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‘Number of MPs needs reducing, but pay should go up’

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Shernette Wolffe, retired Clerk to the Legislature, at her former place in the House of Assembly (Photograph by Jonathan Bell)

Reducing the number of MPs in the House of Assembly and modernising Parliament top the suggestions for reform from the newly retired Clerk to the Legislature as she looks back on 20 years’ service.

Shernette Wolffe, who took on the role in January 2003 and retired last month, said she was “disappointed that we do not have a proper Parliament building, although there are plans in train”.

Legislators are still debating in the Veritas Place office block after vacating Sessions House, where MPs were on one floor and the courts on another, while it is being renovated.

Ms Wolffe said the lack of a building strictly for Parliament, separating the branches of power, was “embarrassing” and said a lack of resources for research and advising MPs was another issue.

Leading the Legislature: Shernette Wolffe, the now retired Clerk to the Legislature, escorted the Speaker of the House Stanley Lowe, centre, with Ewart Brown, a former premier, for the November 2008 opening of Parliament (File photograph)

The three branches of government, the executive, legislative and judicial, “should be operating independently of each other“.

Ms Wolffe added: “In other jurisdictions there is a parliamentary commission established by statute where the Clerk reports to a commission headed by the Speaker.

“It’s my understanding the Government was to have that implemented. Right now, who does the Clerk report to? In some senses the Clerk is a public servant and in another the Clerk reports to the Speaker. That has to be resolved.”

She said she was “not talking from a wish list but talking from reality”.

Ms Wolffe told The Royal Gazette a more nimble House of Assembly would come with an appropriate number of legislators to get the job done.

“I believe we have far too many MPs for a small country. When I tell people we have 36 and give the size of the island, I am kind of embarrassed.

“We have too many, and I think most Members will agree with that. But I guess that would come under the Ministry of Legal Affairs and Constitutional Reform.”

Ms Wolffe’s tenure has spanned enough laborious annual Budget debates for the former Clerk to suggest changes.

“Budget debates, in my opinion, are filibusters,“ she said, referencing the tactic of long-winded speeches that obstruct legislative debate.

“It’s long, it’s tedious, and we need to reform it. I have given my suggestions to the Speaker.”

Her tenure came with the modernising of her office and the House, and she was credited by David Burt, the Premier, on her retirement for her “invaluable advice and assistance to Members of the Legislature and the public service”.

The job comes with complex roles. It includes regular meetings with the Speaker of the House, at present Dennis Lister, to discuss upcoming business and the events of a previous sitting.

Parliamentary questions have to be vetted under the Standing Orders to ensure they are appropriate.

Ms Wolffe’s administrative remit included ensuring legislators got paid – and she said MPs were “underpaid”.

“Most of the public won’t agree with that,” she conceded. “But if they are to serve on committee and be active as members, they need to be paid for that.”

The Youth Parliament also falls under her responsibility.

Ms Wolffe described the Clerk as “adviser, teacher, trainer and leader”.

“I have advised Speakers on many issues, from procedure to whether a Member has a concern. Sometime you have to seek independent legal advice. It can be myriad issues.”

Ms Wolffe was proud of her service and noted the technological advances under her watch, which included improvements to the Hansard parliamentary recording system, laptops for members and the phasing out of paper.

Early in her tenure, there was a major political reform with the dropping of the dual seat electoral system in favour of 36 single seats.

Ms Wolffe admitted she had once contemplated throwing her hat into the political ring and that the interest helped lead her to apply for the job of Clerk.

“I did consider running for Parliament. Very briefly. Once I understood the political process, the responsibilities of Cabinet and the issues that confront us, I would never have become a politician. Never. Because you have to toe the line; there is collective responsibility, and I have always been a very independent thinker.”

She added: “Whatever I do in my life, I am very passionate about it and I want to see things done properly. It is important to be kind and very important to be respectful.”

She said the island would benefit from having a “leadership academy”.

“As leaders, you have to make difficult decisions. You have to speak truth and stand in the truth, and not everyone is going to like you as a leader. I would like to see a leadership academy.

“It’s OK to be outspoken, but of course you have to be respectful.”

She added: “I have always been very frank and very assertive. Some may interpret that as being aggressive. But that only applies if it’s a woman being assertive. If it were a man, that’s a different story.”

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Published May 22, 2023 at 7:58 am (Updated May 22, 2023 at 7:21 am)

‘Number of MPs needs reducing, but pay should go up’

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