Looking beyond the Billet

With little of interest on the agenda for this week’s States meeting, Deputy Gavin St Pier tries to predict what other topics might spark some unexpected debate.

Education, Sport & Culture may face questions related to the proposed closure of La Mare de Carteret High School. Pictured, left to right, are committee member Sue Aldwell, vice-president Bob Murray and president Andrea Dudley-Owen. (Picture by Adrian Miller, 29435741)
Education, Sport & Culture may face questions related to the proposed closure of La Mare de Carteret High School. Pictured, left to right, are committee member Sue Aldwell, vice-president Bob Murray and president Andrea Dudley-Owen. (Picture by Adrian Miller, 29435741)

I have writer’s block. Pity the columnist tasked with analysing the Billet d’Etat before each meeting of the States of Deliberation, when there is nothing – literally nothing – in it.

In my nine years in the States, this is the slimmest Billet and smallest agenda I can recall. There are no matters for debate – none. The few routine elections and appointments and two items of legislation will be done and dusted in 10 minutes flat.

Of course, the cheap quip that might be generated is that at least with inactivity, it means politicians can’t do any damage.

So instead of writing about what is in the Billet, I’m going to use my crystal ball and have a guess at the items which are not in it but will nonetheless occupy States time.

Firstly, the Civil Contingencies Authority’s monthly Covid-19 regulations are up for renewal. This will probably generate some debate: some may argue we are moving too slowly to the new post-vaccination learning-to-live-with-Covid world order, while others may argue we are moving too quickly in removing border controls in July, when countries’ experiences with new viral strains, infection and vaccination rates remain so variable.

As has been the case from the beginning of the pandemic, those on the outside of the decision-making don’t have enough information to challenge and scrutinise these decisions in real time and will only be able to judge success or failure with the benefit of hindsight.

As a Covid aside, while there will always be some in our community who resent a single taxpayer penny ever being donated outside the island for any purpose, I was delighted with last week’s announcement by the Overseas Aid and Development Commission to provide £85,000 of financial support to low- and middle-income countries for the Covax initiative through Unicef. Given our very strong relative Covid performance and the multimillion-pound cost to taxpayers of the pandemic, in reality this is a small gesture to the less fortunate in the global community, but nonetheless a welcome one.

There will also be some Rule 11 questions to committee presidents. I am guessing Deputy Gollop has lodged some – not from any inside knowledge but simply because he always does.

Deputy Kazantseva-Miller has also published a number she has lodged to Health & Social Care in relation to where that committee is up to with developing the Combined Substance Misuse Strategy (previously, the Tobacco Control Strategy and the Drug and Alcohol Strategy). Given the perennial interest in sentencing, particularly in relation to cannabis offences compared with other criminal offences, I wouldn’t be surprised if the supplementary questions start touching on sentencing policy. This is always a touchy topic, given the separation between politicians, in whose power it is to make the law and set the penalty framework for each offence, and the judiciary, whose job it is to apply the law and determine an appropriate penalty given the facts of each case.

I have a Rule 11 question to Home Affairs. It was prompted by a victim of crime who approached me with their experience. One of the great privileges of my current role is having the capacity to home in on a topic in a way that is simply not feasible if you are leading a committee with all the demands and distractions that entails.

It is a simple question on quite a technical matter: in essence, will the committee look again at the wording of the police caution given when an individual is arrested and interviewed?

The law was changed in England and Wales nearly 30 years ago to allow, in appropriate circumstances, for ‘adverse inferences’ to be drawn from the accused’s silence in interview. For example, in a sexual offences case, an accused might remain silent during the first police interview, but when later confronted with forensic evidence putting them at the scene, put forward a defence of consent. In England and Wales, the jury are entitled to consider whether the defendant’s conduct at the first interview undermines their credibility. Guernsey did consider adopting a similar change many years ago but decided quite late in the policy-making process not to do so. Given the passage of time and with the benefit of years of experience in England and Wales, it is reasonable to consider its application afresh in Guernsey.

I hope that Deputy Prow, the president of Home Affairs, will therefore be confirming that his committee will ensure that it is one of the matters they will consider in the Justice Review.

The two routine committee statements this month are from Environment & Infrastructure and Education, Sport & Culture. Following these, deputies are entitled to ask any question of the president about any matter in their committee’s mandate, unlike a non-routine statement or Rule 11 supplementary questions, when the questions must relate to the content of the statement or the response given. Presidents must be on their game if they want to avoid sounding unprepared, incompetent or evasive.

Questions to Environment & Infrastructure often seem to default to a particular piece of granite wall or slipway but topical matters outside sometimes catch the limelight. The UK’s decision to ban the sale of peat and the implications for Guernsey could be an example of one such issue.

Education, Sport & Culture have a busy week with the briefing and publication of their plans for secondary education, but the pre-announcement that La Mare de Carteret High School will be closing may be the catalyst for several related questions. After the much-vaunted ‘extensive consultation with stakeholders’, many don’t understand how the La Mare community (staff, students and families) seemed to be the victims of yet another communications ‘faux pas’, with very limited information delivered at short notice. These stakeholders’ legitimate interest in details such as transition plans and impact on jobs cannot simply be dismissed as ‘operational matters’ on which the committee has no comment.

In the absence of any other key business or decisions for the States, questions – or more importantly, the responses to questions – are likely to prove the most interesting and challenging part of this week’s meeting.

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