Richard Digard: Don't let this become the Guernsey way

When it comes to knowing what good looks like, there are painful lessons from Fallagate and child abuse in Jersey. Which is why we need an independent inquiry to clear the fog of conflict over the latest governance controversies, says Richard Digard

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BACK in 2006 I popped into my then MD’s office following an afternoon’s deep delving. ‘Picked up a bit of an explosive yarn that’s very damaging for government – only problem is, I haven’t a shred of evidence to back it up if it gets challenged.’

‘Riiiight,’ he said. ‘How confident are you?’

‘Rock solid, but I’ve nothing to demonstrate that.’

‘Oh, God. Best speak to the chairman, shall we, in case it goes wrong...?’

The upshot was that we went ahead with what became Fallagate and led to the collapse of the then Policy Council on the basis that if it all went pear-shaped I’d resign and minimise any further damage to the newspaper. What’s life without a few risks, eh?

Nevertheless, the reason I was reminded of this – I’m sure you’ll have guessed – is the Education debacle and president Matt Fallaize’s spirited defence that ‘we need no lessons in integrity’.

Maybe, maybe not. I’d say the jury’s out on that because this latest scandal goes beyond recruitment and allegedly dodgy form-filling under the Population and Migration legislation. The reason’s this:

‘No investigation into this matter is being undertaken,’ a [Bailiwick Law Enforcement] spokesman said. ‘If there’s a legitimate referral appropriate action will be taken.’

Now, is that the police chief speaking or was he told what to say by his political masters on Home Affairs? To be clear, I don’t think Ruari Hardy has been nobbled, but the key point here is that just a few months ago it would have been inconceivable even to pose the question.

The impartiality of the police service was then an accepted fact and no one had cause to challenge it. Since then, two separate independent reports have raised political interference as an area of potential conflict. Moreover, Home itself has agreed to act on recommendations to put clear water between itself and the professionals responsible for operational matters.

That tells you something pretty profound. And now we have the head of Education, his own words revealed, threatening to sack his top civil servant because ‘no chief secretary should act in a way which plainly and knowingly obstructs their committee’s agreed policy agenda.’

Not even if that policy agenda cuts across States-agreed policies? Or is contrary to law? Or runs counter to good governance, best practice and common sense? Because without such exceptions, civil servants become political apparatchiks or hirelings.

Why these are such deep waters and why I’m reminded of Fallagate is because trust and public confidence in government is now openly questioned. And, just like the controversy over the Princess Elizabeth clinical block which triggered it, Policy and Resources is losing control of the unfolding story.

I regret that. In these days of a fractured Assembly, islanders need a strong and respected senior committee more than ever. Yet P&R’s own efforts to improve standards and boost confidence in government have backfired.

You and I would think that get a significant judgment call wrong in public life and it’s pretty much game over – a bit like my bosses, pre-Fallagate: cock this one up, Digard, and you’re toast – but these are different days for government.

The post-war consensus of putting the island first and of individuals giving way to ‘leaders’ or those perhaps with greater knowledge and understanding of specific issues has, pretty much irretrievably, broken down. In addition, ’the system’ isn’t designed to cope with a divided Assembly and/or members self-evidently serving their own interests.

Accept that, and you can see the Home Affairs/Education Sport and Culture governance issues for what they are: symptoms.

Actually, I’d go a bit further. Most, I think, agree we are heavily reliant on a small number of committed States members to keep the ship on a proper course, but their influence is on the wane. So the risk today is that standards are as high – or low – as a majority of States members choose them to be.

That’s disturbing. Having written a fair bit over the years about Jersey’s historic child abuse issues – and the establishment’s refusal to accept there was a problem – there’s a haunting phrase from one of the whistle-blowers: ‘We don’t know what good looks like…’ It was just the Jersey Way.

Do we here in Guernsey know what good governance – the proper way of doing things – looks like? No, according to the Wales Audit Office in 2009. Certainly not in specific areas, according to HM Inspector of Constabulary and Professor Staite.

Yet all these assessments are howled down because of what’s fast becoming the Guernsey Way and now Policy and Resources has embarked on a fact-find to help it decide what to do next.

Sorry. Not good enough. At this stage it doesn’t matter if every single States member is a paragon of virtue, a shining example of rectitude and kindliness towards junior civil servants, because the damage has been done.

We need to know what good looks like and if we’re not prepared to take Professor Staite’s word for it, then someone else has to be found with the authority to say what are – and aren’t – acceptable behaviours and who matches up to them.

I don’t much care whether that’s a UK barrister parachuted in to assess whether, on balance, HMIC and Staite got it more or less right (or wrong) or whether we turn to the Good Governance Institute for help. But some objectivity is now desperately needed.

As the institute says, ‘We have the experience to carry out [capacity and capability reviews] sensitively, using strong and robust methodology which can withstand public or legal scrutiny.’

Bluntly, until we have an agreed set of facts relating to Home and Education and some impartial benchmarks to inform individual and committee behaviours, the decline in this Assembly’s credibility will simply accelerate.

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