Questions, not criticism

Deputy Gavin St Pier looks ahead to what’s on the agenda at this week’s States meeting.

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(30847199)

ONE of the unusual behaviours of this particular States of Deliberation – by which I mean the individuals who make it up, rather than as a collective body – is many members appear to misunderstand (or, perhaps, prefer to mischaracterise) as opposition any attempts to scrutinise policy or hold peers to account.

By way of example, in this week’s States’ meeting, I have laid two questions which seek to engage the policy ball without playing the individual.

The first is a simple question asking for an update to be provided on progress in developing and rolling out a local homes for Ukraine sponsor scheme.

There have been a number of generic media releases, including one last week, which have indicated that slow progress is being made working through the consequences of such a scheme. Consequently, there may be very little which the Committee for Home Affairs wishes to add this week in the Assembly, but that does not make the question either irrelevant or a personal attack. Given that 13 weeks have now elapsed since the full-blown invasion of Ukraine by Russia, and nearly 300 local homes have expressed interest in sponsoring Ukrainians seeking sanctuary, it is entirely reasonable that the parliamentary assembly is the appropriate place in which the government’s executive is questioned and scrutinised on progress. The advantage of doing so by way of oral question during a States meeting is that it opens up the topic for discussion by enabling all members – not just the member who laid the question – to ask supplementary questions, which is a level of scrutiny that cannot be provided when a government media release is sent out.

My second question is to the Committee for Economic Development. This arises from correspondence shared with all States members in relation to the committee’s decision not to provide any production finance to enable the Toilers Of The Sea film to be made in the island. That is a perfectly valid decision with which anyone can agree or disagree, but given the public interest in the matter, it is also a decision that should be quite capable of being questioned or even challenged publicly without that being seen as an attempt to impugn the decision-makers.

Yet again, the real meat of this meeting is pretty lean with only two substantive pieces of business. Firstly, Home Affairs is bringing forward the justice framework which began – albeit late – in the last term. It’s a pretty high level set of principles and ambitions (or ‘outcomes’, in the language of the policy letter) with the detail to follow in due course in a ‘Justice Action Plan’.

To its credit, it’s the first step on a journey to recognising that justice extends beyond criminal justice into social justice and so engages the whole of government, not merely Home Affairs – albeit it hasn’t gone so far as to recognise, for example, concepts of economic or environmental justice. In an example of how a deputy can challenge policy with the aim of improving it, I have laid an amendment which is being seconded by the president of the committee.

Deputy Prow, and I disagree on many policy matters, as our voting records attest, but we have a perfectly functional, professional relationship which enables us to have regular, civilised policy discussions – and that enabled me to articulate my concerns on the propositions in the policy letter. In dialogue, we negotiated the compromise language of the amendment. This seeks to improve subsequent parliamentary scrutiny of the Justice Action Plan by ensuring it’s published at least every other year. It also introduces language into the propositions which recognises that when it comes to criminal justice, the public have concerns about the speed of justice, sentencing policy for different types of offence and the number of successful prosecutions for sexual offences.

While I am pleased for the committee’s engagement and support for the amendment, the key point is that even if it had not been possible to obtain their agreement, laying an opposed amendment should not be characterised as personal criticism of a committee’s members.

The only other significant piece of business is the final stage of the plans to introduce secondary pensions on top of the States pension, for those who do not have other private pension arrangements.

This plan originated out of the last tax review in 2015 as a way to relieve long-term pressure on future generations of taxpayers supporting those who are under-provided-for in their retirement. The idea is a straight lifting of the plan introduced in the UK by the Conservative-led government in the early 2010s. It relies on the theory that if you nudge people to ‘do the right thing’ – in this case, provide for their retirement – most will. By auto-enrolling everyone into the new scheme (if they don’t already have other provision) then inertia means most will not exercise their right to opt out of the scheme.

Curiously in light of the scheme’s pedigree, the political group who don’t like the concept are those furthest to the right on Guernsey’s political spectrum. They seem to regard it as an interference in business – which, of course, it is – and an affront to libertarianism and the right of the individual not to provide for their old age, if they so choose. Even if those who subscribe to that view might think the individual retiree should sink or swim as a result of their personal financial planning decisions during their working life, in practice a failure to be adequately provided for will burden everyone else.

A footnote to the meeting will be a policy letter entitled ‘Minimum Standards for Estate Agencies’. For all those who rail against the ratcheting of regulation this ought to be a red flag, but in fact it will sail through unopposed and unamended. Why? Because it’s another layer in our anti-money laundering defences required of us ahead of our impending inspection by the international regulator, Moneyval – this time extending regulation to estate agents.

All those who promised a glorious bonfire of red tape will need to bite their tongues and hope that no one notices as they vote to create more regulation rather than roll it back.

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