OPINION: An axe to grind
Richard Graham shares his thoughts on last week’s States meeting
I USED to pass a garden gnome on my walks. He always looked grumpy. I could understand why. After all, it couldn’t be much fun sitting on a hard stool in someone’s garden in all weathers, pretending to be fishing for non-existent goldfish in an artificial pond, and being stared at by passers-by calling out ‘Oh look, isn’t he cute’.
Sitting in the States having to listen to Deputy Roffey seems to have the same effect on Deputy Inder. Having sat through the meeting’s opening update statement made by the president of the States Trading Supervisory Board, he was as grumpy as any garden gnome that lived. Among his numerous complaints about Deputy Roffey’s alleged neglect of his duties, he was indignant that the STSB president was doing nothing to raise money from car parking on the harbour piers. This was a bit rich, coming from the president of the Committee for Doing Nothing Whatsoever about Anything. What’s more, as Deputy Roffey patiently explained, the DNWA president was entirely missing the point: STSB has no powers to introduce paid parking. He could have added that Deputy Inder had had nearly three years this term to bring a requete if he felt that strongly about it. This far into the current political term, you’d think deputies would have learned that when they challenge Deputy Roffey, they should first get their facts right if they want to avoid embarrassing themselves.
Peace was restored via an update from the president of the Transport Licensing Authority. Listening to any report from this authority would stun any audience into meek submission. The authority meets once in a blue moon for about five minutes. As authorities go, it is pointless. A perfect fit for Deputy Gollop, who chairs it.
There followed a torrent of legislation being nodded through with the aim of keeping the Moneyval inspectors happy next year. Deputy Dyke was worried that some of it was over the top. In my view, he was right to be so. I record with pleasure that he had a good States meeting. He seconded one successful Roffey amendment (in itself a brief partnership worthy of note, even of astonishment) and led a second amendment that survived fierce opposition from P&R.
Only Deputies Inder and Vermeulen voted against raising the level of the minimum wage for the most poorly paid workers by around £38.50 per week, despite having themselves recently pocketed an extra £63 per week (Deputy Inder as a principal committee president) and £46 per week (Deputy Vermeulen as a States member), on top of their respective pay rises last year of £52 per week and £38 per week. Deputy Inder insisted there was no evidence that such a rise was necessary for the most poorly paid – it was all ideologically driven by that dangerous ideologue at the head of Employment & Social Security. Was I the only one wondering where the evidence was that Deputy Inder needed his whopping pay rises or had done anything to deserve them, and what particular ideology prompted him to accept them?
Deputy Vermeulen boasted that he had his finger on Guernsey’s pulse. I tried to picture this particular scene but couldn’t quite make it work, and from what I could hear across the airways, I was not alone. Anyway, he was worried that businesses couldn’t afford to pay the proposed rate of minimum wage, but his worry didn’t appear to extend to Guernsey taxpayers who would have to dip ever deeper into their bottom-less pockets to cough up for his even bigger pay rise.
The debate of P&R’s policy letter for the development of the east coast generated in most part the best – and in only a few cases the worst – examples of parliamentary combat. The most eagerly contested issue centred around the degree to which States members, on behalf of the people who elected them, should exercise control over the use and disposal of key States-owned land and assets that are destined to be put in the care of a third party, namely the Guernsey Development Agency. Many members, most prominently represented by Deputy Burford, urged that deputies should not lightly abandon their role as custodians of the public realm. It wasn’t a case of having no trust in the GDA, rather it was that the duty of care placed on them by the electorate must come first. P&R members disagreed, in Deputy Mahoney’s case with a sneered dismissal of Deputy Burford’s supporters as ‘control freaks’. With attitudes like this, it’s not surprising that P&R is alienating previous supporters in increasing numbers.
Deputy Mahoney attempted to justify laissez-faire, claiming that excessive oversight by States members had led to nothing ever being done. In reply, Deputy Burford couldn’t resist pointing out that the States members who complained most strongly that nothing was ever done were invariably the same members who voted for delay every time the opportunity presented itself. What she didn’t say – and I will – is that the most risk-averse, serial practitioners of delay in the States this term have been those deputies who boast that they bring to government the decisiveness of a previous successful career in private business. If you don’t believe me, just look at their voting records. I have long thought that in some cases the evidence that their business careers were a success is somewhere between a bit thin and non-existent. If they were as indecisive in business as they have proved to be in government, they must have been dozy entrepreneurs. Alarmingly, P&R members, as the designated stewards of public property, revealed a cavalier insouciance, even enthusiasm, for allowing custody and disposal of valuable assets to be placed out of reach of proportionate oversight by future States members. Just as alarmingly, the president of the Development & Planning Authority, supposedly the coastline’s protector against inappropriate development, seemed to agree with them. It left me wondering if they would be equally relaxed about letting their own personal property be disposed of by a third party with a similar lack of restraint.
Listeners to States debates can reasonably expect flashes of pure entertainment and last week’s meeting did not disappoint. Deputy Queripel found himself praising Deputy St Trott for a speech. I admit that it was a good speech, but to be honest I didn’t think it quite merited the bestowal of sainthood.
Deputy Ferbrache took the Assembly on one of those meandering trips down Nostalgia Lane on which he invites us to accompany him from time to time, it has to be said with varying degrees of take-up. This time it took the form of an elegiac sigh of regret at the passing of those halcyon days when States members had trust in leaders of States committees. No doubt he was referring to the era that ended when he and Deputy Murray made their separate very public declarations in one of last year’s States meeting that they didn’t trust Deputy Roffey and his ESS committee.
If the debating chamber had a dunce’s corner, then Deputy Matthews deserves to still be there, facing the wall. Plumbing previously unexplored depths of dimwitted awfulness, he delivered a speech whose sole relevance to the topic was that every minute he was on his feet gifted an extra vote for the sursis that he was speaking against. More than once, Deputy Inder appealed for merciful release from the agony of having to listen to any more of this. The Deputy Bailiff did her best to gently guide Deputy Matthews to safety, but the hapless lemming was hell-bent on hurtling over the cliff edge to a fate that he will do well to recover from.
In contrast, the star of the week was the Deputy Bailiff. She wouldn’t wish to be singled out, but I’m in the mood to risk her displeasure. Her one-liners made her by some way the wittiest member of the States of Deliberation.
It was of course predictable, but none the less pathetic, that this can-kicking Assembly, having two weeks previously voted to debate the electricity strategy in the first week of July, had in the meantime changed their minds and supported Deputy Murray’s latest contribution to the Guernsey collywobbles project, a sursis to delay the debate until September. We were asked to believe that members had been left so emotionally drained after spending a whole three days in the Assembly two weeks ago that they hadn’t known what they were doing. The poor diddums! Others explained that they needed to devote their summer holidays to studying the proposed strategy more closely. Pull the other one, eh! Apparently, once the Government Work Plan is endorsed later this month, Deputy Murray’s already hard-pressed civil servants at P&R will need to spend August on deeper analysis of the electricity strategy. So, no summer holiday for them.
And the garden gnome? No longer there. Yet another front garden paved over. Our concrete loving deputies – remember them? – would be pleased.