Guernsey Press

To cancel is a mistake

MY COLUMN is intended to be a look forward to and explanation of the forthcoming meeting of the States of Deliberation. But as I write to a deadline that I am already late for, States members have been advised that this week’s meeting has been cancelled and the business will be rolled forward to the next meeting in a month’s time.

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I sincerely hope that this decision will be reversed quickly, as to cancel is a mistake and that is a view shared by many States members. There are, of course, a few minor logistical challenges in facilitating remote meetings; in particular, kit needs to be set up again in the Royal Court and newly-elected members need to be familiarised with the remote procedures. But these challenges have been overcome before and therefore it should be possible to overcome them again – just more quickly, having had the prior experience and given that the current situation was an entirely foreseeable one. And every organisation on the island is facing the same challenges.

So I’m left in a quandary. Do I write about a meeting that may not take place? Or do I write about the cancellation of a meeting that might get reinstated? I think that I must work with the facts before me that the meeting has been cancelled.

However, before I go any further and to set the right backdrop to my comments, I must just spend a few moments commending the Civil Contingencies Authority (CCA) for the speed of their response on Saturday morning. Placing the community back in full lockdown is something none of us will have wanted but it was absolutely the right thing to do. The evidence from around the world – particularly China, Australia and New Zealand – is that a very hard and fast response is the only way to get back on top of this virus. This is even truer since the emergence of new variants whose rates of infection are faster. And be under no mistake, the decision to do so was not Dr Brink’s. It rested – as it should – on the shoulders of the six politicians who comprise the CCA, four from Guernsey and one each from Sark and Alderney. They will have made that decision in light of advice from Dr Brink, Paul Whitfield (the chief executive of the States) and the many other advisers to the CCA. This is a good opportunity to scotch the social media trope that all the CCA does is follow Dr Brink’s advice. Understandably, given the CCA’s role in managing emergencies, the CCA law has very strict legal liability around maintaining confidentiality of the CCA’s work. In light of this, I cannot be specific about my time as its chair but, generically, I can say there were times when the CCA accepted advice that it felt was less risk-averse than the CCA might otherwise have been; and conversely, it rejected advice and adopted more risk-averse measures than recommended. As we have seen elsewhere, when things go wrong, it is not the advisers who are in the firing line, it’s the politicians, as decision-makers. And when those same people do the right thing – as they did on Saturday – they should be congratulated. So on behalf of the rest of the community, I say ‘thank you’.

Given the agenda for this month’s meeting is relatively light, why is it important that the States of Deliberation meets?

Firstly, appearances matter. The Bailiwick, as we all know, has performed exceptionally well so far in its management of the pandemic. It has, at all stages, been prepared and one step ahead. The States of Deliberation being in session signals to both the community and, as importantly, the outside world that our government is so well prepared it can seamlessly transfer to remote operation without missing a beat. On Saturday, it took us six hours, from the first government social media release to a full media briefing, to put the island in complete lockdown. This tells us once again what we saw last year: government is able to respond exceptionally well in a crisis. Being unable to hold a scheduled States meeting four days later also reinforces the perception that many share: the routine business and speed of government is sclerotic and our system of government is not fit for purpose.

Secondly, scrutiny matters. We are a democracy and the government should always be – and willing to be – subject to the scrutiny of the community’s elected representatives. At every meeting, there are routine matters providing States members with opportunities to scrutinise: scheduled and extraordinary committee statements from which questions flow; and so-called Rule 11 pre-submitted oral questions to committees, to which supplementary questions can be asked by any member on the day.

We could take the view that none of that really matters in the midst of an emergency, but this pandemic has been running for a year and may well run for another, during which we cannot simply put the routine business of government on hold. More important is scrutiny of the CCA’s regulations – effectively emergency law. These expire after 30 days. Consequently, the CCA has routinely re-enacted (often with modifications) the regulations once a month. The CCA law requires that the regulations be laid before the States of Deliberation as soon as possible. If the States isn’t meeting, it isn’t possible, so the regulations just expire and are replaced by the next set made by the CCA. So the last time the States approved any regulations was the middle of December, since which time one set has expired. If another set goes the same way, that is unacceptable.

More importantly, to enforce Lockdown 2.0, the CCA on Saturday has had to instigate a further, more comprehensive set of regulations. These deserve and need proper scrutiny. At face value, among other things they seem understandably to re-adopt a whole lot of provisions which were allowed to lapse as Lockdown 1.0 was gradually lifted during the summer. But they contain some legitimate grounds for debate. For example, we quickly learnt in the first lockdown that there really was no justification for preventing solo outdoor work and yet we seem to have done so again – why? It may be ‘easier’ not to allow it but it is depriving zero-risk legitimate businesses from earning an income which, in consequence, will require unnecessary support from the public purse.

There is also an interesting insertion in the definitions for one section that ‘the authority means the chairman’. This delegates very draconian powers in relation to all of our movements down to one person – the chair of the CCA. Having occupied that role, I don’t see why that is needed. In my experience, the authority can meet effectively and remotely at very short notice. I’ve no doubt that the CCA has considered both these matters at some length before making these regulations but that does not absolve them of the responsibility to explain and justify their decisions to the States of Deliberation. The community, through their elected representatives, are also entitled to seek the most likely explanation as to why the spike in cases has occurred. Do we know how this got into the community? This does not mean a witch-hunt, but there are legitimate questions: is it more likely to have been a breach by someone in self-isolation? Or could it be a critical worker, by definition and for good reason, subject to less stringent self-isolation requirements? Or could it be through some other vector, such as imported goods? Answers to questions such as these will help enable effective scrutiny and challenge on behalf of the community to ensure we have the most robust controls in place which are proportionate to our needs.

Thirdly, transparency matters. Any information vacuum will always be filled. And in the modern age of social media, this will happen in the blink of an eye or the click of a mouse. Some will speculate that the States is not meeting because it is concealing information and things must be much worse than is being said publicly. The States of Deliberation meeting normally supports the communications strategy, helps reinforce all the public messaging and enables myths to be bust.

I hope that sense prevails this week, allowing us to do the job the community have elected us to do.