Guernsey Press

Richard Digard: Go on then, what’s a deputy worth?

A new panel is being created to review States' members pay for 2025 onwards. It is an essential and challenging role that requires balancing many conflicting elements and views — and, as Richard Digard explains, a degree of caution would be helpful...

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You may have seen the advert in this newspaper the other day calling for applicants to review what States members should be paid for the next political term, starting mid-2025. If you’re thinking of applying, the closing date is 1 December – and my advice is to tread carefully.

Ask the last panel, who were eminent bankers Alex Rodger and Carol Goodwin, and Source Recruitment owner and MD Julia Martin, and I’m not sure they’d tell you it was an entirely life-affirming task. Before you ask, yes, I was a member too, which is why I’m reasonably confident in this assessment.

Don’t get me wrong. The panel’s work was necessary, interesting, challenging, informative and at times a bit of hard graft. But it’s what happens afterwards that demands a touch of caution from would-be applicants.

The new panel will, I think, be the fourth one and thus be starting from scratch – perhaps surprisingly, there is no standing review panel. Depending on terms of reference I assume it will adopt the previously-agreed principles that remuneration should permit widespread participation by individuals of diverse age and experience; pay should not lead to participation for financial reasons alone; it should reflect an element of service to the community; remuneration should reflect an individual’s commitment of time as an important but not determinant factor; the package should be fair and transparent; and it should be administratively simple.

At first glance, these are all pretty sound principles and easy to apply. In practice, however, each one is open to wide interpretation. Take ‘administratively simple’ for instance. Unless you compel each deputy to take the full amount of remuneration and each annual uplift (assuming there is one), you quickly find Treasury has 39 separate rates to deal with.

‘Not lead to participation for financial reasons alone…’ Well, at a current £45,000 a year, many of you believe it already does. But at the same time, many take the opposite view that even the chief minister’s near £80k isn’t enough to attract ‘quality’ candidates.

And how do you determine a starting salary point in the first place? Most jobs strike a balance between skills required to discharge the role description, scarcity of talent and the need to retain and incentivise key staff.

By contrast, Guernsey’s view of representative democracy makes a virtue of attracting anyone in off the street, giving them a fairly significant sum just for having gained more votes than someone else and then makes no demands on what – if anything – they do while in office (apart from turn up to States meetings).

And even then, according to the exhaustive spreadsheet maintained by former States member Mary Lowe, turning up for meetings can be as brief as attending roll call and pushing off again.

I won’t labour this further, but getting the balance right between these things is thankless and difficult. Why not make minimum wage the deputies’ starting point, for example? We expect others to exist on that, after all. However, deputies’ pay has quite reasonably been linked to median wage and any growth in that, but with no reductions when it falls.

The new panel, I expect, will face calls for higher remuneration, pensions (deputies used to be members of a similar gold-plated civil service scheme until it closed in 2012 and was in deficit at last review) and, in particular, paying the role as a full-time job. ‘Parachute payments’ – cash to tide over sitting members turfed out come election time – are likely to come up too.

This ‘job’ aspect of being a deputy is interesting and difficult. Effectively, each member has three tasks – taking part in States meetings, undertaking committee work and overseeing policy aspects of operational delivery, and dealing with issues raised by voters. That, of course, is affected by how diligently (if at all) they undertake these roles and how effective they are at it – not something the electorate can easily assess.

My own post-panel view, tempered by the dog’s breakfast of island-wide voting, is that we’re rapidly approaching a crunch between the demands of democracy (‘widespread participation by individuals of diverse age and experience’) and, if I may put it in employment terms, attracting people who can and want to do the difficult job that being a States member implies.

And that’s a role that is becoming more onerous and challenging as the years go by because the demands and complexities of Guernsey surviving as an autonomous micro-state demands resources that are increasingly hard to find.

Remain properly briefed, read all the States’ papers plus look after your constituents and, yes, it probably is a full-time role. Should it be paid as such? Do you want full-time, career politicians and to pay them accordingly? Or should the existing community service v. paid job remain at the current 60-40% split?

The other aspect that crops up is the ‘quality’ of candidates. For many reasons I find that phrase objectionable but if you take that to mean high-fliers or demonstrably successful individuals, increasing remuneration levels to £80,000 or even £100,000 a year will achieve nothing. Well, it will attract more chancers and populists desperate to remain in office while costing the poor old taxpayer more, but achieve no tangible benefits.

There are scores of people ‘out there’ who could and would make a valuable contribution to Guernsey but for three things – the time factor, the inability of one person in the current system to make a difference, and the toxicity of public office.

None of those are affected by remuneration alone which, in any event, could far more usefully and accurately be called partial compensation for loss of earnings elsewhere.

So the new panel will have a challenging task on its hands to pull these and many other threads together in a coherent, fair and acceptable fashion. It will be fun, rewarding and collegiate too, and I wish them well. So why my earlier warning?

Simply that this is and remains a deeply political process. Completely wrongly, in my view, States members debate, make or modify their own pay irrespective of the panel’s findings or reasoning. And that can get uncomfortable.

The last panel made many recommendations including viewing the electoral cycle as a sort of fixed-term contract, i.e. with remuneration to be reviewed after four years. Hang on, said some members, won’t that attract horrid headlines if it next goes up by a lot?

Suffice it to say that the debate (members arguing over how much to pay themselves with your money) got a bit difficult so the chief minister of the day responded by chucking the panel under the bus – perhaps they weren’t representative enough, he told the Assembly.

Thanks Gavin. Ah well, in the heat of the moment I guess he forgot he’d asked some of us individually to accept Mission: Impossible on the basis of what we’d achieved during a previous review.

That’s politics I suppose, but I’d recommend the new panel keeps a collective eye over its shoulder.