Guernsey Press

Tinkering around the edges

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


IF YOU are thinking to yourself, ‘Hasn’t he only just written a column?’, you’d be right.

At this time of year, States’ meetings come thick and fast, and it’s only been two weeks since the last one. It can be a challenge for States’ members to keep on top of the right papers for the right meetings, while keeping in mind different deadlines to lodge questions or amendments. My commitment to write this column ahead of each meeting is a double-edged sword. It’s something else that needs to be timetabled, but it also helps ensure focus.

This meeting is likely to last the full scheduled three days. It kicks off with a meeting of the States of Election to find a new jurat, followed by statements from the States’ Trading Supervisory Board and the Transport Licensing Authority. The only reminder of the authority’s continued existence is this annual diary commitment. After question time, there is a raft of legislation for approval. The majority of this relates to ongoing revisions in preparation for the 2024 Moneyval inspection.

There is one item of legislation, which would not normally be debated, that might yet prove controversial. This is an ordinance approved in April by the Policy & Resources Committee using their emergency powers. It’s a relatively short and narrow piece of tinkering with the rights of insurance policyholders to ensure they rank higher up the pecking order of debtors in the event of an insurer going belly up. By law, P&R will need to have satisfied themselves that the use of their special powers was ‘necessary or expedient in the public interest’. Ordinances approved in this way are simply ‘laid’ before the Assembly, with no vote being taken. However, Deputy Trott and I have lodged a motion to ensure the legislation is debated, not because we disagree with it, but because we believe as a fundamental principle, changing people’s property rights should be subject to open public scrutiny and approval. After all, historically, the protection of property rights is one of the reasons parliamentary democracies emerged.

We don’t have any criticism of the Guernsey Financial Services Commission and P&R who appear to have acted promptly and proportionately in the public interest. However, it seems that the need to make the change in the legislation was first identified as far back as 2010 and despite repeated requests by the GFSC for action to be considered, none was taken.

Politicians can act, as P&R have now done, if they are informed of a problem’s existence. They cannot take action if they don’t know about it. I was not made aware of the issue during my time at the top table. So there are legitimate questions for the body politic to ask, that would otherwise risk being swept under the carpet without a debate.

Having identified the need for change, why was it not actioned? Given the risk has clearly now been proven by P&R to exist, why was it not recognised earlier? Why was the matter not elevated? Most importantly, what or how many other similar issues may be out there? The only way we can ensure a debate and vote is taken is by bringing a ‘motion to annul’ the whole ordinance. This is unfortunate, as we don’t want to do that and will vote against our own motion, which is just odd. (That is an ancillary matter that we have now asked the States’ Assembly & Constitution Committee to consider amending for the future).

Employment & Social Security’s proposals to raise the minimum wage by 11.5% may meet a political headwind in the Assembly, given that the proposals are not supported by Economic Development, notwithstanding the support from the majority of businesses consulted. No amendments have appeared for a lesser increase, so the recommendation will either be voted through in full or not at all. This might suggest that ED’s objection is tokenistic – it’s something they feel they should do, in the knowledge that it will probably go through anyway. For the rest of the States, especially in an era of high inflation, the reality is that for those businesses who do not pay a higher enough rate, some of their employees may end up having to be topped up with taxpayer-funded income support. In that case, the political trade-off (and cost) lies between business and taxpayers.

P&R’s policy letter on East Coast Development is a beast to read – 71 pages, essentially of process to do no more than approve the four directors of the new development agency, give it some very high level objectives and to agree the terms of reference for its ‘Political Oversight Group’. It’s repetitious and gives examples of various proposed, overlapping agreements – a memorandum of understanding, a grant funding agreement and a service level agreement. These are padded out by some reassuring but superfluous directions, such as the agency should comply with ‘any relevant legislation’ while identifying four ‘key performance indicators’, including the preparation of an interim business plan, a business and funding plan, a key infrastructure delivery programme and an annual report. That’s a whole lot of planning and reporting and not a lot of action this term (let alone this day).

The greatest disappointment and failure is the kicking of the one key task for P&R into the next term, namely determining a major component of the whole area, the future requirements for the harbours. The States had a good-to-go plan before them in June 2021 but rejected it. Effectively five critical years will have been wasted before this key issue is back before the next Assembly. It is decisions such as this and the earlier one this term to pause and (non) review secondary education that underpin Guernsey’s inability to invest enough in infrastructure.

More positively on the infrastructure front, Environment & Infrastructure’s policy letter on the Electricity Strategy is an exemplar. It’s clear, concise and easy to read. Whether or not you agree with E&I’s propositions, they have set out and evidenced their thinking and how they reached their conclusions. E&I (and its predecessor) which had been for so many years in previous Assemblies the scapegoat of any public dissatisfaction with railings or any other part of the public realm has, during this term, been out of the limelight for all the right reasons. It has been delivering its mandate with quiet confidence and competence.

P&R had proposed debating this policy letter in September. Was that because their ‘alternative energy sub-group’ has an alternative plan? No amendments have been lodged yet. Given the near universal support for E&I’s recommendations, including from most in the sector and the island’s business groups, it is difficult to see what credible, evidenced alternative strategies could be worked into an amendment, but there is still plenty of time for someone to have a go – or at least to tinker with it enough to eviscerate the whole strategy. Keep a watchful eye out for such moves.

The States’ meeting after this one is only two weeks away, so be forewarned to expect another column sooner than you might think.