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Thanks, Education, for highlighting island’s hidden crisis

Richard Digard | Published:

YOU might not be aware of it, but we’re currently experiencing the biggest crisis of government since 2007 when what was known as Fallagate later led to the resignation of the then Policy Council.

(Picture by Shutterstock)

The current difficulty is not of the same magnitude and, fortunately for all of us, doesn’t compromise the States’ ability to function. But it is nevertheless inherently grave.

To sidetrack a bit, what happens if an entire committee or department turns rogue? Goes mad, starts spending money it hasn’t got, won’t make savings it can, starts trying to deceive taxpayers and loses all trust from islanders and fellow deputies?

That’s the slow-motion train wreck we’re experiencing now as Education, Sport & Culture disintegrates under the weight of its members’ complete lack of judgement.

Apologies to those concerned if that sounds unkind – I’m not criticising them individually because they are all good people – but under the States (Reform) (Guernsey) Law, 2015, they are judged by their collective actions.

I was going to say, ‘…and held to account…’, but that’s what this whole crisis is about.

Before I explain why, the significance of it was put into context by the chief minister after Education’s backfired black ops plan – the now-resigned Carl Meerveld creatively described it as guerrilla marketing – was exposed by this newspaper.

Deputy Gavin St Pier used terms like ‘understandable strength of feeling about the matter’, ‘failings’ and not undermining the progress the States as a whole has been making in improving the way it communicates with islanders.

The strongest, however, was this: ‘It is important that the scrutiny process not only reviews the facts but also rebuilds trust in the States in general and the Committee for Education, Sport & Culture in particular.’

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So at a glance you can see it’s serious.

A crisis though? I’d argue emphatically it is, even though it might not feel like it. The simple reason is that we can all see Education imploding – two schools will cost £100m. more than three schools, the president screamed the other day and expected to be taken seriously – but can do nothing about it.

Ponder that for a moment, if you will. A committee responsible for a £74m. budget and future generations of our children and grandchildren is failing before our eyes and the States is powerless.

That’s why Deputy Gavin St Pier was so direct in his statements – to set the scene and gravity of the situation – but also to support the Scrutiny Management Committee, which held its emergency grilling of Education on Friday.

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Under chairman Chris Green, the SMC is becoming more effective with every hearing it holds, but it’s telling you a lot about the system we have that the chief minister has in effect to outsource discipline and oversight of States governance to a third party.

Remember, Education ignored advice from its own officers and member David Delisle that it couldn’t, shouldn’t, must not spend money it didn’t have on black ops. And that was before anyone sat down to consider the wisdom of trying to mislead people into backing their proposals.

These are proposals, remember, that four deputies say are so muddle-headed that they have to be challenged and replaced with a two-school model that Policy & Resources agreed required £93,000-worth of investigation to produce what amounts to a rival policy letter.

So no one thinking straight could possibly believe that a clandestine Facebook campaign to secure a three-school model was appropriate for an agency of the States of Guernsey. Yet Education did and would have gone ahead with it. Except they were found out.

We entrust the development of our young people’s minds and good husbandry of multiple millions to them and they have demonstrated themselves to be, as Deputy St Pier put it, unworthy of that trust.

And there’s nothing we can do about it, other than hope Scrutiny can shame them out of office which, from this week’s rather bland SMC statement, they have failed to do.

So it’s further evidence that the system of government we have still isn’t fit for purpose – a view I know Scrutiny’s Deputy Green shares – but it also goes further than that.

Education demonstrates that the taxpayer and the principles of good governance are entirely dependent on the elected committee running the department and that guidance from officials and Policy & Resources can be ignored with impunity.

As the cost and complexity of government increases, so do the obligations and responsibilities on deputies. Yet the way we try to recruit the right people to positions of enormous influence and keep them there hasn’t changed for 70 years.

And that’s the real creeping crisis facing this island.

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