’ term, I asked SACC to amend the rules to allow a further short period for candidates to be questioned before going to a second vote, if the first vote was a tie. This would allow States Members to reconsider their choice based on new information. SACC have accepted a version of this, and are proposing a further 15-minute Q&A after two tied votes. The policy letter also proposes that States Members standing for an ordinary seat on a Committee should be allowed to make a speech explaining why they want to be elected. Interestingly, it would also allow the President of a Committee or Authority to dissolve their whole Committee by resigning – an approach which gives the incoming President the opportunity to pick their team, which, all things considered, seems only fair.

It is interesting to see what suggestions were made by Members that SACC hasn’t pursued. These include a requirement for Treasury to evaluate all amendments with cost implications (which would have felt like a serious imposition of central power!); a proposal to extend the States’ day from 8.30am to 6pm; a requirement for the President of P&R to provide quarterly financial updates to the States; a time limit on individual speeches; and the introduction of proxy voting. One of the recommendations was to get rid of the prayers at the start and end of the States’ day – something which, as a firm believer in the separation of church and state, I would have welcomed. SACC also hasn’t proposed to change the rule on “direct and special interests”, which has long been objectionable to some States Members, but has undertaken to develop supporting guidance.

We all have strong (and different!) opinions about what is and isn’t working in the States, and what would help to fix that. Although I could yet be surprised, if a lot of amendments are published, I might do a supplementary blog closer to the debate to explain what they involve. For my part, I don’t like the proposed new “give way” rule and probably won’t support it – I think it makes it easier to throw off speakers for mischievous purposes. I would also like the rules around written and verbal questions to allow for the questions to be published at the time a States Member first asks them, rather than at the time they receive an answer.

I appreciate the new rules SACC is proposing in respect of elections to Committee seats but would like to see them strengthened further in a couple of places – introducing question time and a vote by secret ballot even in the case of uncontested elections (meaning that candidates have a clearer idea of the strength of their mandate and that it may be possible for a seat not to be filled at the first election), and potentially expanding question time so that it covers questions of conduct as well as policy (which might make us more accountable to our code of conduct). Although SACC have dismissed the matter as being outside the scope of this policy letter, I think it might also be worthwhile revisiting the long overdue question of electronic voting.

The final item on the States’ agenda is a requete to change the runway buffer zones in order to extend its useable length. I signed the requete, as it seemed to me to be a reasonable compromise (if it’s workable) – getting more use out of our current runway, rather than extending it.

It should be said that events have overtaken the requete – Deputy Kuttelwascher, who’s leading it, and Deputy Ferbrache, who signed it, are now both on the States Trading Supervisory Board – the body which is being directed to do all the work. That pretty much means it’ll happen whatever the States decides. It should also be noted that, in the last States Meeting, Deputy St Pier said that the review of Guernsey’s air and sea links should be brought to the States this December – its findings, which may include recommendations on the future length of the runway, might well overtake any decision that’s made on this requete.

Appendix Reports

There are two appendix reports: the 2017 Annual Reports of the Medical Practitioners’ Registration Panel (which oversees decisions about the registration or suspension of doctors in the Bailiwick) and of the Planning Panel (which is responsible for hearing planning appeals). I would not be surprised if the latter was subject to a motion to debate, in view of current concerns about planning process and performance.

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