The ultimate crossroads

Shocking school performance, financial mismanagement and deputies who won’t listen to each other’s point of view… That’s why Richard Digard identifies multiple tipping points as the island faces ‘black swan’ events of its own creation

(Picture by Shutterstock)
(Picture by Shutterstock)

STEP back a bit and look at what’s occurred in a short space of time and you wonder how many existential crossroads a small community like ours can face in one go – and survive relatively unchanged. These tipping points are, obviously, linked and they have profound implications for the island over the next generation and beyond.

The first is financial: management of the economy and how we’ve sleepwalked into a big state, UK mini-clone having abandoned even the pretence of controlling public sector costs (more on that in a moment).

The second is how we’re also sleepwalking into executive government with no checks or balances on how that power is exercised or curbed. Or even challenged, since the unknowns unleashed by island-wide voting are still emerging.

And before you ask, yes, the dreadful Ofsted report on St Sampson’s High is a canary-in-a-cage illustration of how bad we are at managing ourselves and – more importantly – holding ourselves to account and demanding the highest standards and outcomes.

The central point to make here is that none of the current ‘black swan’ moments crowding in – fiscal deficit, widening income disparity, the housing shortage/unaffordability crisis, chronic shortages of labour or the failing school system – just happened. They were caused.

Those we elected into power have been found wanting (some more than others, admittedly) and those professional officers we reward well to advise them have also failed to halt this mismanagement.

The previous States was repeatedly warned it was committing to expenditure not matched by income. That’s rather like you or I agreeing to buy a car we couldn’t possibly afford and instead relying on a relative (AKA taxpayer) to bail us out. And now the current States has thrown in the towel on containing the growth in public expenditure.

Not only have planned and announced economies not been delivered, several separate sources tell me a three-year pay deal is being offered to States employees that over that time could add 20% to the States’ payroll costs. To save you looking it up, that’s around £52m. a year excluding additional pension costs.

Just when inflation hits a 40-year high, it’s a no-strings RPI offer with no attempt to make it self-funding, renegotiate sweetheart employment contracts or make the public sector pension scheme less onerous on the taxpayer. Just a quibble-free cost of living rise for three years (actually RPI plus £500; RPI; and RPI -1% year three), which means no one has any idea what it will actually cost you.

So my £52m. annual figure could be more or less, but to put it into context, GST – to fill the fiscal black hole of £85m. a year – is slated to raise between £70m. and £75m. per year. So not only is the value of the emergency revenue-raising measure around halved by the offered rise, it is of itself inflationary (a 5% GST is likely to increase inflation by 3%), helping to drive up pay costs.

It’s useful to remember in this context that there has been no substantial scrutiny of States employment costs since 2003, when it was recommended that performance-related pay be introduced (it wasn’t). Half of all States expenditure goes unremarked, unchallenged and uncontrolled. Which is why payroll rose by 5.5% in 2021 alone, well ahead of RPI, to more than a quarter of a billion a year – £265m.

This lack of rigorous scrutiny is symptomatic of the States itself: no, or at best limited, holding to account. That’s how successive Education boards were able to perpetuate the myth over 20 years that our expensive schools system was working when it wasn’t. By withholding performance data – and it was ultimately only Jane Stephens who winkled out individual school exam results in 2011 – everyone was hoodwinked and thousands of children were let down.

The system, as Denis Mulkerrin’s explosive review of education services laid bare later the same year, was rigged to shield schools, civil servants and Education board members from responsibility or accountability.

To its credit, which it never received, the Matt Fallaize committee set about dismantling the culture of complacency and cover-up endemic there to try to raise standards, which is why we now have proper Ofsted inspections. Not yet of the Dudley-Owen committee itself, because they don’t like scrutiny, but that’s for another column, as is the battle Fallaize and Co. had to introduce Ofsted.

Instead, we turn to the Assembly itself. When no less a distinguished civil servant than Richard ‘Mr Fixer’ Evans says, ‘The States we’ve got at the moment, in my view, is quite naive… sometimes I wonder whether they have a grip on reality. I’m not sure all of them fully understand what being a politician is,’ you know things are bad.

Just how bad emerged from the last meeting when the public finally learned via social media how toxic things are in the Chamber – members walking out in concert when certain deputies (mainly female) stand to speak and the Bailiff having to send out the usher to round up members before a vote.

In short, Guernsey’s fabled consensus government – reaching an informed decision after listening to all points of view – has ended. The Assembly no longer debates fully or allows itself to be swayed by influential or unexpected speeches. How can it when up to 18 members are absent, as happened recently?

Instead, government is on tribal or quasi party lines. Why hang around in the States when you know, or have been ‘influenced’, how to vote? In the absence of TV footage you have to be there to see it, which is why (some) members are reluctant to let cameras in. You, the voters, would see the empty seats and mass exodus when Deputy X stands to speak.

So how do you vote next election to put an end to these unacceptable behaviours and incompetent financial management of public finances? That’s the sad thing. Nobody knows. It’s the ultimate crossroads.

Thanks to island-wide elections we don’t have recognisable political parties or the closer vetting of candidates enabled by parish or district voting. Instinctively programmed by decades of electing individual candidates, we still select those we deem to be of sound judgement and good for the island. But now, that’s on scant evidence and frequently name recognition only. Only later, again as now, do we discover that a ruling cabal has emerged for whom destroying a virgin valley to rectify a shortage of homes they or their predecessors created makes perfect sense.

I’ve always taken the view that Guernsey’s size and the talent of its people means we should have a system of government so good and so tailored to island needs that we could export the know-how to other small jurisdictions.

Right now, that nirvana States is further away than ever.

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