Business and the States

22 November 2021

It is a regular feature of elections in Jersey that there are calls for more business people to stand for election.  And there is broad agreement that the States needs a wide range of people with different backgrounds and experience.  But the early expressions of interest from people with business experience tend to evaporate and the Assembly remains unbalanced.

It is not difficult to see why.  Business and politics are very different environments, so business people find politics deeply unattractive and few politicians are successful in business.  In a business, whether a sole trade, small business or large corporation, big decisions are taken on the basis of factual analysis and consideration by people who devote the necessary time to understanding the issue.  At board meetings, the assumption is that members have read and understood the papers and any discussion focusses on key issues where there is uncertainty or a genuine difference of views.   Members speak only if they have something material to say and seldom for more than a few minutes.  Big decisions can be taken after a few minutes or even no discussion – not because the issue has not been adequately considered but precisely because all the hard work has been done before the meeting.

By contrast, in political meetings many members have not read the papers (partly because they are too long and badly written) and many feel obliged to speak at length even when they are agreeing with the proposal or what someone else has said.  As a result political meetings take far longer than business meetings.  And in Jersey there is an additional factor that no decision is final and the method of operation of the States is that endless time is spent on scoring points.   The 2000 Clothier Report on the machinery of government said –

A recurring theme in the evidence presented to us was that there were many failings in the present performance of the States and especially the lack of effective use of the time available, partly as a result of:­

    • A tendency for some Members to speak on almost every topic, while others seemed hardly ever to speak or put questions;
    • A tendency to enjoy debating trivial problems which should be resolved elsewhere, rather than underlying policy issues;
    • The making of long and discursive speeches, often repeating what had been said by earlier speakers;
    • An inability to adhere to recent previous decisions and an urge to debate them yet again.

The report confirmed this view.  The position has worsened subsequently.  In 2020 the Assembly sat for 60 days, compared with an average of 36 days in the previous five years.  The time taken by oral questions increased by 90% between 2018 and 2020 and accounted for 18% of total sitting time.  I suspect 2021 will show a continuation of this trend.  There is no evidence that the increase in quantity has resulted in improved outcomes for the people of Jersey.   On the contrary, when the States Assembly is sitting many senior officers are required to be “in attendance”, at the expense of their more important work.

That is just one reason why business people find the political world unattractive.  But there are others.  The intolerable abuse directed at politicians together with equally damaging continual repetition of factual errors and misrepresentation of what they have said or done does not apply in the business world.  The financial position is also important.  In almost every business, remuneration reflects workload and responsibility.  In the States Assembly each member is paid the same – from the Chief Minister with a more than full time job and huge responsibility to a backbencher with little responsibility and who chooses little.  £45,000 a year, combined with the other points, represents a sacrifice for a successful business person and an attraction for an armchair critic.

So what must be done?  There needs to be movement both ways.  The States Assembly needs to be more business-like, serving the people of Jersey as they deserve to be served and not members talking to themselves in the Royal Square bubble.  And business cannot complain about the inadequacy of the Assembly unless business people themselves forward for election,  help to secure the reforms that are needed and recognise that politics is not like business.

Sir Mark Boleat is Policy Director in the Jersey Alliance