Guernsey Press

‘This way be dragons’

Blaming the system of government for the current Assembly’s lack of achievement does not bode well for the future, says Deputy Peter Roffey.


THERE is a common narrative which is creeping into more and more States debates these days.

And it’s one which I find rather disingenuous. It goes something like this: ‘Yes, this States has largely failed to deliver, but it ain’t our fault, guv, it’s all down to our system of government’.

Poppycock. Yes, I accept, that there are better and worse ways of organising government. But the real point is that the right set of people will make pretty much any system work, while others will struggle to succeed no matter how finely crafted the system they are operating in may be.

The dangers of this debate? Well, I fear that the last 18 months of the current assembly may well be taken up in navel-gazing and in the States debating how it organises itself in minute detail. Just at a time when its real attention should be on tackling the travails of the community it serves.

Let me pull no punches. I think this States has been poorly served by the leadership of the Policy & Resources Committee.

Yes, I did agree with them 100% on the unpopular issue of needing to raise a lot more cash to meet the challenges of Guernsey’s changing demographics. I will almost certainly do so again come September, although I obviously need to see exactly what they are going to propose before I can be sure.

That isn’t the only issue where I think they have performed well. A majority of the committee (but only a bare majority) have been supportive, most of the time, over the desperate need to kick start the Affordable Housing Development Programme. There have been exceptions to that support but I thank the 60% of committee members who are broadly in favour of the programme.

I could list several other of P&R’s achievements. Likewise I could catalogue some pretty spectacular failures. But this is not a marking exercise scoring individual successes and failures. Rather it is an appeal to revert to a style of leadership which has traditionally served Guernsey well, rather than the States reacting to P&R’s shortcomings by doubling down on its unfortunate desire to centralise more and more executive powers.

That is my main criticism of P&R. Not any individual service delivery (although as it happens, they are responsible for both IT and Revenue Services), but rather its general approach of trying to centralise power and trample over other committee’s mandates, rather than lead through committee coordination, and through natural authority and respect.

That might sound like an outdated and woolly approach, but done well it does work. I know I have seen it do so – but not in the current Assembly. In fact I think you have to go back a couple of assemblies to experience it working well.

Some examples. One member of P&R, with no expertise in the area, setting himself up (with committee endorsement) as the arbiter of every senior appointment for all States committees. Overruling those closer to the ground with far more knowledge. Hubris which really worked against good governance. At one point it threatened to close our airport.

E&I being starved of the modest funds needed to work up plans for Guernsey’s next inert waste site, just because a couple of members of P&R had decided it should go in Les Vardes. This will now lead to the unavoidable spending of millions of pounds in double handling.

Then there was the (non)decision over our commercial ports. I am not saying that the States had to back the STSB’s preferred option, but their failure to decide anything at all has hamstrung so much other important work from being done. The responsibility for that lays with the whole assembly, of course, but P&R’s ‘leadership’ certainly didn’t help.

In the period leading up to the debate they signalled to the STSB that they fully backed its policy letter. Then in the States that support evaporated. Why? Well allegedly because they wanted to set up a development agency to take the project forward once the States had set the strategic direction.

Cue hasty talks and a so-called ‘compromise amendment’ which allowed both those strategic decisions to be made and then the agency to be set up to take the project forward. I had no problem with that and during those talks P&R gave every indication of supporting the whole package.

Come the vote? Most of its members voted against giving any strategic direction but they did support setting up the agency. The upshot was twofold. Firstly, a couple of years of complete lack of direction, for which I mainly blame P&R. It was clearly a time to lead and they flunked it. Secondly, on my part, damaged trust in our senior committee which has been hard to restore.

My fears going forward? I think that P&R realise fully that they have not achieved as much as they had expected when they optimistically took office nearly three years ago with battle cries of ‘action this day’. Alas I think they will wrongly identify the real reasons for that underachievement.

It can’t possibly be that they failed to build the trust, the partnerships, and the collegiate approach that our system of government needs to work well. Oh no – not them.

So by default the opposite must be true. It is all down to insufficient centralised control which vests nearly all executive powers in P&R, and effectively demotes the rest of the States to bystanders and scrutineers. They would be in the States but not really in government.

And what if the new ‘cabinet system’ still fails next time? I guess it will need even more of a concentration of powers at the centre to fix it.

This way be dragons.