Defining the role of parliamentarians in Jersey

18 Dec 2018
A new Member of Parliament swearing on the Koran in the House of Commons, Westminster

In 2018, Jersey saw the launch and then abandonment of what could have been a unique official attempt to define formally the role of the jurisdiction's parliamentarians.

Mark Egan, Greffier of the States of Jersey
Greffier of the States of Jersey

Mark Egan

Mark Egan
Greffier of the States of Jersey

Mark Egan has been Greffier of the States of Jersey – the Island's senior parliamentary officer – since 2015. Before that he worked for the House of Commons.

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In March 2018 a motion to agree on the duties of members of Jersey's legislature, the States Assembly, was published by the Assembly's Privileges and Procedures Committee.

Those duties were to:

  • represent, defend and promote the interests of the people of Jersey, particularly their parishioners and constituents;

  • play an active and constructive role in the governance of the Island, whether as Ministers, Scrutiny Panel members, or in other positions, ensuring that the States Assembly functions effectively and efficiently as the Island's legislature and gives voice to the diverse interests of people in Jersey;

  • initiate, seek to amend and review legislation so as to help maintain a continually relevant and appropriate body of Jersey law;

  • establish and maintain a range of contacts throughout the Island, and proper knowledge of its characteristics, so as to identify and understand issues affecting Jersey, contribute to debates and other Assembly proceedings on those issues, and, wherever possible, further the interests of the Island (or constituency) generally;

  • provide appropriate assistance to individuals in Jersey, through using knowledge of Jersey's government institutions, to progress and where possible help resolve their problems;

  • undertake these duties with particular regard to the most vulnerable members of the community, including the Island's children and other people for whom the States of Jersey has a duty of care; and

  • be ambassadors for the Bailiwick of Jersey, its people, and for the States Assembly in all that they do.

These duties were set out in response to a recommendation of the inquiry into historic child abuse in Jersey, which reported in July 2017. It had concluded that there had been a failure in the corporate parenting of looked-after children by the States of Jersey (a term which encompasses both the government and legislature in Jersey) and that States members' duties as corporate parents ought to be reflected in their oath of office. "The symbolism of this would", the report said, "be a very powerful demonstration of the commitment to move on from the failures of the past".

However, the report accompanying the members' duties motion (or 'proposition' as they are described in Jersey) set out some of the difficulties with implementing that recommendation:

  • The concept of corporate parenting is not recognised in Jersey law.

  • There are two oaths of office, one for senators (elected Island-wide) and deputies (akin to constituency representatives), and one, written in French and dating back to 1771, for the Connétables (the civic leaders of each parish).

  • Questions were raised about whether other vulnerable groups should also be mentioned in the oaths.

Senators and deputies are required to swear that they "will fulfil all the duties imposed upon you by virtue of the said office". The Connétables are similarly required to swear that they will undertake the duties or responsibilities ('la charge') of their office.

Given this, and given the difficulties of incorporating language about corporate parenting into the relevant oaths, the Privileges and Procedure Committee therefore agreed that a simpler way of meeting the spirit of the Care Inquiry's recommendation would be to set out the duties of States members in a draft proposition and to invite the Assembly to debate and agree those duties.

The list of duties was prepared with an eye to similar attempts to define parliamentarians' responsibilities in other jurisdictions, particularly in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. The proposition expressed the hope that having a published set of responsibilities would help the public understand what States members do and increase accountability.

Jersey's general election took place in June 2018 and the newly-appointed Privileges and Procedures Committee withdrew the proposition in September 2018, before it was debated.

No reason was given for this decision, but the absence of other examples of legislatures agreeing on a job description for parliamentarians, acknowledged in the report accompanying the proposition, may well have been decisive.

Jersey's incoming Council of Ministers established a children’s pledge for States members to sign, and this is now being seen as a way of implementing the Care Inquiry recommendation.

This episode demonstrates the continuing difficulty of achieving formal agreement on the roles and responsibilities of parliamentarians.

Although each of the duties in the list set out in the proposition captures an aspect of a parliamentarian's role, there are concerns that giving formal status to the full list might constrain parliamentarians from undertaking the role as they see fit.

Another issue, particularly salient in Jersey where the support provided to parliamentarians is very limited, is whether Members can reasonably discharge all of these duties.

However, it is unlikely that this issue will go away, either in Jersey or elsewhere, and when the matter next arises there is at least a draft proposition which can be taken down from the shelf and considered afresh.

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