OPINION: Famine to feast

Deputy Gavin St Pier looks at what is on the agenda for this week’s States meeting.

The future of the harbour is likely to provoke the most lengthy and impassioned debate this week. (Picture by Peter Frankland, 29653338)
The future of the harbour is likely to provoke the most lengthy and impassioned debate this week. (Picture by Peter Frankland, 29653338)

THE last meeting of the States of Deliberation had the least content I can remember. In contrast, the meeting this week is guaranteed to last the full three days.

There are three Billets totalling more than 1,000 pages, including 350 pages of the 2020 accounts and financial statements for the States itself, the Social Security Contributory Funds – the ring-fenced funds into which all our social security contributions are paid, mainly to help fund the States’ pension we each receive when we reach retirement age – and a range of other related entities. These include the unincorporated trading entities, Guernsey Dairy, States Works, Guernsey Waste, the Ports and Guernsey Water. In addition, the Channel Islands Lottery, Elizabeth College and Ladies’ College accounts are ‘appended’ – which means they are formally presented to the States but not debated as a matter of routine.

Historically, debate on all the accounts was led by the politician who leads treasury matters. This has changed in recent years, so that those which lie under the responsibility of other committees – Employment & Social Security and the States’ Trading Supervisory Board – are now led by their president, by chance for now held by the same person, Deputy Peter Roffey.

Traditionally, accounts debates are relatively short. They are detailed, technical, objective documents which look backwards – not fertile territory for those politicians who prefer to opine subjectively about the future.

This year the States Accounts contain a new and rather odd introduction, referring to Guernsey as ‘effectively independent, yet coming under the protective wing of the British Government’. I don’t much like or agree with this statement and hope it is rephrased (or removed) next year.

The accounts themselves reveal that despite what you may have heard or expected, the public finances performed stonkingly well in 2020. The island’s pandemic response has cost taxpayers about 2.5% of GDP, against 20-25% for many jurisdictions, and while income tax receipts fell, other tax receipts rose by almost a matching amount, including an astonishing additional £8.8m. on alcohol and tobacco duties while the opportunity to travel was denied to the community, showing the real cost to our exchequer in normal times of ‘duty free’.

The net impact of all of this is that the Core Investment Reserve – the island’s true savings account – fell by only £33m., still leaving us with a balance of £163m. at the end of the year. At the height of the crisis last April and May, I never imagined that such a good financial outcome would be possible.

The STSB recently advised the States that the board has now agreed that the unincorporated businesses should be incorporated and a policy letter to effect this change is expected later this year. In the meantime, their financial statements have in recent years been prepared increasingly as if they were standalone companies. A small detail to note is the pandemic actually produced a small net gain for each of Guernsey Water and Guernsey Waste’s financial performances.

Intriguingly, the 2019 Public Trustee accounts are also appended but will not be debated. These show that at the end of 2019, the States is owed £2.3m. by the Public Trustee – that is the money which government had to lend for the Public Trustee to do its job. Theoretically, this sum is recoverable from the trusts it is administering. Time will tell. Where are the 2020 accounts? Clearly running behind, but it is not obvious why.

Deputies are likely to want to get into debate on three key policy letters – the review of the 2020 general election, freedom of information, and future harbour development.

In relation to the review of the 2020 general election, the States is not yet being asked to make any key decisions, rather simply to agree that the States’ Assembly & Constitution Committee should get on with a raft of work, such as looking at an election complaints and appeals process. Suffice to say that if, in due course, the States does resolve to create, for example, ‘a dedicated, independent elections body’ or introduce deputy returning officers, the taxpayers’ bill for holding elections will go up. That may simply be the price of democracy in the 21st century, but it will once again be a test of the resolve for those deputies elected on manifestos promising smaller, less regulated government.

Similarly, members elected with commitments to more transparency and freedom of information may be tested with the Scrutiny Management Committee’s recommendation not to proceed with a full freedom of information law. Shrewdly – perhaps reflective of the political experience of its president, Deputy Yvonne Burford – the SMC have structured their propositions to allow the States a range of options from ‘do nothing’ to a full FOI law, leaving the compromise being their own preferred option of introducing an independent appeals process to the current Code of Practice on Access to Public Information against the application of exemptions – oh, and while we are at it, rename it the rather simpler ‘Freedom of Information Code’. The appeals process will, once again, add cost to government but not nearly as much as a full FOI law. Giving these options is effectively a hospital pass on the issue to the States as a whole, as a result of which the SMC cannot lose, whatever the States decides. Smart.

The main action (and time) is likely to be spent on the Future Harbour Development policy letter. Already six amendments have been lodged. The most far reaching, from Deputies Al Brouard and Rob Prow, opts for the scheme that would build a new facility east of the QEII marina at an estimated additional cost of £460m. over the STSB’s preferred option. This is one of those debates which could be lengthy and impassioned – especially if those deputies who so far this term have been largely quiescent, find their voices and participate in debate – and it will emerge with a direction of travel for a preferred option, leaving the community believing that a decision has been made. In fact, the only impact will be to move the project along with more modelling, surveys, engagement and investigations at an estimated cost of £4m., leaving plenty of time and opportunity for the direction of travel to be revisited and re-debated. You have been warned.

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