Staite of the nation

PRETEND, for a moment, THAT report on Deputy Mary Lowe and her colleagues on the Home Affairs committee hadn’t savaged the living daylights out of them. Or that the same expert, impartial reviewer hadn’t given Health & Social Care the all-clear.

The Home Affairs Committee. Left to right: Deputies Marc Leadbeater, Rob Prow, Mary Lowe, Victoria Oliver and Richard Graham. (Picture by Peter Frankland, 25034936)
The Home Affairs Committee. Left to right: Deputies Marc Leadbeater, Rob Prow, Mary Lowe, Victoria Oliver and Richard Graham. (Picture by Peter Frankland, 25034936)

Focus instead on the more serious underlying issue: that Policy & Resources is looking to see whether the creation of a States governance development programme for deputies, with supporting guidance, would be helpful – or even needed.

P&R is, literally, on a fact-finding mission and Gavin and Co are next up in the potential meat-grinder of a Catherine Staite, Emeritus Professor of Public Management, report on P&R’s own behaviours, ability and strategic focus.

Why’s it bothering? Because governance matters. Sark, for instance, risks losing its self-governing status if it can’t convince the Ministry of Justice that it can properly manage its own affairs. The same fate potentially awaits Jersey, Guernsey and Alderney, although we’re currently a lot further away from official sanction than Chief Pleas.

That said, we know we’re not exactly good at it either. Cast your mind back a decade this September and the Wales Audit Office highlighted that Guernsey didn’t tick a single box of good governance. Specifically, the States didn’t have a clear strategic direction or agreement on strategic objectives and desired outcomes or have a structure for clear corporate leadership.

No change there then.

Also, there was a lack of clarity regarding States functions and roles. Decision-making processes were unclear, protracted and not always underpinned by good quality information.

Unsurprisingly, given that heady mix of failings, the States didn’t have effective systems of accountability and scrutiny in place.

And, very relevant today given claims of Home Affairs’ bullying and harassment of staff, the States was judged by the WAO to lack appropriate mechanisms to address concerns regarding the conduct of deputies and staff.

One further thing, while good governance is widely accepted as a crucial element of organisational success, it’s not always easy to define and often hard to achieve.

Against this background, Professor Staite and, earlier, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, have both said that Home Affairs most definitely doesn’t understand good governance. In fact, its political members are off-the-scale bad at it.

So bad, in fact, that the senior civil servants involved are pretty miserable with the toxic Home environment when they go to work and at least one is looking to take early retirement simply to get away from it all.

Whether you accept Prof. Staite’s report or not, two things are beyond dispute. Firstly, the relationship between committee and staff is fatally fractured. Secondly, Home’s track record on policy formulation is non-existent.

There’s no strategic plan for law enforcement other than the one staff put in place and the criminal justice system it oversees jails an extraordinarily high number of people – almost as many pro rata as that libertarian PM Viktor Orbán bangs up in Hungary – and each one costs us £50,000 a year to accommodate.

But then this is also the committee that was offered £600,000 a year in savings by its staff but turned it down.

By my calculations, over the three years Home’s been in place, this means Mrs Lowe owes each and every one of you (and me) £46.15.

That aside, the Staite Report is more a critical test for the Assembly as a whole than it is of Home Affairs. Let me explain.

Are we, as a community, committed to the highest standards of conduct and behaviour in public office? If, as I hope, the answer is yes, then how is that policed? Part of the process has to be external, expert reviews so that we can accept them as impartial and a good indication of what’s actually going on.

‘I say, Home Affairs, how are you performing?’

‘Superbly, thank you.’

‘How do we know?’

‘We’ve just told you…’

You get the drift. So how politicians and voters respond to these reports is important. If, for instance, a committee tried to use taxpayer funds to sue a report author for defamation because she said some things the deputies disagreed with, is that more of a reflection on the report or those being assessed?

Equally, how many reviewers in future will want to experience the personal and professional attacks that Professor Staite has endured? Are we a civilised community demanding probity in public office or do we want deputies to be free to behave exactly as they please?

From an Assembly perspective, it’s rather like sitting GCSEs. Do members shrug when they don’t get the result they’d like or do they go after the examiner and shriek that the test itself was wrong/unfair/biased/lacking evidence?

This is a States that’s already divided and the ‘back her/sack her’ row over the future of Mrs Lowe will do nothing to heal those schisms. Worse, the controversy risks turning the civil service into the enemy.

Deputy Lowe’s politics are of the old school – ‘holding officials to account’ because operational detail’s more fun than big picture stuff – and it plays well with a sizeable proportion of the electorate. We need mighty States members to stand up to prodnose officials to stop the bloney bureaucrats from running the island, goes the thinking.

Well, yes, there needs to be some creative tension between policy-makers and administrators but open warfare gets no one anywhere, hence Home’s lack of strategic success because the committee has shown no interest in getting the best out of its staff.

Bafflingly, it rejects the Staite Report and refuses to resign, yet agrees to implement all its recommendations – to me, the clearest admission that the Prof. got it right. But then Home’s not exactly winning prizes for rational behaviour.

If the Assembly doesn’t demand fresh elections for the Committee for Home Affairs (whether current members get re-elected or not), the drive to improve standards in public life effectively comes to an end.

More disturbingly, it sends out a message to island-wide hopefuls in next year’s general election that being tough on civil servants – AKA abusive? – is the proper role of a People’s Deputy when it’s actually so much more than that.

The other concern is that those committed States members who do care about these things will wonder why they’re bothering to swim against the tide and call it a day.

So what happens next over the Staite Report will be a good test of whether the States of Deliberation is a mature, progressive Assembly committed to raising standards or happiest just thrashing around at parish council level. High stakes indeed.

Top Stories

More From The Guernsey Press

UK & International News