‘There is no mandate for slash and burn’
Deputy Peter Roffey was on P&R’s side during the tax debate, but he doesn’t think slashing expenditure is the way forward.
THE Policy and Resources Committee’s own data is quite clear. Guernsey spends less, per head of population, on public services than any comparator jurisdiction – bar Sark. So less per head than large countries such as the UK, despite our obvious and massive dis-economies of scale. And less per head than our closest comparators, and competitors, such as Jersey and the Isle of Man.
Against that backdrop, P&R’s latest wizard wheeze, to balance the States’ books through large reductions in expenditure, seems destined to go one of two ways. Either it will utterly fail to achieve its objective. Or it will succeed, but only by removing, or curtailing, or charging for, the sort of services which make our community civilised.
Before going any further I should say two things.
Firstly there are savings to be had, and economies to be realised, within Guernsey’s public sector. Of course there are. No organisation the size of the States can honestly claim that they can’t identify any inefficiencies to be addressed.
The trouble is that the quantum of such savings is far more modest than ‘saloon bar wisdom’ would have you believe. If Guernsey’s public sector really is awash with legions of underworked ‘pen pushers and bean counters’ then how does that square with our government taxing less and spending less than our comparators?
The reality is very different. Hardworking public servants, and a public sector which is stretched to the point where both effectiveness and morale are at risk. Just because something is repeated often enough doesn’t make it true.
The second thing I should say at this stage is that in some ways I can’t really blame P&R for their blunt messaging – even if I dissent from it.
They showed political courage and told both the States and the community the hard facts of life. The profound impacts of our changing demographics were pushing up the cost of government massively. We needed either to increase government revenues by many tens of millions of pounds per year, or public services would need to be drastically curtailed.
The States didn’t buy that. Members called what they (presumably) saw as P&R’s bluff and now P&R is reciprocating. That’s human nature. Effectively the States is being told ‘You choked at balancing the books one way, now you are going to have to do it in the other way’.
In some ways that is fair enough – all I would say is that there is a fine dividing line between a healthy dose of realism and out-and-out petulance. I hope P&R stays on the right side of that line but somehow I find it hard to convince myself that they will.
Personally I am taking a middle line. I was with P&R 100% in the tax debate and shared their deep disappointment at the outcome. However, I feel the right response is to try to steer the course of compromise.
Yes, that means looking for savings but there were £10m. worth in the rejected package, so how much higher can we realistically go? It also means banking those revenue increases, which a majority did support – while pointing out they will be nowhere near enough to square the circle.
Lastly it means ongoing political debate to try to find an agreed way forward. While only 15 members may have backed P&R’s preferred option, frankly that was far more than I would have predicted a year earlier. So there has been progress through dialogue and that needs to continue.
To over-react to a disappointing outcome by suddenly digging the trenches for a war of the ideologies will benefit no one. If it does get all ideological, if P&R insists ‘If you won’t raise taxes then spending must be slashed instead’, where will that take us?
It could lead to some sensible re-examination of policy. Such as the best way to get the biggest bang for our educational buck. If so then ‘hurrah’, but I somehow doubt it.
We are more likely to see such suggestions as – those who have paid into the pension scheme for decades should be denied any pension just because they are wealthy enough to survive without it. That would be a travesty and a clear breach of promise. Our States pension is already highly redistributive, with those on high incomes paying in far more, but getting the same out.
Then my real fear is what might be done for those on lower incomes. For example, in recent years our health service has definitely been a two-tier system, with poorer households being denied access to the same care as the well-to-do.
The failure to fund the same modern drugs as patients enjoy in the UK was a classic example. Those who could afford private medical insurance were prescribed the newer medicines while States patients were not.
Thank goodness that is now being addressed but the long waiting lists in our health service these days are creating a new divide. It’s true that private patients could always jump the queue, but when target waiting times were being met, that was no big deal. These days the experience of being a public patient, waiting ages for your turn for treatment, can be light years away from the experience of those who can afford to go private.
My point? Strict spending constraints can only serve to exacerbate these issues.
And then there is ‘welfare’. The assistance our government provides to those islanders who are either working hard in lower paid jobs, or else who are prevented from working because of illness, disability or caring responsibilities. We know there has been a section within this States who seemingly hate the very concept of the financially strong helping those of lesser means. What a field day the new P&R narrative will give them in suggesting cuts in support to islanders in real need.
I will obviously resist any such moves as strongly as I can, as I hope a majority of members will. But this does seem to be a game of ‘chicken’ or of ‘consequences’. A face-off between P&R and those they regard as ‘the other side’. I just hope that innocent islanders are not hurt in the crossfire.
My message to P&R is simple. And to the rest of the States for that matter. Option A may have been defeated but Option C was too. There is no mandate for slash and burn. So let’s all be adult and try to find a middle ground.