Guernsey Press

OPINION: Rising to the occasion

Richard Graham looks back at the highs and lows of last week’s States debate

Richard Graham. (30523478)

THE latest States meeting was over and done with by the end of its extended first day.

I’ve lost count of the number of meetings since the last general election that have failed to go into a second day, let alone a third. Mind you, I don’t judge the quality of our government by the number of days its members spend debating matters in the Assembly. It could mean that they are devoting less time to introducing legislation that will allow them to interfere in our lives even more than they already do.

We can expect more of these thin meetings in the future because, rightly or wrongly, the Assembly has chosen to wash its collective hands of shedloads of important government business by delegating it to Policy & Resources and the principal committees.

‘Let’s trust them to get on with it’ seems to be the prevailing attitude, although the evidence so far demonstrates that ‘them’ does not include any committee or board headed by Deputy Roffey, who is regarded as fair game.

The roll call at the start of each meeting has suddenly become more interesting. It’s no longer a question of simply learning who is there in the Assembly. Now we listen to discover which deputy can get away with dialling in from the furthest distance. Deputy Dyke has set an early marker of around 4,700 miles, which will be hard to beat.

It was awfully good of Deputy Dyke to attend in person this time. I had previously thought that the special rules introduced to regulate hybrid States meetings were designed to enable deputies to participate when they were prevented from attending in person by Covid-19-related factors. I was mistaken. It seems that you can dial in from anywhere and for any reason, as long as you are wearing a tie.

Deputy John Dyke attended in person this time but his speech on Guernsey Electricity’s tariffs was described by Deputy Peter Ferbrache as all over the place. (30523521)

We must not, of course, begrudge our elected representatives their hard-earned holidays, but there used to be a convention that they would fit holidays around their duties as deputies. No longer, it seems. Alright for some, n’est-ce-pas?

In my view, Deputy Dyke’s somewhat weird participation in the previous States meeting while doing whatever he was doing in the Cayman Islands has served two useful purposes. It has, surely, killed off P&R’s ambition to make hybrid meetings the norm. We have now seen demonstrated what we already suspected: that deputies couldn’t be trusted to observe the spirit of any rules and would feel justified in playing the role of absentee voting fodder.

States Assembly & Constitution Committee president Carl Meerveld seemed to confirm that view in his update statement when he revealed that his committee will not propose making hybrid meetings a permanent feature.

Deputy Carl Meerveld's speech on his amendment to the new sexual offences law was his best yet. (30523535)

And the second useful purpose? It was a timely reminder to pack a tie when you go on holiday. You never know when you might need one.

The meeting took place the day after the swearing-in of the new Lt-Governor. We used to refer to His Excellency being ‘sworn in’ because the ceremony requires that he swears an oath to serve both Crown and island. No longer. We now ‘install’ him, rather like we install central heating systems. O tempora, o mores!

Anyway, His Excellency gave us a speech that was excellent on two levels: it was short and to the point, and it had some funny, self-deprecating jokes. Our Lt-Governor was commissioned into the Royal Engineers whose motto, he reminded us, is ‘ubique’, meaning ‘everywhere’. But he went on to explain that whereas Royal Engineers prefer to interpret the motto as meaning they can be found everywhere they are needed, the rest of the British Army unkindly takes it to mean they are all over the place.

I hear you ask, what’s this got to do with the States meeting? Patience, dear reader, I’ll tell you.

Our chief minister may have had this joke in mind when, in the presence of the Lt-Governor, he commented on Deputy Dyke’s speech during debate of the role of the States’ Trading Supervisory Board in regulating Guernsey Electricity’s tariffs. In a nutshell, Deputy Dyke’s view was that when it comes to striking the best balance between fixed charges and prices per unit, the States Assembly of 40 members would make a better fist of it than Deputy Roffey’s board. Deputy Ferbrache described the speech as being all over the place, leaving us to conclude that whether attending States meetings from afar or contributing to debates within them, Deputy Dyke fits both interpretations of the word ‘ubique’.

I sensed that the Assembly, like me, was then stunned when Deputy Ferbrache went on to liken Deputy Dyke’s speech to that of a member of the Socialist Workers Party. Deputy Dyke of all people, a socialist worker? Surely not. After all, when it comes to sniffing out reds from under the bed, even when there aren’t any there, Deputy Dyke has a nose every bit as good as those sniffer dogs down at the White Rock.

Just ask Deputy Roffey.

The current Assembly can rise to the occasion when it is so minded. It did so when debating Deputy Meerveld’s amendment which sought to overturn Deputy St Pier’s successful 2020 amendment to the new sexual offences law. Proposing his amendment, Deputy Meerveld explained that in view of the sensitive nature of the issues, he had taken care to write a prepared speech, and that being dyslexic, he might stumble over his words when reading it. He won’t welcome my advice, but his decision led him to deliver a speech which in content and tone was the best I’ve heard him make. Many others raised their game and for the most part it seemed as if factionalism had been suspended for this debate.

That said, it was not entirely free of personality politics. For some deputies, voting to preserve an initiative clearly identified with Deputy St Pier was a step too far, never mind its virtues. Lo and behold, deputies who back in 2020 had voted for the St Pier amendment – dare I suggest, with half a mind on the female vote in the general election which was just around the corner – now either voted to overturn it (deputies De Lisle, Dudley-Owen and Oliver) or scuttled for the cover offered by an abstention, which Deputy Prow did, thus justifying Deputy Kazantseva-Miller’s previously declared scepticism about Home Affairs’ commitment to speedy reform.

Some excuses were unconvincing, not least those of Deputy Dudley-Owen, who explained that some members of the Guernsey Bar were concerned about the legislation that she had willingly supported just before the general election campaign. Never mind that the Privy Council, the Justice Secretary and his lawyers in London, and HM Procureur and HM Comptroller here in Guernsey have all since indicated that the legislation was safe, she would instead listen to expert local stakeholders. Was I alone in finding her explanation inconsistent, especially considering her department’s recent dismissal of the concerns of our secondary headteachers and teachers in relation to her plans for secondary and post-16 education? I guess some stakeholders are more important than others.

Anybody want to buy a boat for £15-20m.? I thought the States did, because when P&R appeared before the Scrutiny Management Committee on 12 January, P&R’s president announced that his committee was looking to enter into an agreement to help fund a vessel which would be leased back to Condor to operate on behalf of the States, the aim being to enhance our sea links.

He expected that he would be able to offer more details within three to four weeks. I was getting quite excited, and so was Deputy Gollop, who tabled some questions. He asked what benefits we might expect if a boat were purchased. Five weeks had passed, so he had reasonable expectation that his questions would be answered. I may have misheard the responses, but they left Deputy Gollop none the wiser. They indicated that if the States ever did buy a boat, the effect of it on our sea links would be an operational matter for Condor and not for the States – and not for Deputy Gollop to know.

I must have misheard because surely even this P&R-subservient States couldn’t possibly let the committee spend up to £20m. without a clear idea of the benefits it would bring, could they?