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Bailiff calls for 10-year halt on debate over role

Bailiff calls for 10-year halt on debate over role

Tuesday 26 March 2019

Bailiff calls for 10-year halt on debate over role


The Bailiff has suggested that it be made law that no changes be made to his role for at least 10 years in a six-page letter sent to a panel reviewing the issue.

The current Bailiff, Sir William Bailhache, who will be retiring from the role in October, has suggested keeping the Bailiff as Speaker of the States Assembly but to allow politicians to elect a speaker to preside when the Bailiff and Deputy Bailiff are unavailable.

He described his suggestion as a "softer solution" to an issue that has been brought up in the States many times.

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Pictured: The Bailiff penned a letter suggesting an alternative to the end of his role as Speaker of the Assembly.

Most recently, Senator Sam Mézec published a proposition, which will be debated in the week of 30 April, calling for the States Assembly to select a Speaker, either from elected members, or by appointing a person who is not an elected but who would be eligible for election to the Assembly, and its Deputy Speaker from amongst the elected members.

The issue has bubbled up repeatedly over the years, including in 2017 when a proposal championed by the Chief Minister Senator Ian Gorst, and backed by long-term supporter of Bailiff reform Deputy Montfort Tadier, suggested States Members be presided over by an elected speakerThis is the system in the House of Commons, where John Bercow MP carries the role.

With no one having achieved a solution, a Working Party of politicians was set up last autumn to investigate whether the role of Bailiff should be scrapped and, if so, how.

In a letter, which was sent in October 2018 to members of the Working Party, who have now sent it to all States Members, Sir William said the issue has been going on for “quite long enough and a decision needs to be taken,” adding that he had hoped there would be a referendum to settle the issue. 

Sir William said the "continued argument" has been bad for everyone, including the Assembly because it has been "divisive" and because it is an issue he says "does not very much engage the interest of the general public in the sense that there is no great mood for change for change’s sake."

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Pictured: Senator Sam Mézec will be asking the States Assembly to vote on whether there should be an elected speaker at the end of next month.

He defended the view that the role of the Bailiff as Speaker of the Assembly breaches the concept of the 'separation of powers' (political and judicial), saying, "the Bailiff has no power in the States - no vote, and any trespassing on the right of members to express views as to what ought to be done would very soon be criticised."

Sir William's approach, he says, would provide the advantage of allowing both the Bailiffs and the Speakers to "feel their way forward with mutual respect".

He said that if it doesn't work, a further change would be "relatively straightforward". If it does, he said "it would be desirable to take the controversy around the Bailiff's role away for a reasonable period at least".

The Bailiff therefore suggested that the agreement of two-thirds of the assembly be required for any change to the role or that a period of 10 years passes before any changes are introduced.

Yesterday, during a Scrutiny hearing with the Corporate Services Panel, the Chief Minister, Senator John Le Fondré, showed supported for the variation suggested by Sir William, which he said would not require a constitutional change.

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Pictured: The Chief Minister has voiced support for the Bailiff's proposals. 

Senator Le Fondré said he had "always strongly supported and would maintain the Bailiff as civic head". "As soon as you start to diminish the role in the Assembly you would start to lose the Bailiff as civic head," he said

"My personal stance is I’ve always supported the role of the Bailiff," he explained, "principally because I think in a small island and a relatively small assembly, we’ve been exceptionally well served by having someone independent in that seat. Whereas if it becomes a politician or a former politician, how do I know as a backbencher maybe, or as a politician, that I’m being treated as fairly as anybody else in the Assembly?"

The Chief Minister acknowledged that the current system is different to that of other places, noting "that’s not necessary a bad thing". "We have somebody who sits in the chair who is trained to be independent, it’s in their core of what they do on a daily basis," he said, "because lawyers are on the whole are used to winning and losing arguments and then they move on, they’ll be on the other side of the table the next time round and it’s never personal."

 Senator Le Fondré noted it was "quite important" to maintain that independence in elected speakers, while also considering that the assembly would potentially lose two members to the roles of Speaker and Deputy Speaker. 

States Members are due to meet for a briefing on the subject today so that the Working Party can gain feedback from them. 

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Posted by John Henwood on
In the very act of writing his letter to States members the Bailiff is demonstrating exactly why change is necessary. The letter is an interference in the political process, something that Bailiffs have denied they do. This is not the first time Sir William has tried to derail change in this matter and it is regrettable that he can't stand above the debate as a truly independent speaker is required to do. It is the fundamental right of a democratically elected assembly to choose its own moderator. To maintain the present system is to remain rooted in feudalism in which we, the surfs, are told how things will be by our betters. Unfortunately, far too many of our elected representatives are still willing to knuckle their forelocks and obsequiously defer to someone appointed ostensibly by the monarch, but in fact nodded into the role of Bailiff by a cabal of the great and the good.
Posted by John Storey on
I don’t think that , that should be a decision he can make or even the chief minister it’s something that the electorate has to make , after all we are a democracy so it should be us the people that decide on such matters, maybe even a referendum that is binding by law
Posted by William Boyd on
John S, you have more faith in our politicians than I do. They gave us a referendum on States reform then ignored the result ( I know it was not binding, then why ask,the question? ). They are now discussing a proposition that any reform must have a 2/3 majority of the members. So we don't count. Turkeys don't vote for Christmas, especially Comstable turkeys. I will never vote again until every vote is of equal value. So I won't be voting again then.
Posted by Toby Le Rhone on
Montesquieu wrote that political power should be distributed among a legislature, the executive and the judiciary in his pivotal work 'The Spirit of the Laws' published in 1748. He famously attributed the success of this model to the Roman Empire, meaning that no complete power could be usurped by an individual or group. Jersey is a small place with no great empire nor empirical ambition. Perhaps it is a better idea that the Bailiff is elected publicly from a score of proposed appointees but retains both roles, meaning that he is democratically selected (and he can be derailed if he uses his power unjustly) but we don't have to tear up the existing traditions and behaviour which is seemingly functional in this jurisdiction. I would also acknowledge that Montesquieu wrote in an era of developing empires and was seeking to reciprocate great empires and governance before him. Many legal and political scholars now feel that his work is outdated, and, at any rate, I would say is probably best not applied to a small island where we have a well balanced separation between the judiciary, the States Assembly and the Government.
Posted by JonathanRenouf77 on
I'm with John Henwood on this one. The Bailiff cannot resist getting involved in politics, particularly around constitutional issues. He is very far from impartial and it is time that Jersey moved to a proper, modern democracy. Mr Le Fondre's objections are pitiful - every other elected assembly in the world manages with an elected speaker.
Posted by James Filleul on
One point to make 100% clear in this story, the Bailiff wrote to the Working Party reviewing his position, and they then circulated the letter to all States Members.
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