Contradictions and cautions

Richard Graham looks back at last week’s budget debate

THE debate of next year’s budget went its expected untroubled way.

Rather like last December’s debate of the 2021 budget, members were easily persuaded to give their respective committees more cash than they had been given the previous year. No surprise there. However, the debate was not without interest.

I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of members’ eagerness to increase funding for the budgets of their own committees with the narrative of several members that the States is so bloated, the civil service so overmanned and the entire States machinery so wasteful that huge savings were just waiting to be made – and needed to be made – before increasing taxation could be contemplated.

Last December, those who held this view could reasonably claim that they hadn’t had time to discover how to reduce the size of government, dismiss civil servants and cut out waste, but they could have incentivised the process by imposing strict tax limits on themselves. They didn’t. Instead, only the Overseas Aid & Development Commission was subjected to a budget cut; all other committees and authorities were given increases, most of them way above the rate of inflation. As a reminder, inflation was at 2% and increases were: Health & Soical Care 8.5%; Education, Sport & Culture 7.8%; Policy & Resources 7.3%; Home Affairs 4.7%; Employment & Social Security 4.5% and Environment & Infrastructure 3.6%. So much for smaller government.

A year later, for those deputies who still insist that wholesale savings can be made and refuse to support increased taxation until the savings have been made, there can no longer be any excuse for tamely awarding their own committees even more money to spend next year.

Let’s be clear, if the government is doing too much, if too many civil servants are being employed and if public money is being wasted, these practices are being perpetuated by States committees and their members, not by anybody else.

Deputy Kazantseva-Miller was right to ask them ‘where are your savings?’ After a full year of serving on committees, all deputies have had the chance to identify what does not need to be done by their committee, which of their committee’s civil servants should be dismissed and where their committee is wasting public money. If they haven’t done so, then they should admit either that they haven’t been doing their job or that the huge savings that they alleged could be made simply don’t exist. Board members of a private company would be sacked if they knew their company was riddled with waste and took more than a year to identify it and begin to eliminate it. The narrative is not exclusive to the five surviving members of the Guernsey Party, but it is most heavily represented by them. None of them voted against a budget that awards increases which, after allowing for various inter-committee transfers of budgetary areas, amount to 7% to Home Affairs, 19% to P&R, 8.4% to HSC and 8.6% to Corporate Services.

Much to their credit, the E&I committee and the Development & Planning Authority were alone in having offered savings that would allow them to manage on reduced budgets.

A subsequent debate on minimum wage rates reminded me of those vintage Laurel and Hardy films and made me wonder if we are still allowed to laugh at people making a fool of themselves by constantly dropping things and tripping over.

There I was, genuinely willing the president of Economic Development to get through a whole day in the Assembly without tripping over his own feet, when blow me down he did it yet again. I think I’ll have to resign myself to the fact that he has an inexhaustible talent for it.

He was opposing ESS’s proposed rise in the minimum wage when he found himself declaring: ‘I will never vote for something that is inflation busting.’ Let’s leave aside the small matter that ESS’s proposals weren’t actually above the rate of inflation that he himself had just identified. What tripped him up was that he had just voted for all the inflation-busting elements of the 2022 Budget, including the eye-watering increase in his own committee’s annual grant to Guernsey Finance from £400,000 to £1.4m., a staggering increase of 250%. Not only did he vote for it, it was his proposal in the first place.

The Assembly debated at length ESS’s proposed exemptions in anti-discrimination legislation, among which the one relating to the freedom of our Catholic schools to restrict headships and deputy headships to teachers who are practising Catholics dominated the debate.

The Assembly made very heavy weather of the issue. We heard three speeches of quality: from Deputy Roffey both when opening debate and when responding to it, and from Deputy Helyar towards the end. Among the remainder, a few were memorable for the wrong reasons. The word ‘snide’ comes to mind. The very sound of it manages to convey sly, sneering innuendo. By now it is clear that there are members who so dislike some others that they simply cannot debate any issue without showing the nasty, small-minded and mean-spirited side of their nature. It made depressing listening. Deputies Roffey and St Pier are the principal targets of this malice. Their politics and mine are not always the same but I uttered three cheers when the Bailiff intervened to caution one of the most persistent of these snide culprits that he should play the issues, not the man.

I wish I could believe the Bailiff’s intervention will make any difference, but I don’t.

Something sinister?

‘FIRST they burned the books, then they came for the authors.’

I remember writing those words as a 1950s teenager in an essay about free speech. It was of course plagiarism of a sort, the German pastor and Holocaust survivor Martin Niemoller having beaten me to it with his epic poem ‘First they came…’

We then debated the issue in class and concluded ‘of course, it couldn’t possibly happen here’. How naive we were. In 2021, in what is supposed to be an enlightened age, books are being burned and their authors persecuted in some of Britain’s leading universities.

I bet you’re muttering, ‘What’s the old boy on about this time?’ Let me explain.

The only surprise when the Committee for Education, Sport and Censorship denied the use of the Performing Arts Centre to a group which holds alternative views on how the Covid-19 pandemic should be handled was that anybody should have been surprised. After a year’s worth of evidence, anybody who hadn’t noticed that obsessive control of the message is embedded in the ESC DNA should get up earlier in the morning and wipe the mist from their eyes.

In response to criticism, the committee stated that it was ‘not about freedom of speech’ but was about stopping States-owned venues from being used to ‘promote information contrary to government policy’. This was chillingly sinister and straight out of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. Coming from a committee which ought to celebrate and encourage diversity of opinion rather than stamp on it, the statement invites the following thoughts.

n The awkward truth of the matter was that the ESC had been caught out denying the practice of free speech in one of its educational settings. The committee could have responded by arguing – quite reasonably – that free speech sometimes has to come second to other principles. Instead, it simply denied the awkward truth and replaced it with its own truth, namely that it had not denied free speech. Donald Trump’s ‘fake-news’ copybook came to mind.

n The policy that States-owned buildings may not be used by those who wish to challenge States policies would be perfectly normal in fascist regimes but it should have no place in a democracy.

n There was a hint of arrogance in the attitude that the community must be protected from exposure to views that do not conform to States policy. The committee’s message seemed to suggest that members of the community are too dim to be allowed to hear those views and make their own minds up about them. ESC’s explanation that anybody would assume that the committee was endorsing those views simply by allowing them to be aired in one of its buildings is just not credible.

n A further message seemed to be that the States policy on Covid-19 is so fragile that it should not be exposed to challenge.

Let’s hope that ESC changes its policy on this issue. I would hate to see this year’s Gadoc pantomime Mother Goose being forced to move from Beau Sejour. The pantomime promotes the heretical notion that all we need to do to balance the public finances is hire a kind old woman to ride around the island on a goose that lays golden eggs.

In other words, forget GST and 3% on income tax. Even worse, Mother Goose ends with the message that we don’t need the money anyway – we can get by on just being kind to each other. This is dangerous, seditious stuff and against States policy.

Will ESC ban it?

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