Backbenchers: Why?

Restraint. That’s one of the things chief minister Fabian Picardo has requested from teachers in their ongoing pay dispute with the government. Their claim dates back to last June but they still haven’t had a formal response. A deadline of Thursday 9 May set by their union, the NASUWT, came and went with neither an acceptance of the demands nor a counter offer. In a letter to the NASUWT president that same evening Mr Picardo essentially said he needed more time to consider the matter.

Yet earlier that day there was time for a meeting of the parliamentary reform select committee that the chief minister chairs. It hadn’t met for over four and a half years and it was only after the Gibraltar Chronicle had revealed it that anyone had any inkling it was about to meet again. According to one of its members the meeting lasted only 45 minutes.

The Gibraltar Parliament

Long enough, nevertheless, to conclude discussions on the “expansion of the Gibraltar Parliament” and come up with a radical recommendation: an increase in the number of MPs from 17 to 25 through the creation of eight “backbenchers”, five on the government’s side and three on the opposition’s. The intention is to pass the necessary legislation in time for the next election. The GSLP/Liberals and the GSD must have had a pretty good idea this would be the outcome, as almost simultaneously with the publication of the committee’s recommendation they issued press statements welcoming the initiative.

Marlene Hassan Nahon

Only independent MP Marlene Hassan Nahon did not. Herself a committee member, she decried a lack of consultation and warned that backbenchers would not have “a quantitative or qualitative impact on the level of democracy in Gibraltar”. She’s not alone in thinking it’s a bad idea.

Commission on Democratic & Political Reform

In 2013 the Commission on Democratic and Political Reform stated that: “there should not be an increase in the number of elected members, since 17 Members in a place of our size are quite enough”. It said the additional expenditure was “unwarranted”, notwithstanding that what was being mooted was just two backbenchers.

How much eight backbenchers would cost the taxpayer is an, as yet, unanswered question. (£200,000 a year Ms Hassan Nahon reckons). There are others. Would they be entitled to a pension as “frontbench” MPs are? On polling day would people vote separately for frontbench and backbench candidates or would who becomes what be determined by how many votes each candidate gets? Would backbenchers have full voting rights in parliament?

A more fundamental question still is why have backbenchers in the first place? Unlike their UK counterparts, they would have no constituents to represent. Neither would they have ministries to run nor shadow portfolios to look after. What then would be their purpose?

The Commons in session during prime minister’s questions

The chief minister says that with backbenchers our parliament would more closely resemble the House of Commons: there’d be more ordinary MPs than members of the Executive. This, he suggests, would improve democracy because it makes it easier for the government to be outvoted. But, given the tribal nature of our politics, how realistic is it that even one backbencher on the government side would rebel? Not very I’d say, and three of them would have to in order to defeat the government.

Democracy could be enhanced, in my view, if at least some of the backbenchers were independents, able to speak their minds, unfettered by a party whip. But it’s clear that the path isn’t going to be made any easier for independent candidates to get elected.  As Mr Picardo says: “people will understand that they need to continue to block vote in order to have a government of the party political nature they wish to see, with the backbenchers being additional representatives of that party”. Plus ça change.

Let’s hope the real motivation here isn’t, as has been suggested, to reward party stalwarts who’ve never made it onto an electoral slate. Against a backdrop of the teachers’ pay claim and concerns expressed by the Action on Poverty group, the last thing Gibraltar needs is eight political sinecures.

Could Penny or Rory be the next PM?

There must be more to Penny Mordaunt than meets the eye. When she visited Gibraltar in 2015 as minister for the armed forces she stonewalled me as she arrived for a meeting at Number Six Convent Place, only to emerge minutes later – presumably under advice – and grant me the interview I was initially denied. Ms Mordaunt has now been given the top job at the MoD, becoming the first woman to be appointed defence secretary. It shouldn’t do her hopes of one day becoming prime minister any harm.

For my money though, her successor as international development secretary is a better bet. Rory Smith impressed me when he came to the Rock five years ago as part of the Foreign Affairs Committee that heard evidence from Fabian Picardo, and he’s being touted by some as the next Tory leader. The former prisons minister speaks 11 languages and is a straight talker: when asked on the first day in his new job whether he’d throw his hat in the ring once Theresa May has left office he simply said “yes” – the first cabinet minister to do so.

Mr Stewart served in the Black Watch, and is a bestselling author. Before becoming an MP in 2010 he was a Harvard professor and an adviser to Barack Obama. A bit of an action man, he carried out a 6,000-mile walk across Iran, Nepal, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he set up a charity, and delivered his first son himself. Brad Pitt once bought the rights to his life story.

The Sunday Times described him as “a political exception: a round peg in a round hole” who “even knows what he is talking about. And that, in politics these days, really is a surprise”. Praise indeed from the UK’s newspaper of record. The 46-year-old may be regarded as something of an outsider to replace Mrs May, but I reckon his time will come. If the Conservative Party survives its present crisis, that is.

RONNIE’S CRUCIBLE PIG’S EAR

One thing that university life engendered in me that has nothing to do with academia is my love of snooker. I don’t think it exists any more but when I was an undergraduate, my students’ union building boasted a fabulous snooker room where we’d spend many an hour – possibly too many – hoping to put together a decent break as we took an *ahem* hard-earned break from our studies. If I remember rightly, just 50p bought us an hour under the lights at the green baize table; those were the days!

It was during my first year, in 1977, that the World Snooker Championship moved to its present venue, the Crucible, in Sheffield. Watching the tournament on television I was soon hooked. Mind you, it took some dedication watching a sport in which colour plays such an important part on a black-and-white TV set as I had to. Only the white and black balls were clearly distinguishable, all the others were a washed-out grey.

In fact, some years earlier the BBC2 Pot Black programme that did so much to popularise snooker was devised precisely to exploit colour television technology. Not everyone owned a colour TV set though and this had to be borne in mind by commentators, who usually did an admirable job. Every now and then, however, they slipped up. As when the “voice of snooker”, Ted Lowe, not-so-helpfully told viewers that: “for those of you watching in black and white, the pink is next to the green”.

Of course, television coverage has come on by leaps and bounds since the seventies and for the past fortnight I’ve been transfixed, following the fortunes of my favourite players in this year’s World Championship.

Stuart Bingham lifts the Gibraltar Open trophy

I was rooting for Stuart Bingham who unfortunately lost in the second round. Bingham, who took the title in 2015, was also the gracious winner of this year’s Gibraltar Open. After lifting the trophy and pocketing the £25,000 top prize he said he loved coming to the Rock and looked forward to returning next year, possibly making a family holiday of the trip.

Contrast his attitude with that of world number one Ronnie O’Sullivan who quipped that he would “rather sleep in a pig sty” than play here. I, for one, was pleased to see him get his comeuppance in Sheffield: O’Sullivan was knocked out in the first round by an amateur, the first time that’s happened in the competition’s 92-year history.

The jury system revisited

My heartiest congratulations to the Director of Public Prosecutions, Christian Rocca, who was recently appointed Queen’s Counsel (and to Nigel Feetham who was similarly honoured). In preparation for an earlier column I wrote regarding aspects of the jury system in Gibraltar Mr Rocca very graciously gave me access to the dissertation he submitted as a law student at the University of Essex. It made very interesting reading.

One of his key proposals for reform was that jury service be made compulsory for women. Yes, surprising as it may seem to younger readers, as recently as 1993, when Mr Rocca completed his thesis, only men featured on the jury list; women had to volunteer if they wanted to be included. Indeed, as Mr Rocca noted: “up until 1960, women were not even recognised as potential jurors”. Thankfully this “anomaly” was eventually put right and both women and men are now called upon to serve.

However, another concern highlighted by Mr Rocca remains as valid today as when the jury system was first adopted in Gibraltar in 1830: in a small jurisdiction, where everyone knows everybody else, how impartial can a jury truly be?  Hardly at all, according to one time Governor Sir Archibald Hunter. Back in 1913, Mr Rocca reminds us, Sir Archibald had the temerity to suggest that the jury system be abolished, describing local juries as “partisan and notoriously unjust in favour of their own”. His words provoked quite a storm and he was “summoned back to the UK, never to return”.

Yet three-quarters of a century later the incumbent Attorney General, Ken Harris QC, said much the same thing. He reportedly told this newspaper in December 1991 that because of Gibraltar’s small size, “It is very difficult to be, and remain, completely impartial, whatever counsel or the trial judge may say…I am concerned that a number of verdicts in recent years have, in my opinion, been completely contrary to the evidence”.

Meanwhile, in his 1985 paper “Problems of jury trials in small jurisdictions”, Sir John Spry, an ex-President of the Gibraltar Court of Appeal, asserted that “In some islands, a local person charged with an offence against a foreigner is almost certain to be acquitted, while a foreigner accused of an offence against a local is equally likely to be convicted.”

Regrettably, statistics seem to back the view that Gibraltar juries are much likelier to convict foreigners than locals. An analysis by the now Registrar of the Supreme Court, Liam Yeats, of the verdicts in criminal cases between 1983 and 2013 shows that only a quarter (25%) of non-local defendants were acquitted, whereas three-fifths (60.5%) of locals were.

This issue alone seems to me a pretty good reason to reconsider whether we should persist with our jury system. But there’s the further argument that in Gibraltar we may be exposing jurors to unreasonable levels of stress. An indication of this came in the murder trial I referenced in last month’s column, in which the jury returning a guilty verdict asked for a counselling or support service to be established to help them, and future jury members.

If the jury system, because of jurors’ tendency to acquit locals and convict non-locals, is “failing to perform properly and impartially” as Christian Rocca asserts in his dissertation, and on top of that jury members’ health may be damaged by trauma, shouldn’t we at least have a rethink?

The Pools and the Post

What a great initiative: as its contribution to the commemorations of the 50thanniversary of the closure of the frontier, the National Archives has digitised its collection of the Gibraltar Evening Post and placed it online for everyone to enjoy. There are ten months’ worth, from the first edition on Monday 3 March 1969 through to the end of that tumultuous year.

As I browse, so many memories!

Childhood ones of course as I was barely 11 years old when Franco cruelly cut us off from the wider world, far too young to understand how momentous the events of 1969 were. Not just the frontier. We also got a new, modern Constitution and saw Sir Joshua Hassan toppled for the first and only time as Gibraltar’s political supremo. Although he obtained 1,500 votes more in that year’s general election than his Integration With Britain Party rival, Major ‘Bob’ Peliza, he was unable to form a government and had to settle – briefly – for the role of leader of the opposition.

Naturally I was only vaguely aware of all of this. Instead, what I do remember well from reading the Evening Post as a boy are the everyday things. They may be banned today but eye-catching, page-dominating cigarette advertisements were all the rage 50 years ago and must have tempted more than a few to sample the vile weed.

Long-gone eateries also did their best to seduce. Take this example from a newly-opened Lotus House in Main Street: “Her desire is that you should be satisfied for her only wish is to satiate your Chinese appetite”. Meanwhile Le Coq d’Or at 4 Cornwall’s Parade offered, “Fresh large prawns served to suit your individual taste”. And you could get a four-course meal at the Casino Royale Restaurant for 25 shillings: £1.25 in today’s money.

What brought back the most vivid memories of all, though, was the Post’s coverage of everything to do with the Football Pools. Younger readers may not even be familiar with the term but back in the 1960s people dreamt of getting rich by “doing the pools”. Sure, the government lottery already existed but the first prize was just £3,000: a tidy sum but hardly a fortune. On the other hand, for a modest stake the pools held out the tantalising prospect of winning hundreds of thousands of pounds.

There were numerous ways of playing, but if you wanted a chance of hitting the jackpot you had to correctly forecast eight score-draws from (usually) the English and Scottish professional league matches. (During the close-season summer months Australian league fixtures would be used). Pools agents would drop off a coupon at your home at the beginning of the week and collect it a few days later, together with your stake, after you’d filled it in with an ‘X’ for every match you selected. You then waited expectantly for Saturday evening to listen to the football results on the radio (no live matches on TV then), jotting them down on your coupon as you did so. Unlike nowadays, when games are stretched out sometimes from Friday to Monday, all matches were held on Saturdays with the same kick-off time.

Now in those pre-FM days, radio broadcasts were plagued with crackle resulting in many a score being missed by punters. And that’s where the Evening Post came in. The Saturday edition was eagerly awaited, as it would publish a pools coupon replica with all the results neatly filled in. My dad would methodically check his own completed results against the newspaper’s hoping, I expect, that those he hadn’t heard properly had ended in a score draw, edging him closer to that coveted “first dividend”. Needless to say it never happened.

The Post’s pools-related coverage wasn’t limited to Saturdays either. Midweek it published the next match-day fixtures, suggesting its own tips, and announced the dividend forecast from the previous Saturday’s results. Ads by the major pools companies – Littlewoods and Vernons, Zetters and Copes – added to the mystique, with intricate explanations of their “plans” and “perms”. It was all fascinating stuff for a young adolescent getting his first glimpses of the adult world, and I have the Gibraltar Evening Post to thank for it.