We need an Assembly that's fit for purpose

NOT many people realise this, but at a time of pandemic crisis, furloughed workers, and us all allegedly being in it together, States members voted themselves a pay rise of 2.7% effective from the beginning of this month.

 (Picture by Shutterstock)
(Picture by Shutterstock)

Add an extra year to your term of office as deputy by delaying the general election and that’s a handsome little earner at the taxpayers’ expense just when a significant number of islanders are really feeling the financial pain of lockdown. A total of around £200,000 for your ordinary backbencher over the five years.

Before you go into cardiac arrest, though, Policy & Resources has unilaterally stopped this particular piece of lunacy from happening. In part, I regret to say, because some deputies would quietly have trousered the increase and kept schtum.

P&R’s intervention was necessary because the States last year voted down the recommendations of an independent pay review panel, ending quite a few years of members not being seen to set their own pay. [Full disclosure: I was a member of that pay panel]

It’s another reason why the island is desperately overdue a general election. My earlier enthusiasm for delaying a year disappeared when we saw the hash the Assembly made of debating the £500m. borrowing facility to get the island on a post-Covid recovery footing.

And from what I hear, there’s a real chance this ‘divided and fractious’ House (to use Deputy Peter Roffey’s description) will be euthanised in late September or early October after all.

I say after all because it seems Deputy Lyndon Trott’s spirited attempt via an amendment – initially approved by the States in the morning and then rejected in the afternoon – to get an early election was the right call.

Senior civil servants were, apparently, ‘incredulous’ when the States was told an early ballot was out of the question. Difficult, certainly. Impossible, as schools and businesses reopen and Covid cases dwindle to zero, certainly not.

I can’t tell you the damage that has been inflicted on the economy and people’s livelihoods because significant areas have yet to return to ‘normal’. But P&R’s best estimate is a 9-10% hit to GDP by year end, rising to 18% if there’s a second peak of infections and a return to phase one of lockdown. Irrespective, the thinking is that travel will be restricted at least until year end, with hotels and passenger transport being worst affected.

We do know, however, that jobs have been lost – 433 new claims for unemployment benefit were approved from 26 March to 21 May – and the cost of that rose by 310%.

In addition, 1,684 households qualified for either income support or the hardship fund since 26 March and, at peak in late April, the weekly cost of this in relation to Covid-19 was £207,000. That’s a 35% increase in the cost of the income support system beyond normal levels, although that has reduced slightly as lockdown eases.

The pain doesn’t end there, however. Some 2,183 businesses and self-employed people have so far received payment from the business support system via either a grant or payroll support or both. A further 1,935 small business grants have been paid at a cost of £5.8m. (as at 21 May).

And between 6,000 and 7,000 employees are being supported via the co-payment scheme and £10.4m. has been paid on this to date. Total payments approved are £16.3m., including £1.3m. authorised in the last couple of days alone.

As an aside, those unemployment figures are best available because the system providing them fell over and has only just been restored – the States’ digital partners being involved on other priorities – so firm figures should emerge shortly.

Anyway, what all this shows is that responding to the pandemic is having a significant and substantial impact and the true extent of job losses will only become apparent when the furlough scheme ends and lockdown, especially on travel, ends. Only then will we see who and what has survived.

The good news for business – less so for taxpayers – is that support will continue until the end of June, may be extended, and is tapered to assist as organisations start to get back on their feet or adjust to the new normal.

I also gather that hospitality, which I have written about extensively over the last few weeks, may well be treated as a special case beyond June if the island’s borders remain closed, as looks likely to me.

The other thing I’ve been asked is why no States employees have been furloughed, unlike in the private sector. Apparently that’s not a union or contractual thing. Bosses would seemingly have gone ahead and done it anyway if the crisis demanded it.

More importantly, while it was looked at, the public sector response to Covid-19 meant that virtually all 5,500 public sector employees were either essential or able to work remotely. That includes about 2,200 health and social care staff and another 1,000 involved in education.

Where they couldn’t (approximately 100) they were formally redeployed, for instance in track and trace roles or staffing the new virtual call centre. That, by the way, was created from scratch in just two and a half weeks and has 60 people working in it.

Unseen, huge changes have taken place and civil service reform plans accelerated. ‘We won’t be flooding back into Frossard House when this ends,’ an insider tells me, and staff have been emailed to that effect.

Many services will continue to be provided remotely, including vehicle licensing, benefits and social housing and population management, which will have consequences for rationalising the States’ property portfolio.

All of which reinforces for me the need to have an autumn election so the recovery phase and post-crisis Budget are handled by an Assembly islanders have selected as being fit for that purpose.

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