OPINION: Time to decide?
Deputy Gavin St Pier takes a look at the policy letters to be debated in this week’s States meeting
THE States, as is often its way, will be revisiting two favourite topics this week: simultaneous electronic voting and the eastern seaboard.
On the rule of thumb that it can take the States 20 years to reach a conclusion, it could well finally emerge with a decision on the former but push off the latter for a bit longer.
The SEV debate started in 2002. After flip-flop debates in 2006, 2011, 2012 and 2014, the States decided in 2018 to press on with the introduction of SEV into States proceedings. The States’ Assembly & Constitution Committee, newly formed after the October 2020 General Election, decided to prioritise the work and this week’s policy letter honours that commitment.
At the time the policy letter was lodged, it had the unanimous support of all the committee’s members, although it seems in the last week Deputy McKenna has broken ranks, citing the cost (£109,000 over the first three years) as his reason. This position does look a little odd, as nothing has materially changed on the cost front since the policy letter’s publication, other than a significant improvement in the States’ reported financial performance in 2021.
Real credit must go to the local software developer who has designed a web-based solution at its own financial risk, pending a States decision. Taking that risk will be characterised as either brave and entrepreneurial or foolhardy, depending on which way the States votes this week. Members have had an opportunity to trial a demonstration version of the product. From this it is clear that, while it will not significantly speed up the voting process for members overall, it will save a considerable amount of staff time currently spent managing and collating recorded votes manually.
As importantly, for the public, it will significantly increase openness and transparency, with every vote on every proposition and amendment recorded, not just those that deputies ask to be recorded, which is the current process. There will be nowhere to hide. It will no longer be possible for deputies to rely on an unrecorded vote de vives voix (when the presiding officer decides if ‘pour’ or ‘contre’ has won) to claim that they either did or did not support the outcome (or possibly both, depending on who they are talking to).
The States will also be debating a policy letter submitted at short notice by the Policy & Resources Committee to condemn the invasion of the Ukraine. This is without precedent. The Crown, acting through her ministers in the UK’s government, has responsibility for Guernsey’s international representation, so convention dictates that we avoid parliamentary debates on international affairs. (Brexit did produce a number of resolutions from the Assembly but that is because, although we did not participate in the referendum, that vote began a chain of events and choices on which we needed to make decisions and express our own views.)
Condemning the Ukrainian invasion five weeks after it started does feel like a gesture delivered somewhat late. It may have a ‘me too’ motivation, having seen similar debates and motions in the Isle of Man and Jersey. But gestures can be important, and I’m pleased to have support from deputies Ferbrache and Soulsby to my amendments, using the opportunity that the policy letter presents to acknowledge the hard work that has gone on by government and the community in responding to the conflict, as well as giving support and impetus to the development of policies for refugees.
The Ukraine policy letter is very good. It’s short and clear. It has almost certainly been largely written by one person.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of Policy & Resources’ other policy letter, seeking to establish a development agency to take control of the eastern seaboard.
It is quite possibly the worst policy letter I’ve seen in my 10 years in the States. It has all the hallmarks of being rushed, following a missed deadline (at the end of last year), while having had input from too many authors, with no one taking ownership overall, including the committee, who with hindsight ought to be somewhat embarrassed at having let it be published as drafted. It’s full of jargon and inconsistencies. It’s thin on detail and says very little of substance. It has not one but two sections with ‘strategic direction’ in their title but regrettably neither of which can be said to provide any direction, strategic or otherwise.
The whole document rests on the premise that a third-party development agency, staffed by dedicated experts, is self-evidently better than a bunch of ever-changing politicians to get things done – action – on the east coast.
Conceptually, many may agree that a development agency would be a far better delivery vehicle than a political committee, but a critical proviso is that the agency knows what it has been asked to deliver. That requires the politicians, after appropriate public input, to agree the vision, the concepts, the strategy to be delivered by the development agency. It’s for this reason that the policy letter faces nine amendments, which broadly seek to do two things. Firstly, to ensure decisions are made in the right order – in particular, in relation to the commercial ports and harbour as a really key part of the whole area. And secondly, to have better governance with clearer lines of accountability and responsibility.
While this Assembly was only too happy to divest itself to the Policy & Resources Committee of any oversight and scrutiny of the capital programme, I think it is most unlikely that it will be willing to hand over the development of the east coast and States land to as-yet-unknown third parties in an as-yet-unformed development agency.
Given that development of the eastern seaboard began its political infancy in 2006, if the 20 year rule-of-thumb applies, we may yet have a few more years to go and a few more scenes in this political drama before any definitive decisions are reached.