Guernsey Press

Peter Roffey: A one-off or habit?

The revelation that politicians had been kept in the dark about the spiralling costs associated with the PEH redevelopment has vexed Deputy Peter Roffey, but he says it shouldn’t be allowed to tarnish the reputation of Guernsey’s civil service as a whole.


The great PEH cost estimate scandal has spawned two big questions.

The first is what went wrong in this particular instance? The second is whether Guernsey’s civil servants are in the habit of keeping their politicians in the dark about important stuff?

Let’s start with the specific. I’m sure I am far from alone among deputies in spitting feathers over being misled over this matter.

For a start, it means that I (and colleagues) supported the PEH phase two development being included in the States’ limited capital portfolio on the basis of false information. Information that some officers within HSC knew to be false.

It is one thing when an honest estimate proves to have been wrong when it comes to the crunch. But to wilfully massage figures is unforgivable.

I only hope the reason the true picture wasn’t revealed to politicians at the time is down to ham-fisted incompetence, and not a desire to understate the costs involved in order to get political approval. We shall hopefully find out as a spotlight continues to be shone on this whole sorry episode.

However, I am sure I am not alone among my colleagues in feeling that ‘estimate-gate’ was actually even worse than just having the wrong figures in the policy letter for one of the most important debates of this political term.

In the run-up to the debate, HSC invited all States members to a briefing in the Emma Ferbrache room at the PEH. That presentation was clearly aimed at persuading us to include the hospital modernisation project in the capital portfolio. Nothing wrong with that. Just HSC fighting their corner. But we now know we had been dragged there to be spoon-fed, among other things, quite spurious financial information.

In short, we were being invited to make a big political decision on the basis of a false prospectus. And we went on to do so.

Would I have voted any differently if the cost envelope had been £150m. instead of £120m.? I don’t know. Probably not, because knowing what is coming down the road in terms of healthcare demands I don’t really see that we can afford not to carry out this project. But that really isn’t the point. A politician’s job (as the name implies) is to determine policy. But how the heck can they do that on the basis of false data?

In the absence of proof to the contrary, I have to fully accept the only people who knew the financial information being provided to States members was faulty were a limited number of relative junior officers. That said, it really is an odd one because it runs counter to all my experience of human nature for them not to refer such obviously major problems further up the command chain.

Enough said on this incident for now – to say that I am very vexed would be litotes. Let’s move on to whether instances of civil servants keeping politicians in the dark is a more general problem?

I genuinely don’t think so. Although it’s a truism that I wouldn’t know about things being hidden from me. They would be unknown unknowns.

That said, you get a feel for an institutional culture and I don’t think that of the Guernsey civil service is particularly secretive.

I have been president of any number of committees over the decades and my instructions to key officers have always been clear. Obviously, it is neither possible, nor healthy, for the head of a political committee to try to stay across the minutia of everything going on in their department. But firstly I want to be kept sufficiently informed of everything significant going on to be generally ‘well across my brief’. Secondly, I specifically want to be kept in the loop about anything concerning policy development, big strategic decision making, and those smaller operation matters which clearly have the potential to ‘become political’.

Has this instruction always been followed to the letter by my officers? No, but when I have been caught out it has largely been due to ‘faulty antennae’ for things which may have a political element rather than because things were wilfully being hidden from me.

I really hope that one casualty of the PEH scandal won’t be the reputation of Guernsey’s civil service as a whole. My honest opinion, and experience, is that much of the flack they receive from saloon bar critics is completely unjustified. Sadly, in this instance, a small number of their colleagues have simply ingrained that public narrative in a most unfortunate way.

Finally, talking of politicians allegedly being kept in the dark, there was one aspect of the March States meeting which had me scratching my head in puzzlement. That was the reply which Deputy Inder gave to Deputy Gabriel over the Leopardess being unusable because it didn’t have a small commercial vessel (CCC) licence.

Listening to Deputy Inder, one would have thought this had come like a bolt from the blue. The reality is somewhat different. Here are the facts.

The code for small commercial vessels was introduced in Guernsey in May 2019 – nearly five years ago. All such vessels (private and states-owned) then had two years in which to get a code compliance certificate. In the case of the Leopardess, two year-long, temporary exemptions were then subsequently issued – the last one ran out in April last year.

Finally, another exemption was issued on the very clear understanding that it was only being provided on the basis that the Economic Development Committee undertook to get the required survey of the vessel to achieve code compliance.

Far from politicians being kept in the dark about this matter, Deputy Inder actually questioned me about it in the States on 5 July last year and it was fully reported in the media. Why the required action to make the Leopardess code compliant has seemingly still not been taken I have no idea.