‘Realignment’ stops short of independence from the UK, by Nick Mann
Tuesday 3rd September 2013, 5:00PM BST.
IT IS like watching tectonic plates shifting.
Guernsey’s relationship with the UK is slowly changing and evolving, not least with a report to be debated in September that if accepted would be a step towards more independence in both law-making and international representation.
This is not being done in a vacuum, with other relationship moves being watched with interest.
Scottish independence and the UK government’s bid to bring back powers from Europe could both have an impact on the island.
Jersey has long spoken about greater independence, while the public mood and that of legal experts has been tested in public meetings and presentations.
There is one direction of travel for the Crown Dependencies – and that is towards greater autonomy.
It is perhaps perverse that this is happening at a time when things seem to be improving with the UK.
As the States contemplates the Policy Council recommendation to set up a constitutional panel to look at greater independence, the Justice Select Committee is again examining how the UK and the Crown Dependencies interact following its recommendations in 2010 for improvement.
Read the responses from Guernsey, Jersey, the Isle of Man and the Ministry of Justice and you will see all three report speedier approval of the islands’ primary legislation.
There has been a change of focus, with greater reliance being placed by the UK government on the advice of our Law Officers.
There is better communication with individual departments in Westminster, too.
Whether this is a sustained improvement, only time will tell.
But there is still an imperative for change.
One of the questions for those contemplating greater independence over law-making, perhaps removing the reliance on the UK to act as the backstop, is the amount of time taken to get laws active.
‘The Ministry of Justice is not resourced to the level of its predecessors in respect of staff dedicated to working with the Crown Dependencies, both in terms of managing the relationship and legal advice,’ the Policy Council report states.
‘That means that delays in processing the legislation can arguably frustrate the will of the island’s democratically-elected legislature.’
Currently island laws are scrutinised by the MoJ to see whether they are compliant with human rights and other international obligations.
This recommendation is taken to the Privy Council for approval to be given.
There has been talk of a Crown Dependency equivalent of the Privy Council – no doubt it is something the panel would investigate.
A dedicated resource would mean a quicker turnaround – and more responsibility on the islands’ governments and legal advisors to get things right.
That is the big picture, but there are other steps already being taken in the background that do not go as far.
Talks are already under way about whether the Lt-Governor could have a greater role to play here, like in the Isle of Man.
There, some laws after they have been examined by the MoJ are passed to the Lt-Governor rather than the Privy Council for Royal Assent.
This can speed up the process because there is no need to wait to get on the agenda for a Privy Council meeting.
The MoJ has signalled its support for this move for Guernsey and Jersey.
‘They have indicated that they are interested in this approach and have committed to sending us detailed proposals on how they envisage this would work in their jurisdictions,’ it said in its response to the select committee.
To supporters of greater autonomy, this is something of a distraction as it does not address where the real hold-ups are – and that is getting the examination of laws done by the UK government, not the part when someone finally says yes on behalf of the Queen.
It may also throw up whole new arguments about the role and functions of the Lt-Governor anyway.
Jersey, in its response to the Justice Select Committee, confirms it is also looking at another quick-win change when it comes to law-making.
‘In August 2012, the MoJ suggested informally that there should be a reassessment of the need to submit legislation which addresses areas of localised interest, for example the name change of a school. Jersey welcomed this suggestion and, in response, has set up a working group which is assessing the feasibility of identifying and defining changes with a purely local subject matter,’ it stated.
It is clearly a nonsense that some of these things are clogging up people’s desks in the UK but would never result in a breach of international standards.
The Policy Council report stresses that the States needs to look at realigning the constitutional relationship with the UK – it is not a call for independence.
There are some who would push harder, faster – remember those who back some form of Channel Islands confederation, keeping the link with the Queen and little else.
To counter that, no doubt some will remind us that constitutional relationships take centuries to form and seconds to destroy.
Greater independence in law- making and international representation are coming.
It is driven not only by the belief in a maturing democracy from this side but also, to an extent, the harsh realities of resources in the UK.
How far this goes is about political and public will – and that may well be the impetus to sort out the lack of referendum legislation too.