Accountability of a type unseen in Guernsey politics

SINCE its inception, there has been an ambivalent attitude in the States towards the scrutiny process.

SINCE its inception, there has been an ambivalent attitude in the States towards the scrutiny process.

It was watered down from the proposals in the machinery of government review anyway – and since then those responsible for it have spent much of the time trying to establish its role in Guernsey.

But there has been a noticeable change of attitude with the new Assembly and with that catalyst the new Scrutiny Committee has signalled its intention to be the body that will hold government to account in a way never seen in Guernsey before.

Ministers and senior staff will appear at public hearings to answer for their actions as the committee strives to increase public confidence in the States.

You can probably count on one hand the number of public hearings held in the past eight years by the scrutiny bodies – and they did not have the reach that the new system is pledging.

Gone is the concept of a ‘critical friend’, to be replaced with a type of scrutiny based on the Westminster select committee model. It will be fresh and topical, and evidence-based, but most of all it will be transparent and accountable.

‘I don’t like the phrase “critical friend” - it’s their decisions, I’m going to ask the questions, I’m not going to hold back,’ said Scrutiny Committee chairman Paul Arditti. ‘If there’s evidence in a who, what, where, why inquiry I’m going to name and shame. That’s the catharsis – the naming and shaming. They will decide whether they are going to try and cover anything up, or square up to it. Gone are the days when it was just the minister and chief officer. We’re not confined to chief officers, but to senior officers, whoever is put in charge. And it’s the same with politicians, we may call the board members.’

Since the new committee was voted in it has worked with someone with extensive experience of the Westminster model to learn about how it works.

‘I’m really proud of the committee for the speed at which we have achieved the transformation. Belinda Crowe said in her report that there would be resistance, people don’t like change. We have moved from local government-style scrutiny to the Westminster model. That’s change, yet within five months we are ready to start work.’

That work will begin with investigations into how the Policy Council and Commerce and Employment interact with the Guernsey Financial Services Commission and, alongside that, security of electricity supply.

Both are topical issues, with concerns recently raised about them. That will be key going forward – keeping the investigations current and relevant to the public.

It will mark a move away from scrutiny by report writing and place it much more in the public eye with the hearings.

The model will also hopefully drive a change in behaviour away from the long-winded statements so beloved of departments at the moment when they face questions in the States which have always given the impression of trying to bamboozle with information rather than provide a straight answer.

Mr Arditti said he was not critical of the previous members of the committee because it was in a States that was more ambivalent about the process.

‘But I am critical of the product of scrutiny in the last States,’ he said. ‘Scrutiny is there to serve the Assembly and through the Assembly serve the public.’

He said the public wanted parliamentary-style scrutiny.

‘It’s not going to be a political campaign group, it’s not going to be an alternative government, it’s not going to be an opposition party. It’s going to be a parliamentary committee – one of the first rules of the committee is going to be leave your politics at the door.’

It was not the job of Scrutiny to create or promote policy, he said.

‘Our job is, by way of public hearings, to question ministers and their board and the senior civil servants and to require answers and to operate exclusively on the basis of evidence, not what we think.’

To keep that line between being a member of a department which makes policy and being on the Scrutiny Committee required self-discipline, he said.

‘We can’t scrutinise the behaviour of others if we are not self-disciplined ourselves. I’d ask members of the committee to refrain from commenting as deputies on a matter which is the subject of a scrutiny review, at least until the committee has finished and placed the evidence before the Assembly and the public.’

Successive chairmen have complained that scrutiny is understaffed.

Mr Arditti agreed but said it must show its value, do some good work and demonstrate its credibility before asking for more.

It will broadly use three different methods to do its job. At the lowest level would be a letter when there is a public concern about something but it is not obvious if it is worth diverting resources at the subject.

Within a month it would expect answers and the production of specific documents.

Based on that, the committee would decide what to do and if it was worth delving into further.

The second level will be a one-off public hearing.

‘My vision of new scrutiny is that the work it does will be meaningful to the public and the Assembly.

‘It will be relevant, what the Assembly and the public want answers to, not scrutiny for scrutineers, not for us as anoraks. Therefore it will be timely and focused. So a one-off public hearing I think will be useful, because there might not be a need for a report. You call in the minister, the relevant civil servants, and in public they answer the questions, the questions which the public and the Assembly want to hear the answers to.’

The third level will be a full-blown inquiry, which could have multiple hearings and a report.

Mr Arditti did not believe the committee needed any more powers than those it already has – in the past there have been claims of departments blocking the work of the scrutineers.

With the new scrutiny comes a whole new level of openness and accountability for the politicians and their senior staff.

It will no doubt be met with a level of resistance, but those engrained in a culture of secrecy should remember that public hearings can very much work in their favour too, giving them a chance to explain and justify themselves directly to their critics.

But there is pressure, too, on the new committee to deliver – the success will for a large part rely on the quality of the questioning, that ability to think clearly and quickly under pressure in a live environment. Having a lawyer as chairman will no doubt help.

If successful, the new scrutiny will reconnect the States with the voters and it will also drive a change in attitude where up and coming deputies see scrutiny as the place to make their name and make a difference.