OPINION: What’s the point of Guernsey?

Look through the latest numbers and a depressing picture emerges. In just 75 years self-reliant and thrifty Guernsey has become benefits central, reliant on Ponzi scheme-type funding. Richard Digard unpicks the evidence

(Picture by Sophie Rabey, 31766000)
(Picture by Sophie Rabey, 31766000)

FIRST off, and to be clear, what follows next is the fault of Yvonne Burford, the effective, efficient and slightly scary deputy who runs Scrutiny Management and who’s just announced a review of island-wide voting. Specifically, she and a hand-picked team will be asking how successful that electoral change has been and will mull over the ‘demonstrable and perceived advantages and disadvantages’ of the new process.

Well, good luck with that. Despite extensive and frustrating attempts to interrogate the States of Guernsey website, aided and abetted by Google, I’ve been unable to work out why we made the change at all. That’s ‘why?’ in the sense of what benefits were intended rather than, as it appears, ending decades of parish/district voting simply because a few people fancied it.

And the point here is that very few really wanted island-wide voting. Yes, there was a referendum, but of the 31,865 islanders who could have voted, just 45% did. In all, only 14,379 of the 63,000-odd souls here gave a damn about electoral reform.

And when it came to choosing full island-wide elections, well, that was even less popular than poor old Garry Collins, who got 6,076 votes at the last election and who was five places below last-man-in Carl Meerveld, with 6,477.

So island-wide, which commanded just 6,017 votes in the referendum (Gavin St Pier, you’ll recall, garnered just shy of 14,000), is hardly the people’s choice, much though it’s spun that way. And now we’re about to see whether something very few wanted has been a success. The curious thing is that all the available evidence suggested adopting IWV would be a pretty daft thing to do, and that wasn’t just the Electoral Reform Society’s view.

Look at it this way. Until 1900, we were in the happy position of having no deputies at all. Not one. Guernsey was run by a States consisting of rectors, jurats and douzaine representatives plus the Bailiff and Law Officers. No directly elected individuals and yet the wheels didn’t come off.

Deputies, 18 of them, were introduced in 1920 along with five electoral districts, and full representative democracy in 1948, when the island was suddenly blessed with 33 deputies. But, and it was a big but, that was tempered by the introduction of conseillers. Why? ‘...to ensure that the States should not at any moment… be overloaded with inexperienced men… in the hope that this would prevent decisions which would later be regretted being taken as a result of some passing mood or possibly even some passing events,’ as the island told the Privy Council at the time.

More prophetically, our older and wiser forebears added this rider in ensuring the 12 conseillers avoided public election (being chosen instead by the States of Election): ‘it would be very unfortunate if experienced men lost their seats simply because the electorate was ignorant of the services they had given to this island.’

In the intervening 75 years, we’ve gone from pragmatic statesmanship, balanced budgets, annual surpluses and a valued concept of public service to… well, what, exactly?

Firstly, I suppose, the ‘passing mood’ we were warned about saw recent Assemblies agree expenditure on nice-to-haves that couldn’t be paid for while failing abjectly to do difficult and unpopular things like reform public sector contracts and pensions. Today, we have a senior committee that insists a surplus of £61m. in 2021 is a structural deficit of £100m. on the back of spending that hasn’t – and probably won’t ever – happen.

Along the way, we have gone from a sturdily independent island that recognised the value of hard work and thrift to one where more than half of all island households rely on States’ handouts – excluding the States OAP mind – to get by. That’s actually 40,512 men, women and children.

Look at it another way, and we have a situation where median earnings are £37,387, nearly 3% less than a year ago, with the bulk of islanders in the £5,000-£50,000 earnings bracket. By the same token, there are around 800 on £200,000-plus, 117 on £500,000-£1m. and 20 pulling in more than a million a year.

Work for the States and you’re doing OK too – an average of nearly £51,000 at Health or Education, a lavish £61,000 at Planning and Development and £62,816 at Policy and Resources. The fat cats, however, are the 44 officers at Economic Development, on £70,272, and that’s without visibly developing anything at all. League leaders, though, are at St James Chambers and the Courts, where the States’ legal eagles, all 109 of them, trouser an average of £94,183.

Where does that leave the rest of us have-nots? About two-thirds of all island households now earn too little to pay for the public services that are provided for them by the States whether they want them or not. Ballpark, those services cost around £11,000 – and note that more than £5,500 of that is simply to pay the civil servants who run and staff them.

And since you can’t afford those services in the first place, P&R says you need to spend an extra 5% on everything you consume via GST so you can pay for them. It’s this level of brilliance that explains why lawyers earn more than half a mil a year and you don’t.

Elsewhere, we see that the number of real wealth creators in finance continues to fall, as have their salaries, while the number of public servants is now almost the same as in financial services (5,894 plays 5,607). In percentage terms, it’s 18% in finance and 17.1% in the States with the gap steadily narrowing) while civil service wages increased.

So, what’s the point of Guernsey? In a word, benefits. Break it down a bit and just shy of 80% of all island households receive some sort of welfare/benefit from the States if you include the OAP (which, admittedly, is contributory). Add the children of those households and that’s 53,500 people out of a population of 63,000.

Approaching one in five now work for government, which (with your money) offers sweetheart employment contracts, very competitive salaries and unrivalled pension benefits. Real world employment opportunities in finance are declining and there are fewer people in work now than before Covid in June 2019.

In short, we’ve become welfare central with fewer and fewer ‘real’ workers to generate the tax needed to maintain this Ponzi scheme-like reliance on government while developing an election system that positively penalises asking difficult questions or suggesting we go without on the grounds of cost or affordability.

Over to you Deputy Burford…

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