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Backbenchers’ scrutiny deserves to be taken seriously by government

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Lucy Stephenson

Lucy Stephenson

FOR years I was confused about the UK’s political system. The only real thing I could work out was that every time a new party took over they would rip up the education system and start all over again. Then someone else would come along and do the same.

It just didn’t make sense, financially or for those in or trying to work as part of the system.

However, I soon came to realise this is what could be called peeing on the proverbial political lamppost – a way of marking one’s territory.

We should not, however, mistake that with what is currently happening with the States of Jersey. The massive changes currently being played out were always going to happen – they came with chief executive Charlie Parker and not the new political regime.

As one politician recently told me, every new States spends the first few months dealing with legacy issues before they can get on with their own work. And this basically translates as sorting out where they think the previous government went wrong. I’m told there has been a big list this time.

In the run up to the election the word on the lips of most voters and candidates was ‘change’, with even the then Chief Minister Ian Gorst saying that it was very much needed.

And it is too early to tell if true change enacted by politicians is on the cards or if the reform we are seeing is just a symptom of the wider shake-up.

What is obvious, however, is that the new cohort of backbenchers are at risk of being sidelined just as their predecessors – many of whom are now in power – did when they occupied the back benches. And that is even with their inclusion on these new policy boards.

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Because just as political parties seek to mark their territory when they take over, backbenchers feeling left out is just one of those things – it’s the nature of politics after all.

And an example this week shows just why it is an inescapable fact of politics, no matter how many times you talk about inclusion or try to get everyone on board.

Because this week a group of three backbenchers have spoken out about how they are considering not signing an eight-point children’s pledge, which was unveiled last week by the Council of Ministers, as they feel unable to commit to such promises without having the authority to deliver change.

It is a sensible and refreshing statement from the trio – Deputies Scott Wickenden, Kirsten Morel and Jess Perchard – who say they support the principles of the plan and will work within their remits to support vulnerable young Islanders but feel the pledges could hamper scrutiny processes.

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And Deputy Wickenden said ministers were attempting to ‘railroad backbenchers’ into sharing the accountability over changes to policy and service without having the authority to follow through on their signed commitment.

Deputy Morel also said he felt that the call for Members to sign the pledge was a PR tool.

And it is exactly that, a picture opportunity for the government, not a legally binding document that can stand up in court.

Many would sign it anyway, grateful for the opportunity of a bit of PR. But not these three, and I like that.

Because they all get that there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a backbencher, and that such politicians play a very important role.

To try to bring them into government, as Chief Minister John Le Fondré is currently trying to do, is a natural reaction for someone so used to being on the back benches himself.

And he has promised to be inclusive – something everyone aims for initially but again a symptom of his own previous experience.

But we have backbenchers for a reason, and we need them.

Where they need to be made to feel included, however, is by having their scrutiny listened to.

Where the Le Fondré government can set itself apart on engagement with the back benches is to engage with Scrutiny – and the unofficial forms of it in Question Time and during debates – and to listen to their concerns, conclusions and recommendations.

Because that process is even more important than PR exercises or showing a united front.

Lucy Stephenson

By Lucy Stephenson
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