Home takes head-in-sand approach to critical reports

HOME AFFAIRS has failed – and it has been costly both socially and financially.

Deputy Mary Lowe. (25101637)
Deputy Mary Lowe. (25101637)

The causes of this have now been spelled out in two independent reports that are firmly in danger of being ignored as deputies dive into protective bunkers, splitting on familiar pro- or anti-Policy & Resources lines.

They are hurt that their or their colleagues’ abilities have been questioned so abruptly – turning it into a power struggle between the political class and the public sector, which they are desperately trying to paint as needing to be reined in and controlled despite any supporting public evidence, something designed to appeal to the perceived expectation of voters.

Home Affairs’ committee members have done the sums if it came to a no confidence vote after the governance review and decided to fight to protect their reputations – they have also found comforting support in the echo chamber in which they surround themselves.

The failures detailed in both the HMIC review and now the Staite report would never have been accepted in previous administrations.

There would have been accountability – and it would have been a swift mea culpa, people taking the responsibility for their actions and wanting to see improvement, however much that hurt them personally.

I’d ask those who do not accept what senior staff have told the independent reviewer about behaviour that you would not expect from leaders – about politicians incapable of delivering strategy but readily diving into operational issues – who believe the review is poorly researched and demand more evidence, to look at the record of this committee.

Because it is the consequences of those actions that provide all the evidence you need for the current board to all go.

For some, a committee that does nothing is almost the perfect answer – but this committee’s intransigence has damaged the community and will have lasting effects.

I can hear the board members sharpening their quills in response, screaming Brexit Brexit Brexit, or maybe population management, or data protection, but they would recognise that actually this is taking credit for largely operational work I’m sure.

So let me respond with justice policy.

Guernsey’s current arrangements may have been fit for purpose for when the board members were growing up – they are not for 2019 and that was widely recognised when they took up responsibility in 2016.

Except, it seems, by the board – who have done nothing of consequence until it was far too late and the pressure had made their head-in-the-sand approach untenable.

Why does this matter?

Well, it means that Guernsey has the second highest rate of incarceration in Europe, with all the costs and social consequences that brings.

We are a safe, low-crime jurisdiction with a prison that last year was bursting at the seams and researching how to send prisoners off to Jersey.

Locking up people unnecessarily has far-reaching consequences, on the individual say for job prospects, on their then broken families and children, which then has knock-on effects which other committees of the States have to pick up.

We have sexual offences legislation so outdated that grooming is not an offence.

Tools that are well used and established elsewhere are still not available in Guernsey, such as electronic tagging.

But don’t worry, because the board backed a drone defence system at the prison – a nice to have that generates headlines but is a pretty pointless toy.

What about the financial control demonstrated by the board?

Last year alone it failed to deliver any savings required of it in the budget.

Not one.

Nothing.

That is £350,000 that has just been ignored because it was too difficult.

In total, it recorded a £534,000 overspend last year, but this could have been a lot worse had it not been for a £383,000 underspend by the population management arm, which benefited from the volume of paid-for applications which far exceeded expectations – that was not because of good strategic leadership.

The committee has on its table readily identified savings initiatives, such as merging fire and ambulance, but stubbornly refused to progress them.

Debate around the Staite report needs to be refocused about whether Home Affairs has achieved positive change this term, whether it has created an environment in which its staff can work effectively.

One sentence on p13 of the report sums this up: ‘none of the staff interviewees were able to identify any significant strategic achievements on the part of the committee over the past three years’.

Supporters of the committee have made great hay by throwing mud, casting doubt and sowing distractions, whether that is around whether there is a conflict of interest because of the author’s marriage to the States of Alderney chief executive, or a focus on who was interviewed rather than the pattern of what was said.

This Assembly is in its third year and, as evidenced by farcical proceedings last week infested with hubris, an inflated sense of their abilities and a desperation to prove that they know more than the senior staff who advise them.

There is a growing and worrying dynamic of a desire to be in charge of everything, to be driving the bus rather than setting the policy that dictates what kind of bus service we have.

Put simply, too many of our States members have no clear idea of what it is to be a politician.

Deputies have everything to gain by creating an environment of distrust in the abilities of the senior echelons of the public sector as we enter the election cycle, to turn attention away from their own failings, to blame others, to create a narrative of needing to be there – it is faux accountability.

But at Home Affairs, there is an environment that is simply not conducive to staff being able to do their jobs as well as possible, to deliver services effectively.

It had at the start of this year 60 priorities, a clear sign that, three years on, it has no focus.

The committee is not alone in this type of muddled thinking, but it is on the extremes.

There will be no decisions made on justice policy this term.

The Staite report tells us that none of the committee members expressed concern about the way the criminal justice system operates or the number or types of people that are imprisoned – several senior staff rightly feel very differently.

So let’s move on from arguments about the language in the report, shocking as the feelings of bullying and harassment are, or about allowing anonymity, and make a decision on this board’s future based around whether it is acceptable to have a complete lack of strategy, to be unwilling to countenance savings ideas or come up with alternatives, or not to budge on the key recommendations of HMIC to create and stick to lines of accountability in law enforcement, something that has now been reflected elsewhere in its other services.

To sit back and allow this to continue will simply infest the next administration with patterns of behaviour that are dangerous and not in the public interest.

Our community depends on stable and effective leadership, not political egos running amok.

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