Today's States Sitting will start as usual at 9:30am and after roll call and prayers, we will launch into another question time. For readers who may not be entirely familiar with the order of business, on the first day of business (normally the Tuesday) there is a period of two-and-a-half hours set aside for question time.
This comprises 120 minutes of Oral Questions with notice and 30 minutes for Oral Questions without notice where the Minister (or sometimes a Committee Chairman (as they insist on being called, somewhat politically incorrectly), or the Attorney General) has to answer questions (or -as is often the case - avoid answering questions) on a variety of issues that fall under his or her responsibility.
The with notice part means that they will know what the question is a few days in advance and so be able to prepare an answer. However, once the initial answer is given it is possible for the questioner and other States Members to ask supplementary questions. For many questioners (and listeners) this is the really interesting part, for it enables one to seek clarification, expand on the question, take the respondent 'to task' if they did not give the answer that was required, fish for more information, or pounce on an interesting morsel of information that the Minister/Chair may have inadvertently let slip under duress. The questioner is usually allowed the initial supplementary and one final, with others contributing in between.
Each States Member is allowed to submit up to two questions without notice. This must be done by Noon on the Thursday preceding the States Sitting (so two clear days in advance).
After the two hours has elapsed, or if all the questions have been asked, there is a further 30 minute period of Questions without Notice. These comprise of two 15 minute periods to two ministers. The ministers come up for questions without notice on a rota basis, with the Chief Minister facing questions every other session. Tomorrow, it will be the turn of the Social Security Minister (Deputy Ian Gorst) and the Minister for Planning and Environment (Senator Freddie Cohen).
Questions without notice work on a first come first served basis; members catch the eye of the Presiding Officer, usually putting their light on (the one that is situated on their microphone). He then notes this and makes a list. This session differs from questions with notice in two ways:
(i) As the name suggests, ministers will not be aware of the questions that are coming. As a result, they are obliged to think on their feet. This suits some more than others and in some cases can provide, let's say, more useful answers, though more often than not, non comital, bland or simply non answers.
(ii) With Questions without Answers (sorry, freudian slip - without notice), it is only the member who poses the question who can ask supplementaries. This can be frustrating for members who may want to piggyback on someone else's question, although there is always the possibility of that member putting his/her own question in on a related area (time permitting).
In addition to the two types of oral questions, States Members are able to submit written questions. Each member can submit up to five written questions. 'Writtens' (as they are know as, in the vernacular - e.g. Have you done your 'writtens' yet?) must be submitted a clear week before the States Assembly next sits, so by 9:30am on the Monday of the preceding week. The extra time is to allow any necessary research to be carried out as written questions tend to seek information which is often technical/statistical in nature, requiring, sometimes, lengthy responses.
This week there have been a total of 29 written questions and 15 oral questions submitted. I have posted my questions below for readers to see:
Q1 (no. 5 on the order paper)
ANSWER TO BE TABLED ON TUESDAY 11th MAY 2010
“Is the Privileges and Procedures Committee supportive of plans to introduce a 4 year term for all States Members and, if so, will it undertake to bring forward plans in time for this to be debated in good time before the next elections so that, if the States agree, this can be in place for November 2011?”
“Does Privileges and Procedures Committee consider that the current system of only allowing British citizens to stand for election for the States of Jersey is both human rights compliant and fair? Would the Committee be minded to support a change in the States of Jersey Law 2005, in order that any person who has been resident in the Island for an agreed amount of time could put themselves forward for service as a States Member?”
These two questions reflect the general interest that I have in election law and reforms. One might say I am a bit of an 'anorak' in that respect, but I have, for as long as I can remember, been interested in the various models and mechanisms of democracy and elections found in various places. It will be no secret to anyone that Jersey has some of the lowest electoral turnouts of anywhere in the world. I am keen to change this. I am also keen to make sure that the system is made more simple and I believe that a small step to achieving that, would be for the terms of all members to be made to four years. I believe the variance in terms between that of senator and those of deputies and constables is divisive and serves only to confuse the public and prevent the democratic ousting, or indeed endorsement, of a government as the public sees fit.
I am also keen that as many people as possible get involved in the electoral process as possible. For me this is not simply about voting, but extends to standing for office. Jersey is not part of the UK and so I see no reason why, if a UK passport holder can stand for election after 2 years, someone from a non-UK jurisdiction, without a UK passport should also not be able to put him/herself forward too. I do, however, think that the 2 year period is up for discussion. I would be minded to go for a 5 year period (consistent with the current ordinarily residential qualification period). Either way, it seems grossly unfair and illogical that, say, a Portuguese national who has lived here 25 years cannot stand for election when, after just 2 years, a Scottish, Welsh, or English 'national' can.
Your views would be appreciated.