This week’s meeting is going to feel a little strange.
Firstly, because of the current wave of Covid infections, it is the first meeting since the October 2020 General Election to be held in St James to ensure good social distancing can be maintained.
Secondly, a number of members will be absent, in another first, as they isolate and recover – hopefully speedily – from Covid.
Thirdly, it will be the last meeting to be attended by the Lt-Governor Vice Admiral Sir Ian Corder before he and Lady Corder depart the island.
The meeting itself will be short as the ‘order paper’ or agenda is very light. In fact, it really can’t go beyond the first day, as we’ve already been advised that St James is unavailable for the following day.
The meeting will begin, as ever, with two ‘routine’ committee statements. These are organised by rotation and this time it is the presidents of Employment & Social Security and the Development & Planning Authority who will be on their feet. Each statement is limited to 10 minutes, with up to 20 minutes for members to ask questions that may touch any part of the committee’s mandate.
Then it’s question time for committee presidents, which can last up to an hour. These questions must be submitted a week in advance, giving the committee’s staff a chance to prep a response for their president. This must be provided to the member asking the question the night before the States meeting. While asking and answering the original question is a theatrical charade, any member can ask two supplementary questions which arise out of the original answer given. In practice, these ‘supplementaries’ often stray into other territory, if members can get away with it without the presiding officer intervening.
LISTEN TO HELEN BOWDITCH & SIMON DE LA RUE'S BITE-SIZED STATES MEETING PREVIEW:
Generally, other than those asking the questions, deputies are aware only of the topic in advance, not the detailed question and response. So, this part of the meeting can be unpredictable and often provides moments of genuine spontaneity. Given this, I can’t tell you what questions will be asked – other than by me.
As a decision maker, frankly, I used to find question time a bit of an irritation. And as I once did, I suspect I’m now regarded as a bit of an irritation by those whom I question, but as a backbencher, questions have become a vital tool in my limited toolbox to probe and help raise the profile of issues of concern to the public. For that reason, I do submit questions ahead of most meetings – and this one is no different.
I have lodged a number of questions to Deputy Rob Prow, the president of Home Affairs, relating to ‘spiking’ of drinks in night time venues, which has been given profile following last Friday’s ‘Girls Night In’ campaign, following alarming reports from the UK of the use of hypodermic needles. Everyone, male or female, should feel entitled to go out without feeling anxiety at the prospect of becoming someone else’s target. It is clear, though, from the anecdotal experiences shared with me by members of the public that there is no reason to believe that Guernsey is immune to this kind of behaviour by an aberrant few. It is encouraging that several night-time venues are taking the campaign seriously and let’s hope others join them. It is also good news that law enforcement has said that they will shortly be unveiling some initiatives to respond to the problem. It will be interesting to see what these are, but I also hope it means that we will learn from the responses to my questions that the Committee for Home Affairs are fully on board too.
There is also provision to seek the presiding officer’s permission to allow an ‘urgent question’ with less than seven days’ notice. This is infrequently used, not least because it must relate to something of an ‘urgent character’ or that has only become known in the preceding seven days. I have requested to ask just such a question in relation to a very odd media release pushed out last Wednesday by Education, Sport & Culture, not quoting a politician but the Director of Education, Nick Hynes. Odd because he told us that there are ‘significant risks’ to the delivery timetable to implement the new model of secondary and post-16 education by September 2024 but then said everyone is working jolly hard to that date anyway. The president of the committee, Deputy Dudley-Owen, had said as much in October in response to ‘supplementaries’ on her committee’s statement. There are obvious questions that need asking about the many impacts a delay of one, two or more years would have, for example on costs – both capital spending on the buildings and the annual running costs.
We are then due to elect a new member of the Committee for Home Affairs following Deputy Marc Leadbeater’s resignation after five years’ service. Deputy Leadbeater was not one of Deputy Prow’s picks at the beginning of this term and was foisted on to the committee by the Assembly, so it is perhaps little surprise that Deputy Leadbeater then found himself side-lined, which is the reason he cited for his resignation. I have not heard that there will be any candidate other than that presented by the committee – but there is still time.
There are three ‘appendix reports’ laid at this meeting – a review of States’ members’ induction training, the Public Trustee’s annual report and accounts for 2020 and the same from the Office of the Data Protection Authority. As no motions have been lodged by any member seeking to debate any of these, they will not be discussed.
So that only leaves two substantive items of business to deal with, both of which come from Home Affairs. One is quite a technical policy letter recommending legislative changes relating mainly to financial crime. The policy letter is, in essence, a re-presentation of a letter from HM Comptroller (effectively, the Bailiwick’s solicitor-general.) These kinds of policy letter normally go through with little debate and on the nod and I would expect this one to be little different.
The other is only six pages long but is actually very significant. It is recommending establishing and legislating for yet another statutory post, the director of the Economic and Financial Crime Bureau. The policy letter is completely silent on the (significant) costs of doing so. No doubt, it will be argued, if challenged, that is because the costs have all been debated and approved in the States’ Budget, but the policy letter would have been better had it sought to draw all the strands together, including the fact that Home Affairs is budgeting for 25 more full-time equivalent staff next year as a result.
Why on earth is the States expanding like this in an age, we are told, of austerity? Moneyval, is the answer. This is an organisation that you may never have heard of, but it is due to inspect the Bailiwick in 2023 to evaluate our fitness and capacity to pursue and prosecute financial crime commensurate with the scale of our financial services industry. Each time they pitch up, their standards and expectations have been ratcheted up a little higher and our major industry cannot afford the jurisdiction to fall short.
Which reminds me, I wonder how that red tape audit is getting on?