Data protection can’t ever become part of a States cover-up toolkit

YOU won’t hear me say this very often, but cost is the last thing States members should be worrying about in considering whether to support Scrutiny’s call for a full tribunal of inquiry into the shenanigans surrounding Education’s alleged grace-and-favour appointment of a new head of curriculum and standards.

Scrutiny Management president Deputy Chris Green. (Picture by Peter Frankland, 27197507)
Scrutiny Management president Deputy Chris Green. (Picture by Peter Frankland, 27197507)

The revised estimate of £150,000 is actually irrelevant. The price could be £1m.-plus and it still wouldn’t matter. Recall, for a moment, how appalled we all were when Jersey suggested pulling the plug on its historic child abuse investigation because it was getting a bit expensive.

No, these two things aren’t in the same league but what links them is credibility, honesty, confidence and trust. And those things are – or should be – above simple financial consideration.

There’s not been much coverage of this, but a survey has shown confidence in the States of Jersey is on a par with that in Columbia, behind Mexico and trailing even Russia. So when I look at my States members and their senior officials I want two things: peace of mind that they’re doing the right things in a timely fashion, and for the right reasons.

I also want the security of knowing that if they don’t uphold those standards there’s some sort of backstop that will bring them up short, expose any wrongdoings and deal with them in an appropriate manner.

In public. Not behind closed doors. The same as justice is administered in open court so that we can maintain an unwavering belief in the value of a fair hearing and justice being seen to be done.

Apologies if this sounds a bit preachy but it’s hard to overstate the importance of this, especially as we move into the uncharted waters of island-wide elections and unenforceable political groupings that unscrupulous, otherwise no-hope scallywags may exploit to get elected.

Not since it’s all about Education – how the Assembly deals with the two-school model raises altogether different issues of competence and credibility – but because the trigger for this tribunal of inquiry is also somewhat irrelevant.

Why? Because the twin issues here are, firstly, whether the States of Guernsey has an effective scrutiny oversight function. Remember, elsewhere in the free world self-regulation is largely discredited. Robust, independent monitoring is key to policing the highest standards, and even then there are failures.

Jersey has managed to split its government into identifiable executive, parliamentary and scrutiny functions. Here, the Assembly does the lot. A cosy club with incredible access to public funds and the potential for patronage and handing out jobs for the boys.

While I don’t believe there are abuses, holding the line has been delegated to what’s effectively an in-house team: Scrutiny Management. So not only are islanders and taxpayers reliant on a self-regulating States, its own watchdog is starved of resources and powers.

That’s why we have the ludicrous spectacle of Scrutiny saying, if you want us to give one of our fellow committees a hard time, please, please, please give us 3p per taxpayer in order to do so.

The second issue is whether you want examination of every contentious issue brought to a halt by ‘data protection’. Education president Matt Fallaize says he has a barrow-load of papers ready to be released – but only if they’re kept secret.

Scrutiny for your eyes only and we poor dupes meekly accept what someone wants us to be fed with. ‘Well, Mr President, what are you willing to share with us today…?’

Mind, Education has previous in this regard – it fought for years to withhold exam results, the same ones that showed how poorly it was educating island youngsters.

As Scrutiny Management chair Chris Green says, however, ‘I repeat, I’ve not seen anything myself to make me think there has been deliberate attempts to obstruct. The key issue is that [data protection] prevents us from publishing the sort of full and frank report that this requires – due to the withdrawal of consent by some parties.’

And there you have it: should all future inquiries be brought to a halt because someone is cute enough to invoke the data protection get-out-of-jail card? Much as we applaud the value of the regulations, they were never intended to be adopted as part of a cover-up toolkit.

I’ve not spoken to Deputy Green about this but his published comments indicate he and his Scrutiny colleagues are very alert to the seismic nature of what’s at stake here. Yes, a tribunal of inquiry is cumbersome. But it puts down a clear marker for the future: don’t try to hide behind data protection or employment contracts because the States will use legal powers to get to the truth of the matter.

This red line of intent is all the more important because islanders still don’t have access to a credible freedom of information system and the pussy-footing around introducing something believable says much about commitment to openness and transparency.

So spending £150,000 would be a tiny price to pay to demonstrate an unshakable commitment to open government and good governance by our leaders and betters.

What message, then, will it send out if Scrutiny is turned down?

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