End this daft quasi-cover-up

JUST between you and me, I used to help Eric Walters with his quotes when he was a States member. One of the nicest and most socially committed deputies of his day, he was not, on his own admission, the most articulate.

 (Fer Gregory/Shutterstock)
(Fer Gregory/Shutterstock)

So interviews with him or a request for comment on something generally involved a chat and him signing off with a cheery, ‘Make something up for me would you? You know what I want to say.’

To explain, when I did, the quotes were always checked back with him so they were ‘his’ words, not mine. The benefits were his views expressed with perhaps more clarity than otherwise and the newspaper getting some great quotes.

No, I wouldn’t do it these days – for a start, the PR industry has cornered that niche – but the point I’m making is that they were different times. What was acceptable then wouldn’t be now.

Standards evolve and hopefully improve. So too do requirements: what we need from our elected representatives and, in turn, what public office requires from them in these challenging pre-Brexit times.

Ask yourself what the point of deputies is and you’ll get the sense of what I mean. Ring 999 and professionally trained and directed police or fire service personnel turn up on the doorstep despite – if you accept the HMIC and Staite reports – the politicians notionally responsible for Home Affairs being dysfunctional and strategically clueless.

If we were in a different jurisdiction, Jersey, say, or the UK, Deputy Mary Lowe, as Home president, would be long gone. The governments there wouldn’t tolerate the reputational damage caused by either of those reports.

Whether that’s a good or a bad thing depends on which camp you’re in on this but, in the absence of a Council of Ministers as in Jersey or an elected executive as in the UK, any standards or expectations of behaviour here are policed by the entire Assembly itself.

Since there are no political parties, there’s no guidance from that quarter either and, perhaps more relevant, no filtering of potential candidates. So anyone can stand for any reason and slide into a position of influence and responsibility with just one vote.

Guernsey likes it that way of course. It’s why ‘flying vet’ Maurice Kirk nearly got elected all those decades ago because many voters in St Sampson’s thought, ‘why not? He’ll liven things up a bit’.

Oddly enough, it wouldn’t have mattered had he been elected. Apart from the histrionics and time-wasting, the House was far more cohesive then, and more willing to be led by the then senior committee of Advisory and Finance plus other members who appeared to know a thing or two.

Today, there’s opposition to any committee being referred to as ‘senior’ (especially Policy & Resources) as we’re all equal and inclusive and, anyway, please don’t try to lead deputies. They really don’t like it.

All of which means that any guidance on parliamentary standards comes from the Code of Conduct Panel. While I make no criticism of its members, not even its best friend would say it’s particularly effective.

It’s also dreadfully secretive. I’ve checked this and there’s absolutely no technical reason why its findings can’t be published on the States of Guernsey website.

That they’re not is because someone wants it that way and responsibility for the panel rests with the Royal Court, which makes you wonder.

To illustrate how daft this quasi-cover-up is, consider the case of Sarah Hansmann-Rouxel. When she stood up in the States emotionally to set out her experiences of being on the receiving end of a code of conduct complaint, it was the first the States had heard of it.

So all deputies and senior officials heard was one side of the story and – I mean no criticism by this – a self-evidently partisan one at that. If, as I understand it, the matter hinged on the loss of an individual’s entire medical records, would the complainant feel particularly well-served by the process, or that their side of things had come out properly?

If States members and islanders don’t want public office held to account by the authors of reports, no matter how qualified or eminent, they have a choice. Either embrace what comes as behaviours worsen, as they have over the years, or put something else in place.

I’d suggest four things:

u Greater clarity on the roles and expectations of someone who’s a member of the States of Deliberation, likely to have some executive functions as a committee member, while also acting as an electoral district representative. In effect, this would build on a document first published in 2016.

u More widespread adoption of non-States members on committees, both for their knowledge and experience in supporting areas and because it adds depth to acceptable conduct within committees. Deputy Lowe, we note, is opposed to non-States members.

u A beefed-up code of conduct for members that’s rather more explicit than declaring, ‘The primary duty of Members is to act in the public interest.’ And finally,

u Team that with a Commission for Standards that has teeth, credibility and proper transparency geared to assist members and candidates on what might – or might not – constitute acceptable behaviour.

If, on the slim (!) chance you think that’s dreadful overkill or you really rather prefer for your deputies to be free to rampage away as they see fit, here’s an alternative.

Ask Deputy Neil Inder’s States Assembly & Constitution Committee to introduce mid-term elections for presidents so the Assembly can make appointments on ability rather than length of service or position in the polls.

Ask John Gollop. He quite courageously admitted that perhaps he wasn’t the best choice to lead the Development & Planning Authority as his abilities lie elsewhere.

A mid-term shake-up would provide new presidents an opportunity and incentive to demonstrate some solid achievements within two years and retain their place.

Alternatively, it would enable Assembly members to reflect on whether they really had put the best person in place, while a routine ‘reshuffle’ would also help keep progress on the States business plan on track.

Obvious really, wouldn’t you agree, Deputy Inder?

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