Friday, 30 January 2015
THE STATES are asked to decide whether they are of opinion –
(a) to agree that Friday 8th May 2015 should be designated as an extra Public and Bank Holiday for 2015; and
(b) to request the Chief Minister to bring forward for approval the necessary Act under the Public Holidays and Bank Holidays (Jersey) Law 1951 to give effect to the decision.
DEPUTY S.Y. MÉZEC OF ST. HELIER
After reading in the news that the Council of Ministers would not be proposing making Friday 8th May a public holiday this year (as the usual 9th May public holiday falls on a weekend) I have decided to lodge this proposition to offer the States Assembly an opportunity to decide on this.
Similar propositions have been brought to the States before when Liberation Day has fallen on a weekend which have not been successful (though our sister Island Guernsey has taken a less consistent approach and on occasion given an extra public holiday in lieu). I believe that this 70th anniversary of the Liberation is different for a several reasons, and should once again be considered that the Island should have a long weekend to extend the celebrations.
The first of these reasons is that the 70th anniversary is a landmark anniversary, more significant than the usual annual commemoration and could well mark the last major anniversary where a significant number of Islanders who lived through the Occupation may still be with us to share their experiences and join in celebrations.
It is also worth remembering that the 8th May will mark the 70th anniversary of VE Day, which is surely worthy of special commemoration in itself, regardless of it not being an occasion unique to the Channel Islands. It also marks the day when Winston Churchill announced to the Islands that they would be liberated the following day.
The second reason is based on the fact that this is not an ordinary year for Jersey. This year the spotlight is on Jersey because of our hosting of the Island Games. As a result of that there will be a large number of people from outside the Island viewing Jersey as a potential destination.
When so many eyes are gazing upon Jersey, it is important that we do as much as we can to make the most of it and entice people to come to the Island. There have been suggestions about hosting a big street party and there are no doubt other plans in the pipeline. A longer weekend provides more time to pack more in to draw people into the Island. The opportunity that that would present to tourism should be seized.
Some will argue that the cost of having a public holiday is too great. But it must be said that Liberation Day is usually a public holiday anyway, and so the fact that it is not this year is essentially a bonus to the public purse, given that it is a cost that is usually met every year anyway. To provide an extra public holiday is to simply restore the situation to what it normally is every year. On that basis, the cost to the public purse is notional.
It is also worth noting that a precedent has been set before in that in 2011 a public holiday was granted to celebrate the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton and in 2012 for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. If we can make an exception for the those, we can make an exception for Liberation Day.
In many other countries when their national day falls on a weekend, it is automatically observed that a public holiday will be given in lieu. This is the case for Independence Day in the USA and Australia Day.
The most persuasive argument against it is that businesses are often very uneasy about extra public holidays, which is understandable. To that though I would use the same argument used by the former Chief Minister Senator Terry Le Sueur when he proposed marking the Royal Wedding as a public holiday by pointing out that whilst there is indeed a cost there, it is also an opportunity to attract tourists here and boost the economy in other ways.
By far the weakest argument which I have heard used against an extra public holiday is that “Liberation Day is the 9th May and a day off will devalue that”.
Nobody is suggesting that the 8th of May should usurp the 9th as the truly special day (not least because VE Day is a special day in its own right), as the 9th is when the States sitting and re-enactment in Liberation Square will take place. The 8th May will simply provide a longer period of time to put on events.
It is also worth pointing out that commemorative events are being held on Sunday the 10th May in the Parishes anyway and no one would argue that that could demean the 9th May as the true Liberation Day.
I would therefore suggest that an extra public holiday would actually enhance the 9th May as Liberation Day, not devalue it.
In fact, when Christmas Day or Boxing Day fall on a weekend, we are given extra bank holidays to make up for that and I have never seen the argument utilised that those days off devalue the meaning of Christmas.
Sunday, 25 January 2015
I write in response to the excellent letter from the former Deputy of St Clement Gerard Baudains (22nd January). I was disappointed that Mr Baudains was not re-elected in October, not because I share his politics (because I certainly do not) but because I always admired the fact he would never let the government say anything without it being challenged and because he was clearly an independent thinker who would never allow himself to be spoon-fed by the Council of Ministers.
His observation about the lack of effective challenge in the current States Assembly is absolutely right. We are facing 3 years ahead of us of a government which will attempt to force through unpopular measures to hide the dire financial state in public funds they have created, whilst most States Members will simply nod them through unquestioningly. At the same time our Chief Minister is trying to create a public image that he is a caring leader by proclaiming that he will prioritise reducing poverty, yet has refused calls to raise the minimum wage, thus proving that his claims were completely insincere. Also the Chief Minister has not lifted a finger to help the workers at JT who are being exploited, as he has been preoccupied with trying to create insecurity in work by increasing the qualifying period for unfair dismissal claims.
But what I cannot agree with Mr Baudains on is when he says there is no opposition in the States anymore. He is wrong. There is an opposition and it’s called Reform Jersey.
Any casual reader of the JEP will have noticed that it is Reform Jersey’s States Members which have been dominating States question time and have been putting forward proposals to try to undo some of the damage being caused by the Council of Ministers. Despite only having 3 States Members we are able to punch well above our weight because we are well organised and because we work together towards a common vision. That is why Jersey needs party politics.
Reform Jersey does not claim to have all the answers, which is why we would urge any Islander who feels disaffected with the current government to join us. This next year will see us formulate a proper policy statement for how Jersey can have a future with a democratic government based on principles of social and economic justice. Anyone who wishes to contribute ideas to that statement would be more than welcome!
Deputy Sam Mézec – Chairman of Reform Jersey
Wednesday, 21 January 2015
Today the States voted against the proposition of Deputy Southern to annul an order made last year (with no consultation and without any supplementary evidence to back it up) by the Social Security Minister to extend the period which a worker has to have been in a job before they qualify for protection from unfair dismissal.
A resounding victory for the Jersey Tory Party, and so I want on record the comments I made against it and to put in the public domain some of my views on how you can help both businesses and workers, rather than slavishly following the outdated conservative doctrine that our current Council of Ministers subscribes to.
This measure which has already been taken by the Social Security Minister, with the support of the Council of Ministers, without any meaningful consultation either with the wider public or States Members is nothing short of a scandalous and unjustifiable attack on workers rights.
It seems to me to just be postulating by a government which is more interested in appearing ‘pro-business’ for the sake of it rather than actually doing what matters, which is creating an economic environment that works for both employers and employees, to create jobs and opportunities, without predicating that on decimating the conditions of ordinary people and creating insecurity in work.
I think this is exemplified by the fact that the Social Security minister by her own admission, before taking this move, has, aside from the Employment Forum, only spoken to stake holders from the employers’ side and not spoken at all with workers representatives such as Trade Unions, who are resolutely opposed to this change and who the Minister has made no effort at all to reassure.
If you ask employers if they'd like the qualification period increased, who is going to say no? It’s the wrong question. Question should be, what would help businesses, and when that question is asked in a non-leading way like that, I highly doubt many businesses would say that this is the most important factor holding their business back.
In every answer to a question or a document issued by the Minister on this, there has not been a single credible justification for this change. She simply repeats the mantra “this will help create jobs” over and over again, as if inanely repeating it will somehow make it true.
As the Employment Forum’s report on this shows, there is not a single piece of evidence to show that there is a tangible link between rates of employment and the qualifying period for unfair dismissal claims. It just doesn’t exist and this “ah but you can’t prove it doesn’t have an effect” is, quite frankly, one of the poorest arguments I’ve ever heard in the States.
The report states that changes to the qualifying period in other jurisdictions are generally politically motivated and not evidence based. I would say that that is exactly what this is too.
So I listened intently to the Ministers speech yesterday afternoon to see if she could provide any extra evidence to say that something had changed since the Employment Forum’s report in 2013, and the answer to that was a very clear no.
But she offered three reasons why this move is no big deal, so let’s take them in turn.
She said the first was that 1 year was, I think she said “common sense”.
And maybe she’s right. If you’re plucking a number about of thin air, 1 year may seem sound. But no more or less sound than 6 months which we already have, and since there is no evidence to support changing it, it doesn’t sound like common sense to change it without justification.
The second was that this only affects the rights of a minority of workers as the changes just come in for those who take jobs on after the 1st January. I have to say I think that point is pretty pedantic and misleading when the change theoretically affects any workers rights if they take on a new job.
The third, and this was the main one, was that the change is just a small change.
Well sir, I fail to see how a change from 6 months to 12 months, a change of 100%, could possibly be described as small.
She specifically said that it was raised to 1 year, rather than the 2 years it is in the UK, because she wanted to balance it with the needs of those people who may be already in work but wanting to seek a higher role somewhere else or a promotion, but were put off by the potential insecurity for them.
And that is a legitimate concern. I have a friend in the UK who had a decent job, but wanted to move somewhere else to pursue a new opportunity and could stand to lose everything if her new employer ends up not being all they seemed and decides to just sack her off the cuff for no good reason.
But I can’t see how raising it from 6 months to 1 year doesn’t result in the same thing here either. It’s no different. I spoke to someone just yesterday who has been offered a job somewhere else, wants to take it, but is worried about the off chance it doesn’t work out and they end up without a job, not able to claim unfair dismissal and can’t pay the mortgage.
Why is the government seeming so indignant over the idea of businesses taking risks when taking new people on and wanting to help them, but disregards the risks which ordinary workers take when they take on a new job, have to arrange their life affairs around it and the affairs of their families, when they could be sacked unfairly with no recourse to compensation whatsoever.
It is that injustice which shows where this government’s priorities are.
But now moving in a constructive direction -
We’ve heard yesterday from Deputy Norton who I think made some good points even if he did arrive at the wrong conclusion. He spoke of how difficult it is and how no decent employer wants to just sack their workers left, right and centre unless there is nothing else that can be done, no other option. I don’t have any doubt that for the vast majority of employers that is the case. Having good employer-employee relationships is fundamental to the success of any business, and you don’t get that by treating your workers as disposable.
But those businesses are, if they are run by decent people who care about their employees, are the least likely to benefit from this change in the law. They are the ones who, if they’re going to sack someone, are going to have a legitimate reason, which will be covered by the law already. The problem here is that this change is a greenlight for the bad employers there are out there.
This is sending out a message to those business people, if you want to sack people with no real reason, go right ahead, in fact we’ll make it easier for you. How can that possibly be right?
He spoke of how Deputy Southern wasn’t a businessman and therefore didn’t know what it was like, which I thought was a personalisation which wasn’t particularly necessary. The Constable of St John made the same point about the inexperience of Deputy Macon in business matters, which I thought was highly patronising and a demonstration of why young people are so put off by politics.
I’m not going to stand here and claim to have a huge amount of business experience like some States Members, but I have been in a position before where I, alongside a close friend of mine, have taken up projects which, if they had failed, would have seen us a few thousand pounds short. And I even know what it’s like to hit crunch time in that situation and have the phone call from someone you were counting on to let you down. It’s a horrible feeling and I normally don’t sleep for a week when we take up this project. It’s not on the same scale as putting my entire livelihood on the line like others do, but it is still something anyway.
And it is from that that I do actually have sympathy with the people who want more to be done to help businesses, and what annoys me the most about this unfair dismissal change is that I don’t think it genuinely helps these businesses who have legitimate concerns.
It just, as the Employment Forum report says, addresses what is a perception of a problem, and not an actual problem.
The biggest fear is surely that a business may have to sack someone who then ends up pursuing all sorts of legal claims against them that the business really struggles to keep on top of, with legal bills and time in court etc.
So what the government should be focusing on is putting things in place to mitigate those problems.
One that hasn’t been mentioned in this debate yet has been about the JACS outreach service. I’ve spoken to some businesses who when they have sought advice on employment matters, they’ve just been told “errrr, sounds like you need to see a lawyer”, which isn’t particularly much help to them seeing as they want to do the right thing without having to fork out for expensive legal advice. So improving that service is one important thing to do.
Another idea I have had is maybe introduce a temporary state backed insurance scheme specifically for small businesses and start-ups to cover any potential pay outs at the employment tribunal. I think that sort of idea would be worth looking into
And a final suggestion, making it easier for the self-employed to get on their feet and take risks by introducing more classes of social security contribution rates. It’s absurd that a self-employed person who doesn’t actually earn much (and may even have taken a pay cut when initially starting their business) can find themselves paying twice the rate they would otherwise be paying, regardless of their income. We should introduce progressive bands there.
But that is actually already Council of Ministers policy. It’s actually quite worryingly also Reform Jersey policy. But why isn’t that higher up the agenda? That move would quite blatantly help these people far more than this vacuous gesture.
So often we get from this government platitudes and empty gestures. But here, their actions are at the expense of ordinary working people in the Island.
I hope members will support Deputy Southern and consign this to the scrapheap and send a message to the government to actually get on with the things that genuinely matter to get our economy back on track instead of this PR rubbish.
Thursday, 8 January 2015
Following my blog post a few days ago on the Chief Minister's announcement that he intends to focus on reducing poverty in Jersey over this next year, Reform Jersey is calling on him to prove his commitment to this aim by backing our proposition to raise the minimum wage.
Here is our press release -
Press Release - For immediate release
Political Party Calls on Chief Minister to Raise the Minimum Wage to Help Tackle Poverty
Following the Chief Minister’s announcement that he intends to make reducing poverty a key focus of the Council of Ministers this year, Jersey’s only political party, Reform Jersey, is calling on him to prove this commitment by backing their proposition to raise the minimum wage by a further 10p an hour.
Reform Jersey’s Deputy Geoff Southern has lodged a proposition (P.175/2014) which can be viewed here - http://www.statesassembly.gov.je/AssemblyPropositions/2014/P.175-2014.pdf
Part (a) of the proposition calls for a 10p raise in the minimum wage (further to the 15p rise the States has already agreed) from April, with part (b) asking for a review to be held to assess the potential impact of a significant raise in the minimum wage with the aim of bringing people out of Income Support.
Party Leader Deputy Sam Mézec said “Given the shocking reports we have seen in the media recently about the rise in the number of working families having to turn to food banks, it was very pleasing to see the Chief Minister commit to trying to reduce poverty this year, however, he gave no indications or commitments as to how he intends to achieve this.”
“Often in politics we see States Members with plenty to say but who never follow it through with action. So thankfully there is now a perfect opportunity for the Chief Minister to demonstrate that he is serious about reducing poverty by backing our proposition to raise the minimum wage and investigate a further raise with the specific aim of reducing poverty.”
“It should always pay to be in work, and a situation where a couple can’t afford to make ends meet without resorting to Income Support and charity, despite both being in full time work, should be considered intolerable to any politician with a social conscience.”
The proposition is due to be debated at the States sitting beginning on the 20th January.
Saturday, 3 January 2015
Let's put this into context in as simple terms as possible - the fact that poverty is as wide-spread as it is in one of the richest places in the world should make us utterly ashamed.
It should be the top priority of every government in every country to eradicate poverty.
Never has so much wealth and knowledge existed on this planet, so it is simply inexcusable that poverty can still exist when we as a human race have all we need to make sure that everyone has what they need to survive and for society to run itself in a sustainable way without destroying the planet.
The reason why such a society does not exist can be summed up with one word - Politics.
Or, more specifically (and the subject of this blog post), conservative politics.
My main motivation for being a political person is my incapability of containing my indignation when I see injustice not just in Jersey but across the world. Having been brought up in a family with very working class roots but which had made it's way up to the middle class, I could see very clearly the "two-nation Jersey" we live in, where there are people who face daily struggles that many in Jersey couldn't even begin to understand, and which the government has no comprehension of how to deal with, because of how out of touch it is.
In the two elections I have stood in, I have been out meeting hundreds of people in St Helier and I have come across things that most people just wouldn't believe exist in Jersey. I've been in social housing where families are living with mushrooms growing out of the ceiling. I've met more people than I can count who have been drunk before midday when I've knocked on their door because it is literally the only thing they can do with their lives that brings them any sort of satisfaction. I've met people who have their disability benefits cut despite every recommendation from their doctors being that they need it, so they are literally too ill and too poor to afford to see a doctor.
But the most important thing you see from these people is their resilience. The vast majority that I meet are decent people, non-judgmental and not bitter at the wrong people for the conditions they have to endure. But for them, without any shadow of a doubt, they are completely disillusioned with Jersey politics because there is a clear perception that those who feature in our government do not have the solutions to make their lives better.
So I read today's JEP with great interest to see the Chief Minister's comments on poverty in Jersey and I just can't help but be cynical.
The recognition by someone at the top that poverty in Jersey is a real problem is important. Many will bury their heads in the sand and say that because we aren't a third world country that even those worst off in Jersey have it better than most around the world, so they should shut up and be grateful for what they have.
But where this acknowledgement leaves me pessimistic, is that alongside it came not even the slightest hint that there will be any change in direction on policy from the government.
The Jersey Annual Social Surveys of the past few years have all shown that people are struggling to make ends meet, people are not getting the hours at work that they need and that things for those people are actually getting worse, not better.
This has happened during the tenure of a government which has introduced and then raised GST, a regressive tax which hurts those on lowest incomes the most.
The defenders of GST will say that it isn't so bad because the worst off get given a rebate to help cope with it, as if it is a good thing for more people to be more dependent on on the state rather than being able to survive comfortably with their wage alone.
We have had '20 means 20' which has hurt those on middle incomes. Those being the people who give the most to government, but get the least back in terms of benefits and state support for things like university tuition fees etc.
We find out soon (officially anyway) whether or not Jersey has a deficit, and what sort of deficit it is. All the indications so far are that we do have a deficit and that spending plans up until now have been based on an unjustifiably optimistic prediction for income tax receipts.
Now, ideologically I have no problem with running a budget deficit if it is done for the right reasons, to stimulate growth or as part of a wider long-term aim for public finances. But when you have a deficit creep up on you by accident, having ignored the warnings, and to simply pay your day to day bills, that can only be described as fiscal recklessness.
If it turns out we do have a deficit, there are only two things a government can do to try and eliminate it; 1) cut spending, or 2) raise more revenues. Or aspects of both can be used in different areas of an overall plan.
During the election and at every moment before and since, when Senators Gorst, Maclean, Ozouf, Bailhache etc have been asked how they will plug the financial black hole, they will unequivocally reject tax rises. But then when challenged to show how they are going to find savings of tens of millions of pounds a year from States budgets, they have no answer whatsoever.
Now, there is plenty of room for cutting spending by internal departmental efficiency savings and (aspects of) the wider programme of public sector reform and eGovernment which will reduce bureaucracy and end duplication. But will that save us the £95m we need to find? Anyone who thinks it will is living in cloud cuckoo land.
If there are no tax rises, there will have to be cuts to public services and we are already close to breaking point.
It's nearly impossible to recruit nurses in Jersey because of how poorly their pay and working conditions compare to their counterparts in the private sector and in the UK public sector. The same goes for teachers. If we want decent public services that the poorest in our society can rely on, those areas need more investment, not less. How is that reconcilable with the government position of cutting costs without raising taxes?
The Chief Minister speaks of implementing family-friendly policies, yet it was under his tenure that we saw the changes to university grants which would see the brunt of costs saved from broken families where kids have divorced parents.
How can a government preach, without any hint of irony, that they wish to help reduce poverty in Jersey, yet they refuse to fund social projects by raising taxes on the highest earners in Jersey? It is staunch conservative dogma gone mad. It is the same principle adopted by the coalition government in the UK (thankfully soon be replaced by a Labour government) that has seen the conditions of the worst off in society plummet, with specific focus on the disabled, students, pensioners and women, and they haven't even succeeded in denting the deficit to any notable degree, as was it's alleged purpose.
Even the United Nations has acknowledged that the economies that perform the worst are actually the ones where the gap between the richest and poorest is greatest. In his recent speeches in the States, Senator Maclean has been quoting economic textbooks that Deputy Southern has joked that he hasn't heard anyone use with a degree of seriousness since the 1960s. That is the position we are in.
For poverty to end in Jersey, we need better public services and it is simply impossible to do that whilst cutting costs and keeping taxes low. The low tax low spend model is broken. If we are serious about ending poverty, we have to accept that we need a new model built around values of social inclusion, mixed with economic realism and responsibility.
There is only one conclusion I can come up with from this focus on poverty - it is insincere.
So Senator Gorst, put your money where your mouth is. If you are genuinely committed to reducing poverty in Jersey, then join me and Reform Jersey in promising these things -
- Focus all government contracts with private sector firms to businesses which pay their workers a living wage. Make it profitable for businesses to pay their workers a decent salary.
- Raise the cap on social security contributions for high earners to fund a programme for free access to GPs for Islanders with chronic illnesses, pensioners and children.
- Use your influence as shareholder of utilities to stop price hikes in bills for heating and electricity, which is crippling poor families and pensioners.
- Legislate against abusive zero-hours contracts. We could ban 'exclusivity clauses' tomorrow, so let's do it.
- Initiate a root and branch review of the income support system to identify the changes we desperately need to make sure benefits are reaching those who genuinely need help.
These are just the first 5 ideas that came to my head. Much more is to be done. But we're in for a bumpy ride in 2015.
Happy new year to all my friends and supporters!