Guernsey Press

OPINION: ‘A low point in the life of this Assembly’

Deputy Peter Roffey shares his thoughts on the looming tax proposals and last week’s unedifying debate on the Privileges Panel report

Picture by Luke Le Prevost. 27-09-23..States Meeting at Royal Court - deputies returning after lunch break. Gavin St Pier. (32580932)

THERE are a couple of different strands to my ramblings today. Starting with a few thoughts on the great tax debate (take two) which is fast approaching.

What, if anything, is different to the first time around? The answer is ‘Not much, but a bit’.

Firstly, I believe most people now accept that Guernsey faces a genuine crisis in its public finances, largely driven by changing demographics. Of course there remain some sceptics but they’re far fewer than they were eight or nine months ago, both among the public and States members.

If anyone still doubts that, please do some objective research. Our ageing community drives costs in so many ways. I will mention just three. Firstly, payments under our unfunded pension scheme will be much higher in future. Secondly, the rapid growth of people over 80 will create much higher health costs. Thirdly, the amount of social care required in the island is going to mushroom – both in people’s own homes and in residential homes.

If anybody thinks I am over-gilding the lily over this tsunami of cost pressures facing the States – just in order to maintain basic services – please reflect. Few politician like promoting unpopular policies. They shy away from them like the plague. Indeed, that’s one of the biggest drawbacks of democracy – although it is still the best system of government on offer. And increasing taxation is about as unpopular as it gets.

So why on earth would I, P&R and other States members bring down a mountain of grief on our own heads by promoting tax increases if we didn’t genuinely believe they were 100% needed? I can’t speak for others but I am not naturally masochistic by nature.

I accept the narrative wasn’t helped at all by some coming into politics three years ago and insisting taxes and charges didn’t need to rise. Perhaps they could even come down. That narrative was born out of ignorance and was incredibly unhelpful. But when scales fall from people’s eyes, after seeing the evidence, I give them grudging credit for changing their minds. Particularly from a populist stance to one with far less appeal.

If most people are starting to realise that States revenues really do need to rise considerably, to avoid savage cuts in services, then what is left to debate?

Obviously the best way to do it.

One of the most common refrains I have heard over a year of discussion of this issue is: ‘Why not just put a few pence on income tax? Wouldn’t that be much fairer?’

The emphatic answer is no, it wouldn’t be. Indeed it would hit those on modest incomes far more. Why?

Firstly, because the ‘few pence’ needed on income tax would be quite a few pence. Secondly, because everybody above the income tax threshold would be adversely impacted. By contrast, the P&R preferred package actually benefits the half of our population (slightly more) on the most modest incomes. Please see the real life examples on the States website if you doubt me.

How can this be true? Isn’t GST mildly regressive, whereas income tax isn’t? Quite true, but the P&R package isn’t just GST. In particular, the proposed reforms to the social security system are a complete game-changer for those on modest incomes.

I suppose the huge question for the States this month is will we be able to come to any definitive conclusion this time, unlike the Horlicks we made of it back in February? Honest prediction? I rather suspect not, but I desperately hope I am wrong.

Moving on. If the February tax debacle was a low point in the life of this Assembly, last week’s debate of the report from Guernsey’s first ever ‘abuse of privilege’ panel was a real nadir. To describe the debate as ‘unedifying’ would be litotes on stilts. If litotes can ever be on stilts?

Let’s start at the beginning. Who referred Deputy St Pier to the panel in the first place? It was the Health and Social Services committee, so their votes were interesting. Two of its five members voted to note the panel’s conclusion that Deputy St Pier had not abused privilege. While a vote ‘to note’ is supposed to be neutral, in the context of this debate the way people voted was anything but.

Next, what was the panel considering? It was the very narrow question of whether Deputy St Pier had abused parliamentary privilege. Not whether his actions were noble, passable at a pinch, or completely and utterly reprehensible. Those are utterly different questions to be considered by other bodies.

Establishing abuse of privilege is incredible hard, with an uber-high bar, which is why you will find almost no examples from other parliaments.

Deputy Parkinson (a member of the first instance panel) accused the main panel of applying the wrong criteria. To his mind we shouldn’t have focused on whether it was conceivable that Deputy St Pier thought he was acting in the public interest. His research suggested we should have been addressing a different question: whether he had acted on any sort of evidence beyond mere rumour.

To that I say two things. Firstly, while he is right, precedent in this area is very scant, with absolutely none locally. So I think it is justifiable to create some new precedent. Someone has to or none would ever exist.

Secondly, I think the two questions are basically the same one in different clothes. Put simply, if the deputy had any kind of real evidence to suggest these issues needed to be raised in this way then it had to be possible he believed he was acting in the public interest. Without any such evidence that would be much, much harder to believe.

The panel had seen the evidence that had motivated Deputy St Pier, but putting it all in the public arena would just have aggravated matters in a way which wasn’t required.

To our mind the fact we had established that he had reasons to believe he was acting in the public interest was the key.

I should stress here that I am definitively NOT saying he was right. Nor that his evidence was in anyway conclusive, or even compelling. That was not the point and nor is it the required test when considering abuse of privilege.

Anyway, we saw a really nasty debate, which was entirely focused on whether or not Deputy St Pier’s actions were justified. Which was definitively not what the Assembly was being asked to consider.

For the avoidance of doubt, I was deeply unhappy with Deputy St Pier’s speech last year. I wouldn’t have made it, and nor do I think he should have. But I do accept that is a matter of judgement.

What really upset me about the debate was the obvious relish, palpable enjoyment, which some members took from the opportunity to put the boot into other members who they don’t like. That overwhelmingly came from those castigating Deputy St Pier, but I think he was guilty of slipping into that mode a bit in his own speech. Shame because it was a barnstormer.

What the debate really did reveal was the poisonous divisions which characterise this States. It may seem like a very odd thing for a member of the current Assembly to say, but I went home that day thinking ‘Roll on the next 18 months’.