Covid and the camel

Deputy Gavin St Pier looks ahead at what’s up for debate at this week’s States meeting, including a potentially controversial Covid-19 policy letter

ONCE again, the very first decision the States will be faced with this week is whether to meet in ‘hybrid’ format, which allows remote participation by some members while others are physically in the Royal Court.

Having successfully tried and tested the technology and the rules to facilitate these meetings, while there are good arguments against, there are also arguments in favour of hybrid meetings becoming a permanent fixture in a brave new post-pandemic world. A world which encourages more working from home, especially for anyone with respiratory illnesses, rather than forcing them into the unhealthy company of others.

However, such a permanent decision is not up for debate this week. What is being proposed only relates to this meeting. In that context it would be odd for the States having rescinded its ‘work from home’ advice and encouraged the community and business to ‘live with Covid responsibly’ to then vote against their latest advice. As ever, the States should be seen to be leading by example.

Once again too, the business on the Order Paper is pretty thin gruel. If it wasn’t for Covid, there would be very little indeed. The prevailing view seems to be that it is preferable to keep things away from the States of Deliberation, if at all possible. It is true that deputies, with their pesky amendments and irritating questions, scrutinising and holding committees to account, can be a downright nuisance to government trying to get stuff done. It started with the freeze on members’ pay, without seeking any revision to the resolutions that adopted the independent panel’s report on the matter. It continued with the wholesale transfer of the entire capital spending programme by delegating all authority to the Policy & Resources Committee in a gross abdication of responsibility by the States of Deliberation for effective oversight. This was followed up by the Committee for Education, Sport & Culture’s decision not to present its ‘education strategy’ for scrutiny, debate and approval. The strategy – such as it is – exists only as a few pages on the government website, untested, undebated and unapproved.

Up next was the decision of Policy & Resources to set the terms for the review of the system of government and then populate its sub-committee, without any input from other members through a States debate. More recently, at the Scrutiny Management Committee’s panel hearing in relation to the Government Work Plan, it became clear that Policy & Resources intends to buy a boat without seeking States approval either for that decision or, more importantly, before having had the States debate and agreeing on a policy for air and sea links.

After routine statements from the Committee for Home Affairs and from one of the Alderney Representatives, giving an update on the northern isle, the meeting really only has two items of business that are likely to attract much debate. One, to establish a new anti-money laundering forum, was probably going to float through largely unnoticed. A late intervention from the banking industry, challenging the statement in the policy letter that it had ‘a strong level of support’ from them, may ignite a more substantive debate. One member has already called for a delay in the debate to allow more dialogue with the sector.

The key item, though, is the policy letter on ‘Living Responsibly with Covid-19’. They say that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. You can tell that this three-humped policy letter has been drafted by three committees – Policy & Resources, Health & Social Care, and Home Affairs. In its attempt to keep all 15 States members on board – a mission on which it ultimately failed, with three dissenters – if you listen carefully as you read, you can hear the grating of gears as text and propositions are stripped out. One professed objective was to facilitate a full and wide-ranging policy debate, but neither the policy letter nor the single proposition achieves that.

The single proposition left, as the public have understood it, purports to permanently transfer draconian powers to manage Covid, which impede individuals’ human rights, to a single person, the Medical Officer of Health. Except that’s not what the proposition actually says. It doesn’t even direct that legislation should be prepared on this basis. It just directs that ‘proposals’ – in other words another policy letter – should be brought. That policy letter would, it is reasonable to assume, contain more details on the checks and balances to such an idea – checks and balances that the current policy letter references in passing but without detailing.

This mismatch between the public’s understanding of what is happening and what is actually being asked of States members is a failure of political communication to adequately explain what is going on. It is insufficient explanation to keep repeating, ‘this is just doing what has been done for the last two years’. That is the heart of many people’s concern: they simply don’t want that and don’t understand why that will be necessary, stretching far into the future. There will be amendments tabled which attempt to put some lipstick on the pig – or camel – to improve the proposition. Among other things, these will seek to place time limits and other boundaries on these powers and also ensure proper political oversight.

I hope that the Assembly will take the opportunity to support the amendments put in front of them, recognising the legitimate concerns and anxieties of many in the community at the encroachment on their liberties and freedoms.

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