Dinosaurs feel at home in Jurassic States

I WOULD like to provide an alternative perspective and insight in response to certain of the matters referred to by Deputy Roffey in his columns (28 April [Something has to give] and 10 May [Improvements for the worse?]), and in relation to certain of your reports in recent weeks.

My intent in clearly, and repeatedly, advising of our financial problems has multiple aims –

1) To let States members, the public, and more importantly officers, staff and the unions, know that there is no scope for additional budget without making savings. We have run out of runway.

2) To highlight that the reason we are where we are now is primarily not demographics or Covid but wanton ‘gold plated’ decision making by former Assemblies and uncontrolled growth of government spending with open disregard for how annual repeating costs can be met, other than by a lazy resort to raising tax at some indeterminate point.

3) To encourage members and the States itself that we must all focus on delivering promised savings and reducing costs where possible as well as ruthlessly prioritising and, more importantly, consistently delivering on or within budgets, rather than spending up to or beyond them and then simply demanding more money from the public.

4) To reduce or prevent the requirement for higher taxation for all of the public and to retain competitive advantage and, crucially, an unrestrained economic recovery.

I read in your pages that Deputy Roffey is upset in relation to P&R’s move to review all senior officer positions and I understand, having seen the letter he sent to a limited number of States members (not including me, obviously), is planning to get together enough deputies for a requete against P&R with a view to giving all committees a free hand to continue the unconstrained escalator of spiralling cost and spend. This is because he believes P&R is ‘drunk on non-existent power’ and creating ‘cabinet via the back door’. The alternative perspective could perhaps be described as ‘doing a proper job’ or ‘prudent financial oversight’.

The primary reason for P&R’s reviews on senior roles is to fulfil its legal and mandated position as employer of all States employees. It is intended to create challenge and oversight of the process and terms and conditions as well as questioning and balancing need, and decision making, with the objective of stopping costs continuing to rise in an uncontrolled fashion.

Why is this important? Well, despite repeated promises of cost savings, the States’ annual salary costs between 2010 and 2020 rose by £61m. At more than £250m. per year, salaries are the biggest cost of government.

The public will no doubt be appalled that despite significant and obviously mounting financial problems, even in the last year alone from May 2020 to date there were 21 new appointments at Senior Officer 1 or above in the States (i.e. all at salaries more than £53k) – that is more than £1.2m. of new annual salary cost for these new posts alone.

This is unsustainable, and is happening primarily because our system of government allows every committee and their staff to do largely as they wish without any visibility or accountability to members of the Assembly, P&R, any other committee, or the public. Some members apparently like it this way.

The only other way for P&R to otherwise bring this state of affairs under control within this system of government would be to simply go to war with all committees and impose budget cuts, i.e. austerity. But that would of course result in (again uncontrollable) front line service reduction and disruption to elicit public pressure, union action and sympathy, whilst at the same time preventing any real cultural change or reduction in costs. The means of reduction of staffing cost is, unsurprisingly, cumbersome, lengthy, unionised and very expensive in comparison with the private sector.

We have allowed the creation of a monster – a ‘Jurassic Park’ government structure which is self-perpetuating and sustaining and almost uncontrollable and opaque from a cost perspective, but one where dinosaurs feel at home. The key issue is that there is a very big financial difference between exercising committee discretion to buy pencils or medical equipment from a budget once in a while and the uncontrolled hiring of expensive, permanent staff and thereby binding the whole States, and more importantly the public who pay for it, to an ever-escalating cost year-on-year without any challenge.

The point that ‘committees know best’ is only partly true – because every new employee is a cost to the whole of government and the public, not just a single committee, and individual committee members have no way of knowing the demand or priority in other areas. The lack of any central coordination, challenge or sensible oversight and prioritisation is the very approach which has brought us to the ruinous current position where the only way is up, whatever the underlying financial situation.

The majority of roles reviewed by P&R since the change in process have been accepted, but a handful have not. The idea that any politician might support a suggestion that P&R should not even question or challenge the island’s largest and fastest rising cost, and that nobody should be accountable or responsible for managing it, especially during a period of extreme financial stress, simply beggars belief.

It is P&R’s primary role to budget, lead and coordinate and it cannot fulfil that role in a governmental system which permits financial anarchy for which our children and grandchildren will be paying the bill.

Deputy Mark Helyar

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