Guernsey Press

OPINION: A summer of discontent

Politics in Guernsey is a rum do, says Richard Graham, as recent events show...

ESC whistle blower Andy Cameron, left, and Home Affairs president Rob Prow. (29948292)

THERE was me thinking that with a seven-week gap between States meetings, readers of this newspaper would be given a long respite from my eccentric, irreverent opinions about what our States members are up to.

Surely not even members of this extraordinary Assembly could do anything remotely worthy of comment during the summer break. You’d think that building sandcastles at Vazon, learning their 10 times table and reading a complete volume of Thomas the Tank Engine would keep even the most hapless serial offenders out of the firing line.

How wrong could I be.

It all started with Deputy Cameron being dragged before the court of the Code of Conduct Panel by his less-than-comradely colleagues on the Committee for Education, Sport & Culture. They trained their big guns on him in the persons of the ESC president herself and the committee’s own in-house lawyer, who happens to be a non-voting member.

And the charge? Well m’Lud, it was like this. Deputy Cameron was asked by 13 States members why he had changed his mind about supporting ESC’s proposed model for secondary education. He replied with words to the effect that it was really quite simple: it was because he had since discovered that as models go it was useless. In fact it was worse than useless.

And the evidence? He and the other ESC members had attended several meetings with secondary school head teachers and with secondary teachers’ representatives who had denounced the ESC model as unworkable, hideously expensive and guaranteed to lead to lower educational outcomes and make recruiting decent teachers next to impossible.

And to fully explain his change of mind to those States members who had questioned him, he sent them a copy of the notes of one of those meetings.

Interestingly, whereas the teachers’ representatives at that meeting had willingly shared the recorded notes of it with the teachers they represented, the ESC refused to share them with those whom they represented, namely States members. You see, m’Lud, the notes contradicted the ESC’s misleading version of consultation with the profession and would be unhelpful to the committee when the States debated their policy letter.

I offer some relevant questions and my answers to them.

Should States deputies have carte blanche to share whatever they like with colleagues? No.

Can the conduct of a States committee be so egregious that one of its members would be justified in acting as a whistle blower in the public interest? Yes.

Was this an example of such a case? Yes. And the Code of Conduct panel agreed with me, m’Lud, by dismissing two out of three of the committee’s complaints.

Unfortunately, a quite preposterous rumour has emerged from this unhappy episode. It has been alleged that one of the ESC members, Deputy Aldwell, was so incensed when Deputy Cameron broke ranks that she has refused to attend meetings at which he is present, insisting instead that she will attend the same meetings remotely, sitting at a screen in a next-door room. Can you picture the scene? Quite absurd.

I advise readers to dismiss this rumour as scurrilous because it simply cannot be true, for two reasons. In the first place, I refuse to believe that any intelligent adult could possibly behave in this way. I acknowledge that ESC members wish to identify closely with every single student for whose education they are responsible but acting like the one spoilt child in the class would be taking it too far. That’s the sort of thing that Violet Elizabeth Bott would do. Readers of a certain age will remember her as the nemesis of William Brown and Ginger in Richmal Crompton’s deliciously non-PC stories titled Just William. Violet Elizabeth was the archetypal spoilt child, always running off when she couldn’t get her own way, threatening ‘I’ll thcream and thcream till I make mythelf thick’. In short, she was a figure of fun. In my view, it’s just not possible that any States deputy would so conduct themselves as to risk going down in history as the Violet Elizabeth Bott of their political term.

The second reason why I dismiss the rumour as nonsense is that even if a deputy were minded to behave in such an immature way, no committee president could possibly be so weak as to tolerate it, let alone facilitate it.

By contrast, a different but related rumour is all too believable. It is claimed that the ESC has excluded Deputy Cameron from meetings when secondary education is being discussed and has denied him access to related committee papers. That rumour is consistent with previous evidence that the committee is allergic to openness and alternative views; they have been seen to break out in a nasty rash whenever exposed to them. It explains why the committee has been renamed as the Committee for Evasiveness, Secrecy and Control-freakery.

I would make one final point about these two rumours. The ESC president insists that such matters are the committee’s business and nobody else’s. I disagree. States deputies and committees are public servants of the community, paid good salaries by the taxpayer. Their conduct when acting in the capacity of public servants is very much the public’s business and is not the exclusive concern of any committee.

Let it not be said that my reports of our elected representatives’ behaviour are solely negative. There is some good stuff going on, too, but of course our deputies are quick to tell us about that themselves and are helped in doing so by the might of the States communications apparatus.

My sketches are designed to provide a balance by commenting on the stuff they are less keen for us to know about. But when there is good news, I am pleased to share it if it has an interesting angle.

Take, for example, the news that Home Affairs has assigned leadership of justice policy to Advocate Peter Harwood, the committee’s one non-voting member. This is both surprising and encouraging. Surprising because this workstream has been endorsed by the Government Work Plan as a top priority for Home Affairs and we would normally expect the committee president to lead it. After all, we pay our committee presidents an extra £14,000 each year for acting as a president and we hope to get our money’s worth. If they don’t take the lead of their committee’s flagship policy work, we wonder why they are the president.

In this case, however, it makes sense. Looking at the political membership of Home Affairs, Advocate Harwood is by a long way the best man for this particularly challenging job of putting a much needed and overdue justice policy before the States, something that the previous Home Affairs committee, of which I was a member for two years, singularly failed to do.

I am pleased to note that the Home Affairs president and his members have a high opinion of Advocate Harwood, but it’s a pity that the ESC president has a different view. Advocate Harwood was appointed to provide independent oversight of the review of secondary education that was demanded by Deputy Dudley-Owen’s Pause and Review requete. His specific role was to ensure that the review was conducted objectively and free of political and ideological bias. He was fulfilling that role with his customary efficiency when the new ESC committee promptly side-lined him and stopped the review in its tracks. The current ESC president has since asserted publicly that she ordered the review to be stopped because it had been conducted subjectively and with political and ideological bias and therefore could not be trusted. In other words, effective independent oversight had not been provided.

It just goes to show that politics in Guernsey is a rum do – and so much fun to comment about.