A bid to change the procedural rules of Tynwald appears well-intentioned but may be doomed unless attitudes change.

Even if Tynwald next week agrees to support – or even debate – a motion from Daphne Caine, calling for a review of the timescales for lodging items for debate ahead of a sitting, what makes any of us think that either gov or backbenchers are any more likely to adhere to a new rule than the current one?

Mrs Caine’s motion tabled for next week’s sitting, seeks a review of the fairly new and frequently ignored rule that items need to spend six weeks on the register of business in advance of being debated in Tynwald. Her motion doesn’t say it, but she has told Gef she thinks three weeks would be better.

I have been known to show a little concern at the lack of adherence to rules in Tynwald that many would regard as being protective of the democratic process, both in terms of ignoring the register and also fast-tracking legislation. Gov ministers tell me not to worry my little head about such things – after all, why should the public expect to know in advance precisely what their representatives will be doing.

In looking at this move from Mrs Caine, let us first take some readings from the irony-meter.

The motion from Mrs Caine is accompanied with a note on the Tynwald order paper stating: ‘This item has not completed 6 weeks on the Register of Business.’

To be fair, the motion is not on its own, as more than one third of the 50-plus items on the agenda are marked similar.

This tardiness could be a clever way of emphasising Mrs Caine’s point.

Or, in a theme that could be developed by her colleagues, perhaps Mrs Caine thought the other 51 items were not enough to keep them occupied.

When the register of business came into effect, I was sceptical of the need for the six-week rule, replacing the old system of an item being published on a Tynwald agenda 12 days ahead of a sitting.

However, in another little irony the repeated disregard for the six-week rule has created a stronger argument for its retention.

In itself, Mrs Caine’s suggestion of three weeks is not a bad one. If that timescale ensures Tynwald members organise themselves enough to meet a deadline they have created, I’m all for it.

But will they?

Time and again members have found a way to justify sidestepping the rule. Each time we’re told there is a good reason, but it has happened too often for us to regard it as an exception.

Many regard the rule as red tape rather than a protection of procedures of scrutiny and transparency.

The nadir came early in the year when the gov tried to rush through a debate on the Island Plan that it had only published half a week before. Interestingly, Mrs Caine voted in favour of allowing that. On that occasion, gov failed to get the support needed – but they still managed to sneak the debate in ahead of the six-week rule by tagging it onto the end of an extra sitting that had been pencilled in to deal with Covid rules. It was still less than three weeks since publication.

Given the numerous times it has been subverted, we must consider whether the six-week rule is a bad rule or it is just that backbenchers need to stand up to repeated gov moves to sidestep it.

Mrs Caine’s motion itself has no specific mention of three weeks, just that the six-week requirement is ‘excessive’. This opens the door for navel-gazing. It could allow for a return to the old system using the agenda publication deadlines.

Nor is there mention in the motion of tightening rules or procedures to combat the – at times seemingly wilful – disregard of members towards the rule as it is or what it might become.

Unfortunately, it may come down to attitude and how important Tynwald members think is to ensure the public has a reasonable chance to know what precisely their representatives will be debating.

As an aside, one argument Mrs Caine made to Gef doesn’t hold water and I do hope it was more a case of her words not coming out as intended.

Referring to the six-week rule, she remarked that on occasions when a document has been lodged on the register in good time, she has found that, ‘ … if I read a report when first published I have needed to read it again just before the sitting to refresh my memory’.

Good.

I want our politicians to read and re-read documents ahead of debates that impact directly upon our lives..
If it makes MHKs feel any better, there are many times when we have to read more than once what they have said – or play back the online audio –  because it is sometimes hard to believe what comes out of their mouths.

In the meantime – whether they decide on a review of the six-week rule or not, whether they choose three weeks or go back to the previous system – is it too much to ask of Tynwald members that they try to follow the rules they have written for themselves?