Guernsey Press

Peter Ferbrache: Why we need executive government

Consensus government no longer works – it’s time for change, says former P&R president Peter Ferbrache in the first of a series of occasional columns...

(Picture by Sophie Rabey, 32957990)

When I did a podcast at the Press around Christmastime, I was asked by the editor if occasionally I would submit an article.

I said I would. It is not going to be regular, and the topics will vary.

There have in recent times been a few articles saying similar things to what I have written. This is the view, though, from the inside.

What I found during my time in the States this time, and I am not just talking about the three years when I was president of Policy & Resources, but also about the term before that, was just how difficult it was to move matters forward.

Save for a crisis, as we had with Covid, when a limited number of States members made most of the decisions, nearly every other decision is scrutinised and debated to death. We move at the pace of the slowest. When I originally put this together I had not seen the requete seeking to reverse the States’ recent decision in relation to the harbour dues increase. That in itself exemplifies the point I am making. People keep saying that we have consensus government and that works for Guernsey and that is the way we should proceed. The reality is that we have a system that is a mixture of Groundhog Day and a car with its brakes almost perpetually engaged.

I do not believe consensus works anymore. I do not believe we can now work at the pace of the slowest. I believe we have to move our government into the 21st century.

We need to change gear and to release the brakes. I am realistic enough to believe there is very little chance of that happening with this Assembly, or probably the next Assembly or the Assembly thereafter. Nevertheless I can only say what I think is right and reflects my own experience.

Let me say up front that we have too many deputies. There is no need for a small island like ours of 64,000 people or thereabouts to be represented by 38 deputies. Although there can be exceptions to my general comment, I do not think that, except in rare cases, for example someone holding the position of president of P&R, being a deputy should be a full-time job and it certainly should not be a career.

I can hear the cries now – ‘I work very hard, and I could not do my job if I was doing it part-time’.

I do not dispute the sincerity of such a comment. It reminds me, though, of Deputy Parkinson’s late father’s comment that work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion.

Our deputies are just like every other elected representative anywhere else. There are a significant number who want to be re-elected. They therefore often, and certainly not in great numbers, are not going to do anything, particularly in a small community like ours where everything is visible and everybody is contactable, to make decisions that they think are going to reflect adversely on their electoral prospects.

I have already heard a well-respected former deputy, Michelle Le Clerc, say on the radio recently that she did not expect any significant decision to be taken when during the course of the first half of this year the SLAWS proposals are brought back before the States. She is absolutely right.

We, that is the old P&R, were criticised for bringing our tax proposals too late into the Assembly.

They first came before the Assembly in any material form a year or so ago when we were at best only halfway through the tenure of this particular parliament.

So what is the right time to bring to the Assembly difficult issues?

The reality is that decisions continue to be dodged, fudged, and obfuscated no matter who is in control. It is seemingly not the fault of anyone and to a degree it is human nature.

People want to be loved and liked.

I accept it is not necessarily correct to just look back and see how things were and say, ‘well it worked then so it should now’.

That said, when I left the States in April 2000 there were 57 members and 43 of them had business interests of some sort. They were currently in business, working in some kind of employment or generally engaged in commercial activity. Their views were generally thus current and informed.

I compare that with the current States of 38 deputies.

Looking at Declarations of Interest, and having regard to the reality of employment, I would say there are at best 10 so employed or in reality in business.

Thus over a period of just over 20 years the make-up of our Assembly has changed dramatically. We now have many career deputies whose livelihoods depend on being re-elected.

Far fewer people are elected who have their finger in the commercial pie, or who have run a business or are aware of commercial pressures.

I am not for a second advocating that the Assembly should only comprise of people with business experience. Any parliamentary body should be representative. I am just saying bearing in mind Guernsey is a place where lots of people have businesses and with high employment and with a valued finance sector, that the balance has changed really too much. That is not a criticism of any individual. People also can only elect those who are put before them. Anyone who puts themselves forward for public office knows they are going to get abused, criticised, and berated, particularly by keyboard warriors on social media. Those are often what one of my sisters describes as people who are upstairs in their bedroom wearing their singlets and eating Cheeselets who then bash out their bile.

I appreciate that is the same in lots of places and not just related to our jurisdiction, but here we are a small jurisdiction and comments can be felt more personally.

Some say that changes in the make-up of the Assembly is because the salary on offer has changed. I have no doubt that it is now a career for some people. The average or median wage is at best probably £40,000 per annum, and even a back bencher like me will be receiving a gross income of a bit more than that. That is more than a lot of the current deputies (again no criticism intended) would have been earning before they were elected.

Again, I stress I do not suggest that the States should be simply made up of entrepreneurs and those from the commercial community. Anyone who knows anything knows that if the States were populated only with those of the greatest intellect it would be a disaster. The really clever ones often cannot see the wood for the trees and those with commercial interests sometimes, but not always, lose track of the needs of all members of our community, which are many and varied.

All of that said, we need to change, although I do not think there is one chance in a thousand that the views I express in this article will gain the day in the States.

Nevertheless I make these suggestions.

We should have executive government.

I saw recently a very interesting article from a gentleman who writes in Edwardian style regularly for the Press, and this time his dissertation and wisdom were visited on a certain period in the history of the Roman Empire. Very interesting and it shows how clever he is, albeit it was far above my bang average level of intelligence.

As to the reality of where we are in Guernsey, though, in the 21st century we cannot have the luxury of such navel gazing. We need to think of the now, not the past, and how we resolve today’s and tomorrow’s problems. He commented through his dewy-eyed sentiment on what he saw were the weaknesses of executive government. All very interesting from a very clever man – but despite his obvious intelligence he really is living in the past. We cannot keep pandering to endless debates on everything. It is not a proper exercise of democracy. Proper democracy should recognise that there is a duty to get things done – I was told that for every right there is a corresponding duty.

My suggestion is we need no more, and probably less, than 25 deputies. It should be an uneven number because otherwise problems can arise, as was shown when Deputy St Pier and I were contesting the presidency of P&R in 2020. We went to four ballots because on ballots two and three we were locked at 20 votes each – simply because there is an even number of States members and no one blinked until the fourth ballot.

States members should be paid no more than a basic salary of £10,000 per annum.

In an island which is crying out for people to work, and therefore accommodates much more readily than it used to people working part-time, there would be equal and ample opportunity for those people who needed to earn extra income to so do. That also gives them the opportunity of continuing to be educated by real lifetime experiences rather than being cocooned from reality.

Let my views not be misunderstood. We should have a broad range of people who are elected. What we have at the moment though is cumbersome, too numerate, and too ineffective, so change – and radical change – is needed.

Democracy is a virtue. We have not had it in Guernsey for overly long. The first nine States deputies only took office in 1900. We have recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of the election of the first woman deputy. It was only in the immediate post Second World War reforms that democracy was really moved forward.

Even then true democracy was tempered with the introduction of conseillers. They were elected by a particular body of the States rather than by the people until 1994. The office of conseiller breathed its last in 2000, and a few years thereafter the douzaine representatives became a thing of the past.

Evolution thus should continue. I am still awaiting to see the Machinery of Government Report which I never saw a copy of, to the best of my recollection, when I was president of P&R, so my comments below may turn out to be inaccurate, but I do not believe that will be the case.

In fact I anticipate that I am going to be very disappointed by it, and it will make some tepid recommendations of perhaps reducing the number of States members by a very few and reducing the number of Alderney representatives to one. I would add I am not in favour of a reduction of the number of Alderney representatives, but that is for another day.

The chances of my proposals being accepted by this States? I have already touched upon it, and they are zero. There is as much chance of being approved by this Assembly as there is of my team Tottenham Hotspur winning this year’s FA Cup, a competition from which we have already been eliminated.

I believe what I have suggested, or a minor variant thereof, would find favour with a significant number of the good folk of Guernsey.

Despite my pessimism, let us put this States to the test to see if there is any appetite for real change, or if we will spend our time re-debating the increase in harbour dues or where the Sixth Form Centre should be situated. I have, I believe, accurately answered that above. Not much will happen.

I will write again. My next topic? Who knows? I will write again when I think I have something useful to contribute.

It will be when my interest or ire is stirred ... and I am already feeling that stirring.