Monday, 17 October 2016

My submission to the States Members Remuneration Beyond 2018 review




Dear Mr. J. Mills CBE and SMRRB Members,

The topic of the level of remuneration which Jersey’s elected politicians receive is one which usually provokes emotive and strongly held views on all sides of the debate. As a sitting States Member (and one who hopes to continue beyond 2018) I have a direct financial interest in what the basic rate of pay is. I have been careful at election hustings and in media interviews to steer clear of that particular element of the remuneration debate which I have stated should not be a matter for politicians, and so in this submission I wish to make no recommendations on that particular element of this consultation.

However, I will say that I believe the decision taken by the SMRRB in recent years to avoid recommending pay increases during an electoral term has been an eminently sensible decision which I hope over time will be appreciated by the public, as many people I speak to appear to be unaware of this decision and believe that the previous arrangement of pay rises every year is still in place.

Instead I wish to focus on the arguments surrounding the pay structure and, specifically, differential pay.

Starting principles

The SMRRB has in its terms of reference the inclusion of two points of principle which I wholeheartedly agree with. Namely that the rate of pay should be at a level which allows the broadest possible spectrum of persons to be able to serve as States Members and sustain a decent standard of living, along with the important consideration of the current fiscal climate and public finances.

However, I am strongly of the view that a fundamental consideration in determining the pay structure for members of Jersey’s parliament should be that the structure should complement a system designed to uphold basic principles of democracy.

That may sound a bit vacuous or clichéd, but I will try to find a coherent way to explain what I mean.

Serving as a member of a parliament is a privilege and a huge responsibility, and it is one which is only temporary so long as our constituents continue to have faith in us to represent them. It is essential that those in that position be people who are held to an incredibly high standard with regards to their behaviour and performance in that role.

The States Members’ Code of Conduct states that members must observe the following principles of conduct whilst in office – Selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. (Otherwise known as the ‘Nolan Principles of Public Life’)

Whatever our pay structure may be, it must not be one which could inadvertently lead to situations where there is a financial incentive to disobey these principles.

Members must always be able to act according to those principles without any consideration of what that could mean for their personal finances.

Whilst it is true to say that most people involved in politics in Jersey are in it for the right reasons and act with integrity throughout their political careers, it is a fact that corruption exists in political systems around the world and we must be vigilant to ensure that it is not allowed to creep into our own system by taking a complacent approach to these issues.

Non-remuneration related factors to consider

It must be said that there are a whole host of factors which affect people’s decision on whether to stand for election or not, or whether or not to seek ministerial office, which have nothing to do with how they will be remunerated for it. In fact, in many cases the remuneration is actually a very unimportant consideration to them.

The most significant of these factors is that Jersey lacks a proper party political system which would otherwise offer support and training for prospective candidates, as well as a selection process which aims to target every constituency for a contested election.

In other jurisdictions, established political parties contest power through elections and this gives their entire process a completely different dynamic to what we have in Jersey.

Here, somebody who wants to serve their community but who has no idea how the practical side of elections work has a mountain to climb before they can be considered a viable candidate. This can be daunting and I am certain will put off a lot of people from putting their name forward for election. A party system would provide the infrastructure to enable more people to get into electoral politics and stand for election.

Another factor is that we have a broken electoral system.

The mechanism by which our States Members are elected is overcomplicated, gerrymandered and has a propensity to lead to uncontested elections. People are less likely to challenge a sitting States Member if they are perceived to have a ‘safe seat’. It also leads to ‘carpet bagging’ i.e. candidates chasing the seats they are mostly likely to get elected in so they can pursue their political agenda, rather than stand in a place they know well and have a connection to.

The final factor is that the level of support provided for States Members varies on what category of member you are or what office you hold.

An ordinary backbencher has no dedicated office facilities, no support staff and no researchers. They have to do it all themselves. Ministers have personal assistants and Chief Executives for their departments and the Constables have their office and staff at their Parish Halls.

These are three serious factors which have a huge impact on who ends up standing for election and how Ministerial roles end up filled. The salary structure can never rectify the problems caused by these deficiencies and so the SMRRB should not attempt to mitigate those failings by just proposing pay increases as a solution.

Of course these factors do not fall within your terms of reference to make recommendations on, but I do not think it would be wrong to at least make a passing comment on the effect these issues have on our political process and how it makes your job more difficult.

Differential Pay

It is certainly true to say that our States Assembly is unusual in contrast to most parliaments around the world in that all elected members receive exactly the same remuneration, irrespective of what other offices they hold. But then we are an unusual Island!

There is a logical argument that says that salary rates should reflect the level of responsibility somebody has, as is common in many other professions. However, the peculiarities of our democratic system must be taken into account and the other factors which will affect how those in positions of responsibility act should be considered.

A rate of pay which reflects the level of responsibility a member has will not necessarily reflect how hard that member actually works.

As I said previously, backbenchers do not have any administrative support whereas Ministers do, which can make their job less onerous. It is also the case that some departments do not involve as much work as others. The clear example here is the Housing Minister who no longer actually has a department to run as it has been incorporated into Andium Homes Ltd. Is it fair to pay the Housing Minister more than a hardworking backbencher and the same as, for example, the Health Minister?

The point must also be made that if this were implemented in the current Assembly, the people who would see the biggest increases in pay are those members who are actually already the wealthiest, whereas those who would see the biggest drop are those who are of the most modest means.

Another argument that is often made is that differential pay rates (i.e. a higher pay rate for Ministers) would encourage more high calibre candidates to come forward for those positions.

I believe this is a flawed argument because it does not take into account that a person standing for election as an independent candidate has no way of being sure that they will end up becoming a Minister once elected.

The only way that a candidate could know that if they were elected they would be appointed as a Minister (and get the pay rise that comes with it) is if they forged a deal behind the scenes before an election with the person most likely to become Chief Minister in return for mutual support. Otherwise they would run the risk of standing for election, being isolated from the Council of Ministers for not sharing their plans for government (despite their personal credentials) and then have to spend 4 years in office on a lower rate of pay than they anticipated, or resign and cause a by-election.

This would encourage a quasi-party system to exist only behind the scenes and not included on the ballot paper for voters to judge. This cannot be conducive to having an open and honest political system where political alliances are open and known by voters.

“Legalised Bribery”

I think that the strongest argument against differential pay has come about since October 2014 when changes to the States of Jersey Law 2005 came into force which introduced the doctrine of ‘collective responsibility’ to our system and gave the Chief Minister the power to fire Ministers.

If Ministers were entitled to a higher rate of pay, the Chief Minister would not only have the power to dismiss someone from Ministerial office, but would also therefore have the power to cut their pay.

This could very easily be used as a political tool to discourage Ministers from speaking their minds when they believe other Ministers are making mistakes.

If members are elected as ‘independent’ candidates, then it is wrong to provide a framework to allow the Chief Minister to essentially be able to bribe them into doing what he wants.

Many States Members are not independently wealthy and rely solely on their States Members salary to provide for their families. If one of these members were a Minister who received a higher rate of pay and had a difficult family circumstance where they might have to spend a lot of their income on professional care for a relative, or perhaps they had multiple children who were struggling with the cost of higher education, that extra supplementation to their salary would be an incredibly difficult thing to lose over a point of political principle and they would have a clear financial incentive to put their integrity aside so they could continue in office and receive the extra income.

In previous States debates and media interviews I have described this concept as “legalised bribery”.

I accept this could be seen as an extreme way to describe this situation, but I consider it to be so incredibly dangerous for our democracy that it must be treated very seriously.

Having served as a States Member for two and a half years, both before and after collective responsibility was introduced, I have seen first-hand how the Council of Ministers works and know that it is not a slick operation and that there are Ministers who are incredibly calculating and would know full well that this could be a tool that could be abused to serve the political agendas of the most senior Ministers.

Fiscal climate and public finances

Lastly, and briefly, it must be said that it is insensitive to propose pay rises for Ministers who have spent the best part of two years cutting public services and support for some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society.

To make the case that a Minister (like the Social Security Minister), who has just cut £600 a year in support for disabled Islanders, should get a pay rise because the job entails a lot of responsibility will not be an argument that will go down well with the public.

Most Islanders are finding it increasingly hard to get by. The bottom quintile of earners in the Island have seen the value of their incomes reduced by 17% over the past five years.

This is quite possibly the worst time in the history of the SMRRB to contemplate a pay rise for those Ministers.

Q1: Do you agree that the Chief Minister should receive a supplement above the salary for a States member?

For the reasons I have stated, I do not believe that this should actively be pursued now.

I will however concede that the arguments that apply for how the supplements could be used as a form of bribery for Ministers do not apply for the Chief Minister.

As this is a role which is only accountable to the entire States Assembly and cannot be summarily dismissed by one member, it is clear that a pay increase will not have a potential impact on that individual’s attitude towards the job.

Q2: Do you agree with our proposal that the supplement for the role of Chief Minister should initially be set at 15% of States members’ salary (which at the current salary level would be £7,000)?

I see no logic why that particular figure should be used instead of any other.

I am also concerned by the use of the word “initially”. How long would it remain at that rate and would this be a slippery slope?

Q3: Do you agree with our proposal that in principle differentiation should apply to ministers and chairmen of scrutiny panels once the economic climate has improved?

No and I believe that this would be incredibly damaging for our democracy, for the reasons I have stated.

The economic climate has little to do with it. There may well be a case for differential pay when Jersey has a reformed electoral system and party politics, but whilst we retain so many deficiencies in our democratic system, this can only serve to make things worse.

Q4: Should States members’ salary (£46,600) be held level during the 2018-22 period?

I make no comments on this question, for the reasons stated at the beginning of my submission.

Thank you for taking the time to read my submission. I would be happy to make myself available to discuss any subsequent issues you may wish to explore in person.

Kind regards,
Sam Mézec
Deputy for St Helier No. 2
Chairman of Reform Jersey