As chairman of the committee charged with presenting the Electoral Commission's proposals for next month's referendum I've had to keep my personal view to myself about whether the Constables should continue to have an automatic right to sit in the States Assembly. However, with the approval of the referendum act yesterday, I am now free to speak my mind.
The Commission's proposals are set out in full in a document delivered to every home and available on the web (www.statesassembly.gov.je) and in the run up to the referendum on Wednesday 24 April there is likely to be a lively debate about which of the two reform options A or B, is better - or whether, indeed, we should just continue as we are (Option C).
The problem with Option B which gives each of the 12 parish constables an automatic seat (and vote) is that it perpetuates the democratic deficit for St Helier electors. Under Option B there will be 6 electoral districts each with 5 representatives, plus 12 constables: that will give St Helier (to be divided into 2 districts) just 11 representatives in the slimmed-down Assembly of 42. That may sound like an improvement (we currently have 11 members out of 51) but it is still a long way short of the representation the St Helier electors are entitled to, given that our parish has one third of the population. In contrast, Option A would create 6 electoral districts each with 7 representatives, so St Helier would have 14 out of 42 members in the Assembly, including the Constable if he or she were to stand successfully as a Deputy.
It is vital in the upcoming campaign to stress that while Option A removes the automatic right of the parish constables to sit and vote in the States Assembly, but it does not stop them from standing for election as deputies. Most, if not all of the current constables have shown that they are perfectly capable of discharging their parish duties at the same time as functioning as useful members of the legislature.
Option B not only allows the centuries-old under representation of St Helier to continue but it also means that voters in some parts of the island have more say in the government than we do - whereas it is a fundamental principle of democracy that everyone's vote should have the same value.
Supporters of Option B will argue that if we don't have all 12 constables in the States it will spell the end of the Parish system. In my opinion this is scaremongering: Jersey is not Guernsey, our parochial institutions are much stronger than in our sister island, with, for example, strong parish municipalities with particularly robust traditions of honorary service such as the Procureurs du bien public, the Honorary Police, the Roads Committee, the Rates Assessors, the Roads Inspectors, and so on - all of which will continue to function under Option A.
Why does all this matter? some parishioners will be asking themselves. Voter equity is important, I believe, if Jersey is to continue to be regarded as a jurisdiction that values fairness; in more practical terms, some of the political battles St Helier representatives are facing - such as getting the rest of the Island to contribute to the running costs of the Island's capital - will be much more achievable if Option A is successful in the forthcoming referendum.