Guernsey Press

Ending the division

Deputies need to work with those across the Assembly, not just those in their tribe, says Deputy Heidi Soulsby...

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Heidi Soulsby. (32105822)

THE narrative that has been emanating from Frossard House since the tax debate decision, or – more accurately – indecision, in February is that because States members didn’t vote for any of P&R’s proposals after six days of debate, all spending of capital projects and infrastructure must be paused until July when it’s proposed some will be kicked into the long grass, significant cuts are going to be needed to public services and it’s all the fault of those who voted against their proposals.

The chief minister replayed this narrative a few times during the March States’ meeting, most notably when he accused Deputy Gollop of not having voted for revenue-raising measures. Not only that, but Deputy Ferbrache also refused to acknowledge he had misspoken, even when Deputy Trott pointed out that Deputy Gollop had in fact voted for our ‘Fairer Alternative’ proposals which represented a balanced package of revenue-raising measures and spending restraint. Of course, what Deputy Ferbrache really meant was that Deputy Gollop did not vote for P&R’s package based around raising £68m. from GST.

Stage 1 of the Fairer Alternative proposals put forward by myself and Deputy St Pier lost by just one vote. The truth is, if just one of the five members of Policy & Resources had voted for them – bearing in mind all of P&R’s options had already been defeated by then – that would’ve been enough to get them over the line. It’s hard not to conclude that if anyone is to blame for the vacuum we have ended up with it is P&R.

The States did vote for Stage 2 of our Fairer Alternative proposals. This was somewhat puzzling to say the least – akin to agreeing to put a roof on a house having failed to agree to build any walls. We also have the problem that P&R is being made to do what the States have told it to do and not what it wanted to do. They are having to action the Fairer Alternative Stage 2 proposals and they don’t appear to like it. Evidence of that is in the approach they are taking.

Senior Treasury staff had previously advised that a full and meaningful review of capital spending would take a year but apparently it can now be done in a few months, and while I am all for speeding up the pace of government, this change is baffling. The rigour that can be applied to evaluating a half billion-pound portfolio in such a short timescale was questioned when we were advised of the approach and the subsequent publication of P&R’s conclusions on what has made the cut has justified the scepticism.

The decision by P&R that resulted in prioritising rebuilding a sixth form half a mile down the road from the existing one and, in the interim, moving sixth form pupils to a dated 11-16 school, over the second phase of modernisation of our hospital, has resulted in a lot of head scratching. How can a hospital programme that had the unanimous backing of the previous States and has not been questioned by this one until now, where phase 1 has been going to plan with builders already on site and planning permission is already in place, not be considered preferable to an education programme where no builder has been chosen, where there is no spade in the ground and that is questioned not only by politicians but by those who are going to have to work in it? But that’s the problem. This has not been thought through.

The same could be said for the approach being taken to another of our successful Stage 2 proposals, which directed the setting up of a sub-committee to investigate spending. Despite a number of senior deputies applying to be on this sub-committee, Deputy Mahoney and P&R have only chosen one who has more than half a term’s experience in the States. Although, as Deputy Mahoney made clear in his maiden speech to the Assembly in 2020, he doesn’t have much time at all for political experience, so at least he is being consistent. However, I fear this lack of experience could result in public service cuts without any deeper understanding of the possible longer-term consequences.

One of the Fairer Alternative’s original proposals was for a reduction in committee budgets for 2024 of 1%, excepting Health and Social Care. P&R told Deputy St Pier and I at the time that, ‘there is no guarantee such cuts will be deliverable’. Fast forward two months and in his update statement Deputy Ferbrache told the Assembly that committees would need to make budget reductions of between 2.5-3%. P&R is now apparently going down the path of draconian cuts – cuts that they have already stated are likely undeliverable – because the Assembly didn’t vote for their proposals and yet not one of them was prepared to vote for the entire Fairer Alternative proposals. In the lead-up to the debate we were told the deficit could not be closed through cuts alone and that ‘the time for delay is over, we cannot afford to kick the can any further down the road’. Yet that is precisely where we are.

It never needed to be like this at all if P&R, or some of its members at least, had understood the value of compromise. It was blindingly obvious in the lead-up to the debate that their proposals would not, could not, win. As such, as is the way in our consensus system of government, they should have worked with those putting forward alternative proposals. Deputy St Pier and I did reach out, and thought we were getting somewhere when we met Deputies Ferbrache and Murray, but then it was clear some other members of that committee were not interested. So we, as an Assembly, inevitably reached an unsatisfactory conclusion. Compromise is not failure. Deputies need to work with those across the Assembly, not just those in their tribe.

We, as an island, cannot afford such an attitude. The longer we delay, the longer we have a social security system overdue for reform, the more inequality will grow and the greater the deficit will be. That should be every deputy’s concern, over and above who is proposing something. Tribalism is destructive. Trust and mutual respect need to be re-established or the community will suffer.

My belief is that, just like me, many deputies have had enough of the ‘us and them’ attitude that has pervaded this particular States. Rather than buck passing and mixed messages, we want to see leadership. True leadership requires bringing people with you, not entrenching partisan divisions or indulging personal grievances, and we urgently need to bring everyone on board to steer the States in the right direction for our community.

Now, more than ever before, we as a States must work together and the senior committee must learn the lessons from the last few months, show some humility and set an example from the top. The alternative is that they stand aside and let others lead collegiately because it is blindingly obvious that the current situation is untenable. Unless things change and change quickly, we really will deserve to be called the worst States ever.