Guernsey Press

OPINION: Inconvenient truths and a hospital pass

In part one of his analysis of last week’s States meeting, Richard Graham recalls the discussions about education and runway extensions which opened the debate

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Deputy Simon Vermeulen made an impassioned argument for extending the runway. (Picture by Luke Le Prevost, 32580673)

EACH weekday morning, I pass several bus stops where students wait for their school bus.

There they stand, bless their cotton socks, heads down, dull eyes fixed rigidly on their smartphones, faces grimly set, ignoring those beside them, switched off from the real world around them. I swear, if song thrushes alighted on their shoulders and started to sing to them, they wouldn’t even notice. It’s true that at one stop I regularly spot two teenagers chatting away and smiling together, their faces lively in anticipation of the day ahead, their gesturing hands unencumbered by any electronic device, but they are rare rays of sunshine.

I hear you ask: ‘What’s this to do with politics?’ Patience, dear reader. The following account of last week’s States meeting will explain all. Those readers of a delicate disposition will be relieved to know that the customary expletives and rude insults overheard during States debates have been deleted from my record of the meeting.

The meeting began with an update from the president of Education, Sport & Culture. One item was depressing but not surprising. The president revealed that one fifth of our children starting school can scarcely converse with each other. Early years teachers are doing their best, but the president pleaded for more parents and carers to put down their own mobile phones, stop giving very small children hand-held devices to occupy them and instead actually talk to them. Spot on, I thought. I wonder how many of the listless youngsters I see each morning are casualties of their parents’ bleak enslavement to the digital world. And just think, those same children are themselves the next generation of parents in waiting.

Not every contribution from ESC’s president was quite as impressive as the one above. Disappointingly, she provided further evidence that her committee is borrowing extensively from the Donald Trump and Boris Johnson textbooks. I refer to the practice of responding to inconvenient truths by simply denying that they exist. Remember the case of Deputy Cameron? We all thought he was a duly elected ESC member until earlier this year we learned that when it came to the committee’s flagship policy for secondary and post-16 education, he simply didn’t exist, he was in fact an unperson. More recently, the committee informed us that the school known by several generations as Herm School was in fact not a school at all; it’s no more than an arm’s-length classroom. Clearly, ESC members are under a Taliban-style ban from using the term ‘Herm School’. They never use the two words together. I am reminded of the hilarious ‘Don’t mention the war’ sketch in Fawlty Towers. Am I alone in viewing ESC’s obsessive denial of the school’s existence in Herm as a petty, childish farce?

It gets worse. At Les Varendes, a newish building proudly announces itself as ‘The Sixth Form Centre’. To avoid any confusion, and to distinguish it from the much older building previously known as The Grammar School, the four words are repeated in large white letters on both gable walls. The States of 20 years ago commissioned a building to serve as a sixth form centre for students graduating from all the Bailiwick’s secondary schools. That’s what they expected to get, and that’s what the architects thought they were designing and the builders thought they were building. And those of us who watched it being opened in 2005 all thought we were watching the opening of a purpose-built sixth form centre. We can be forgiven for thinking so. After all, the building has a separate entrance, reception area, refectory and independent study areas, while its classrooms are sized to accommodate only 18 students, not the 28 students typical of high school classes. Students at the high school aren’t even allowed to enter it.

But what’s this? Responding to questions, and anxious to dismiss the significance of sending the sixth form centre on its peripatetic journey around Guernsey next year, the ESC president informed all of us — previous States, architects, builders, teachers and students – that we’ve all got it wrong. She sternly directed members to stop referring to a purpose-built sixth form centre. Apparently, the building is no such thing; it was designed merely to serve as an extension to the older school. This news has come as a surprise to those currently teaching at the centre, but no doubt it will make them feel much better when they are sent on their travels next September.

It was noon on the meeting’s first day before the Assembly began debate of domestic abuse legislation. Policy for this legislation has been more than a decade in the careful making, so the policy letter was widely welcomed. Only one jarring note was sounded. Deputy Inder couldn’t resist a barbed accusation of inaction and neglect by the previous president of Home Affairs who was in the public gallery. This was not only unjust, as pointed out by Deputy Ferbrache, but was also hugely ironic coming from the president of Economic Development, a committee which Deputy Dyke later variously referred to, with some justice, as the Committee for Economic Deterioration and the Committee for Economic Decline.

The latest of countless runway debates lasted more than a day. That gave plenty of time for the Economic Development president and others to trash the case for extending the runway, and for the gallant Deputy Vermeulen and his supporters, all three of them, to make an impassioned argument for it. Just about every conceivable aspect was argued this way and that, although I was disappointed that Deputy Matthews omitted to ask if lengthening the runway would improve the quality of the coffee served by the airport cafeteria. In the end, all that was decided was to pass the issue from Economic Development to the STSB, a hospital pass if I ever saw one.

The debate of this item had its lightly amusing moments. Deputy Dyke, who seconded Deputy Vermeulen’s amendment, mischievously quoted from Hansard to demonstrate that Deputies Ferbrache and Moakes had been full-blooded supporters of extending the runway, earlier in this political term. He did so knowing full well that both deputies were going to vote against it now. We were also treated to the sound of Deputy Brouard in the unlikely role of ardent environmentalist. He opposed extending the runway on environmental grounds. His theory was that larger aircraft and lower approaches would further pollute our air. This was the same Deputy Brouard who prefers concrete to sand dunes at L’Ancresse and wants to build over a green field at the hospital, so forgive me if I’m a touch sceptical of his environmental credentials.

Although Deputy Vermeulen’s amendment was lost, he earned much credit for laying it. He had promised to do so when standing for election and he now carried out his promise with gusto. He had previous form for battling vainly to support local business. Soon after being elected to the States, he fulfilled his manifesto pledge by lodging an amendment to give seven independent small distillers a tax reduction to encourage a growth in their business. At that time it was the dead hand of Home Affairs and P&R that descended on him from a great height and squashed the proposal; this time the dead hand belonged to his colleagues on Economic Development.

I offer one further observation in praise of Deputy Vermeulen. Win or lose in the Assembly, he is invariably courteous to all members, whether supporters or opponents. I have never heard a sneer or an insult escape his lips, however passionate his argument, however grievous the loss of a vote.

Some members should take a lesson from him.

  • Don’t miss: Part two of Richard Graham’s analysis tomorrow.