OPINION: Avoiding accountability?

The States’ annual accounts and the Government Work Plan are the main topics on the agenda at this week’s States meeting, as Deputy Gavin St Pier explains

SADLY, for me, I will be missing this week’s States’ meeting. A family event was originally scheduled for after the general election in June 2020, but Covid put paid to that and so it rolled first to 2021 and then 2022.

I’m sure I won’t be much missed.

The ordinary business of the meeting is brief, including an ordinance to ‘turn on’ the law that effectively assumes individuals are willing to donate their organs on death unless they opt out. There is a tad more regulation – this time of notaries public – once again, to bring it up to international scratch.

The most substantive item in this part of the meeting is a policy letter from the States’ Assembly & Constitution Committee to introduce, working with Jersey, an independent commissioner of standards to oversee States members’ conduct. Given no one has much love for the current Code of Conduct and its processes, it is likely to sail through unamended – albeit I’m a bit sceptical at the policy letter’s assertion that this new beefed-up role and process will not cost any more money. As the policy letter makes clear, if it does end up costing more, then ‘it may be necessary for an application to be made to the Policy & Resources Committee for one-off funding from the Budget Reserve’. I don’t think it will be too long before that application is needed.

Most of the content of this meeting should have been debated at a mid-June ‘special’ meeting of the States. The rules provide for a dedicated meeting to receive the States’ annual accounts and to debate each year’s update to the Government Work Plan. The Policy & Resources Committee missed the publication deadlines for both the accounts and the GWP. No apology or explanation was given to States members. Given the absence of much substantive business for the meeting originally scheduled for the end of June, to make up for the time lost by late publication, a pragmatic suggestion was made to simply cancel the mid-June meeting and roll its business into the late-June meeting.

As an aside, I don’t recall the previous Policy & Resources Committee (or its predecessor iterations) missing their own deadlines for lodging annual accounts or the GWP (by whatever name they were then known.) Had they done so, they would have been absolutely roasted by the Assembly. This more quiescent Assembly is not bothered by such oversight.

The States’ Accounts often receive very little scrutiny in the Assembly. For a start there are more of them than you might think – aside from the main States of Guernsey accounts, the ports, Guernsey Dairy, States Works, Guernsey Water, Guernsey Waste and the social security funds are all separately debated. As a result, they often end up being received with a sense of bored indifference.

There is, though, one important detail omitted from this year’s accounts. Lots of candidates who have at some time worked in the private sector say the States needs to be ‘run more like a business’. In prior years, recognising that sentiment, the now-sacked chief executive, in a spirit of openness and transparency and in a nod to what would be normal to disclose in a public company, insisted that the remuneration for the senior leadership of the civil service (although not other senior public servants, mind) should be disclosed to taxpayers each year. That table has been omitted this year.

Why? Because it avoids the embarrassment of having to be like a public company and disclose the cost of the six-figure pay-out to get rid of the top man. Sad and tawdry, I know.

The main event is the GWP. At 177 pages it’s a long read, but at least compared to last year’s 268 pages, something has been cut – albeit not expenditure or the number of employees. It’s beautifully colour-coded, which won’t much please Deputy Queripel, who is like a dog with bone when it comes to unnecessary colour printing. It retains the same essential format, namely a giant ‘to do’ list, delivered without much passion and no vision. Indeed, it itself acknowledges the ‘need to deliver clearer strategic aims’. 177 pages means there will always be some repetition but at times it is completely incomprehensible. For example, apparently the States ‘must take a prioritised approach to social, cultural, political, economic, commercial and environmental factors which impact islanders but the health, productivity and success of the community and economy as a whole’. No, I’ve no idea what it means either.

Perhaps the most interesting sentence in the policy letter is the last. This says, Policy & Resources ‘is not unanimous in its agreement that all the actions listed in category one should be priority recovery actions when compared to other pressing issues and priorities, and as such this should not be seen as priority recovery actions of the Policy & Resources Committee’.

When quizzed on this at a recent Scrutiny panel hearing, it’s clear that P&R don’t want to own the GWP. It was emphasised many times that ‘the Plan belongs to the States as a whole’. Taking this with the sign-off to the policy letter, it’s clear that members of P&R want to have the freedom to walk back from the GWP’s contents and vote against its identified priorities later. And we are already seeing that with its members bringing amendments to the plan.

The GWP is the flagship of this term but there doesn’t seem to be anyone on the bridge willing to steer it (and go down with it, as any good ship’s captain knows might happen one day.).

I may be old-fashioned, but I really don’t think that is the type of leadership expected from the States’ most senior committee.

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